Colossal Cave Overview (Switch eShop)

Shot on Nintendo Switch (handheld/without dock)

“You are standing at the end of the road in front of a small brick building. There is a forest around you. A small stream flows out of the building and flows along the ravine.

These are the opening sentences of the 1976 main text game. Colossal cave adventure. Originally created by Will Crowther and expanded upon by Don Woods, it ran on a mainframe connected to a teletype machine. Game events reported literal printed text on real dead tree paper. Your mission is to find a way to the cave, find many treasures hidden deep inside – a gold nugget, an egg-sized emerald and the like – and return them to the brick building at the beginning.

As this modern update begins, these opening lines are read aloud in a slightly rich English voice with just the right suspense. With realistic 3D environments and first-person dual joystick controls, you really feel like you’re standing at the end of that legendary road in front of a small brick building where a stream flows through a ravine. The immediacy of the implied question still tingles like an impatiently blinking text prompt: “So, what are you going to do now?” The drive for pure exploration and discovery as we were transported to a vital moment in the game’s story, mixed with the freedom of a modern control scheme, gave us goosebumps. This was before we started playing – which we’ll come back to later.

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Shot on Nintendo Switch (handheld/without dock)

Back in 1976, video games themselves were barely established, let alone genres and conventions or anything resembling modern environments or controls. However, while the most obvious descendants of text adventures are visual novels, point-and-click adventures, and indie interactive fiction, Colossal Cave’s core forced cycle of exploration and discovery can be felt in a host of contemporary classics. Playing Colossal Cave now, the historical path to games even as complex as Breath of the Wild is unmistakable. There is always the potential for something new and unseen right around the corner, and if a bad decision or unfortunate fate got in the way, there is always the exciting potential of one more try.

If you want a little more history on gaming, consider the design team behind this graphical reimagining: Roberta and Ken Williams. The Williamses themselves are responsible for the highly influential early graphic adventures, founding Sierra On-Line in 1979 (then known as On-Line Systems) and producing such beloved series as Kings Quest And Gabriel Knight. To tie things together, Roberta Williams herself said that Sierra On-Line would never have existed if she hadn’t played Colossal Cave Adventure over 40 years ago. Fittingly, it was Colossal Cave that prompted her to retire again.

While none of the above can be discounted, the bad news is that this retro treasure is tragically stuck in the past. This upgrade is not some jazzy rendition of Colossal Cave that uses a different art form to deconstruct, play and explore the intricacies of the original. It’s more like a rap version of Colossal Cave made to attract youth by people who have only heard from rap music. “Modern” graphics are relatively modern because they are graphic – but they look like something from consoles two generations ago. The movement also seems cold and impartial, as if you are floating with a camera through an abstract space, and not entering a cave complex. Colossal Cave is not like a modern game. If he had not ridden on the tails of history, he would have been unforgivably – almost unbelievably – poor.

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Shot on Nintendo Switch (handheld/without dock)

It’s all the more humiliating when the game is presented with a focus on the experience of game design by Roberta and Ken Williams and “all the bells and whistles of modern gaming” they brought to it. The main and main design decision was to absolutely adhere to the original text adventure. Randomness and deliberate, tantalizing player frustration abound. Randomizing which of the ten exits will actually take you out of the room may have been a fun parlor trick in the 1970s, but today it’s just a joke, especially when you consider that the exit is re-randomized on every try. It’s also a reckless move to only give the player two clear options: either keep rolling the 10-sided die or quit the game. If we didn’t have to write a review, we might choose the latter. (By the way, this room is called Witts End. Crowther and the Williamses are laughing at us!)

One reasonable concession to the modern world is having a map that the player initially had to draw himself. This provides some relief, although the way in which connections between spaces are depicted is sometimes at odds with randomness or arbitrary blockade. Unfortunately, this is also true for the 3D world itself. There are loading screens between different parts of the caves, and on at least one occasion we exited a room heading up, stopped at a black screen, and then ended up a few steps into the room, apparently going down instead of up. In a game that openly seeks to confuse you with its confusing layout, this is simply unfair. On another occasion, we slipped through a gap in the wall, and then, when we tried to get back, the narrator told us, “You can’t find the gap you just went through.” We could see it with our own eyes!

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Shot on Nintendo Switch (handheld/without dock)

Other minor annoyances include the use of ladders. Do not try to step on it, you may fall and you will have to restart the game. You have to use the cursor to select the ladder, but not too far away, which makes it unnecessarily nerve-wracking to carefully crawl up the ladder. Another annoyance is the constant presence of the cursor. Apart from always interrupting the view of the cave, it does not distinguish between sights. Pressing “A” on some parts of the scenery brings up useful – sometimes critical – descriptive text, while selecting most of the scenery only repeats the general description of the area. This discouraged us from launching the narrative at all, overturning the central decision to recreate the original text with absolute purity.

They say a picture paints a thousand words, but the Colossal Cave never needed a thousand words. On the other hand, one word can write a thousand pictures: in our head we can imagine a colossal cave, but here we see only a big hole.


Like its own mysterious underground complex, the Colossal Cave is obscure and inhospitable, cleverly hiding few but valuable treasures. If it wasn’t for the exciting source material, it would have been awfully bad. However, the source material is exciting, and this remake is one way to participate in it. If for that reason you’re willing to ignore both the outdated design elements you’d expect, as well as the bad design decisions and sloppy implementation you wouldn’t, there’s a lot to enjoy here. We certainly wouldn’t condemn those who discovered the egg-sized emerald in the Colossal Cave, but we can’t seriously recommend it either.

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