Colossal Cave review (Quest/PS5)

We’d been eagerly anticipating the Colossal Cave reimagining by Roberta Williams, and have finally emerged from its cavern after exploring the game on both a PlayStation 5 and the Quest 2.

Although we had briefly seen Colossal Cave during last year’s trade show season, it was during our interview with Ken & Roberta Williams that we really started to get curious how the game would turn out. For better and for worse, it’s a lot like we had imagined, and your enjoyment will likely depend on your familiarity with the era in which the original game appeared.

Roberta Williams never made a secret of the fact that her love of the original game was a large driving force in her career and her decision to do this reimagining. Colossal Cave Adventure (formerly known as Adventure) was a hugely influential title after its launch in 1976, when it became one of the first video text adventures to gain traction – in a time where games weren’t easy to come by. These were the very early days of floppy disks and networking computing, and even getting a game to play was a bit of a magical thing.

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The same is mostly true of the classic text adventure – which can be seen as videogame versions of a choose your own adventure book in a way, but without any illustrations. Your imagination would fill in the blanks, and that was ultimately part of the magic – much like the appeal of a good book. Reimagining something like that in a visual form is almost always going to be a challenge, and in the case of Colossal Cave it’s what makes it clear how game design was handled differently back in those days. To newcomers, that leap might be a bit too great to comfortably handle.

Colossal Cave never really relied on storytelling in order to push the player forward – it’s meant to be a journey of discovery as you progress further into a massive cave system, solving puzzles along the way and getting past enemies looking to stop you. There are also treasures to be found, and getting out of the cave with these is ultimately what you’re going for. That’s not easy though, because the game (like the original) does relatively little handholding. As with many text adventures, you have to explore and experiment, and your total score will tell you how far you are towards discovering everything there is.

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But where a lot of text adventures were fairly linear in their setup, Colossal Cave has a degree of randomization to it. And while that might make you think “replay value”, here this can mostly be seen through random enemy encounters where it’s seemingly impossible to not take damage (and thus quickly die). And while instant death that came out of nowhere was a lot more common back in the day, it’s a hard sell these days, especially because you get punished for it by a loss of score and a sometimes lengthy trek back through the caves.

And although the developers have taken special care to make sure that the maps made for the original (text) game still work for this version, you don’t have to go ahead and find one of those to play with. The game will draw you your own in-game map as you progress, which is helpful to a degree – though like a magical maze it’s designed to sometimes trick you and make you end up in the same spot you had just left. A brain-scratcher to wrap your head around in text form, but for those who are solely accustomed to processing visual cues it might seem perplexing – or even like a bug. It’s not, but it’s text design come to life.

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One benefit of seeing Colossal Cave reimagined is that, in this new visual format, you can truly appreciate the epic size of the game that was designed almost five decades ago. This is especially true when playing it on the Quest 2, with the VR visuals adding extra immersiveness. The game’s also visually more impressive in VR than on the flat screen, where it’s a current-gen console title but falls short of other PS5-only games in visual fidelity.

VR is also a more comfortable home for the game due to its slower traversal system – which feels somewhat sluggish on the big screen but much more natural in VR. Some will lament the lack of traditional VR motion controls though, as the game doesn’t allow you to interact with objects by grabbing them – instead opting for an interface much like the icon-based system that Roberta Williams pioneered over three decades ago. It’ll bring a smile to fans of her earlier work, but we wish we had the option to choose between the two.

Which brings us to where Colossal Cave succeeds the most. This is a game that successfully taps into the nostalgia that older gamers will have for the early days of adventure games – those that predate the games that inspired developers like Wadjet Eye Games by about ten years. By definition that makes it a bit of a niche title and a bit of a curiosity, but for those willing to forget about today’s conventions and go into this with an open mind this is a journey back in time just as much as it is a journey into a large underground cave system.

Score: 7.4/10

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