Hands-On: Colossal Cave 3D Brings One Of Gaming’s Foundation Stones Into VR
You may not have ever heard of Colossal Cave Adventure, but if you’ve played a video game in the last 45 years, you’ve walked in its footsteps.
The original 1976 game was one of the first all-text adventure games and the first that got popular. Every time you solve a puzzle by creatively using your inventory or the environment, in everything from Zork to Resident Evil to Cave Digger, you’re seeing some of Colossal Cave’s creative DNA.
This fall, the game returns as Colossal Cave 3D, a “reimagined” version releasing on PC, Nintendo Switch and Meta Quest 2. It’s developed by Cygnus Entertainment, a company founded specifically for this purpose by adventure-game legends Ken and Roberta Williams, known for King’s Quest and Phantasmagoria.
Speaking to Colossal Cave 3D artist Marcus Maximus Mera at PAX West reveals that the entire project started through what amounts to pure coincidence. Mera got into retro computing as a hobby last year and bought a sketchy lot off Facebook Marketplace, which included an unusually rare edition of the original King’s Quest.
That brought Mera to a presentation at a museum where he happened to meet and befriend Ken Williams. Over the course of several months, Mera encouraged Williams to come out of retirement for a new project, which ended up being this new version of Colossal Cave. Over time, they coaxed Roberta Williams to come along for the ride. The Williamses are funding this new version of the game entirely out of pocket and said that they’ll decide after it’s finished whether or not they’ll return to retirement.
Cygnus had a booth at last weekend’s PAX West expo in Seattle, where attendees could play a healthy chunk of Colossal Cave 3D’s pre-alpha, either in VR on Quest 2 or in “pancake mode” on the Switch.
Before I sat down with their headset, Mera was careful to focus on one word: “reimagined.” Much like last year’s VR version of Myst, Cygnus’s designers were careful to reinvent as little of this particular wheel as possible. Colossal Cave 3D is exactly what its title indicates: the original Colossal Cave Adventure, given a graphics interface for the first time in over 45 years.
In keeping with original designer Will Crowther’s dual-classed nature as an old-school D&D nerd/caving enthusiast, the original Colossal Cave was about as plot-free as things get. Colossal Cave 3D carries forward that tradition: you are an unnamed, largely invisible adventurer who has heard rumors that there are ancient treasures inside the caverns below you. Your mission is to find a way inside, collect those treasures, deal with the caves’ hostile inhabitants and try to get out alive.
Colossal Cave 3D has all the same obstacles, monsters, challenges and loot as the original text-only version, complete with all the same solutions translated into a modern UI.
The version I played on Quest 2 at PAX had direct locomotion mapped to the left controller, although teleport options were also available. To interact with the environment, there’s an onscreen cursor connected to the right controller, reminiscent of the multi-purpose pointer you’d find in old LucasArts adventure games. By default, it will examine whatever it’s pointed at, but tapping one of the face buttons switches that to a ‘take’ command. To use an item, you can open your inventory, tap on it with the cursor, and drag the resulting icon over to the matching environmental object.
All the original monsters have been faithfully reproduced, as have the caves themselves. There’s a certain thorough enthusiasm to the environments that feels like something you would see in a fan project. Every inch of the caves and each random NPC has been carefully translated into 3D, with hand-placed textures and sculpted models.
I hadn’t played Colossal Cave for years before I sat down to try it at PAX, but there’s a lot in 3D that didn’t quite mesh with my imagination. It felt a bit like watching a movie adaptation of a novel you’ve read to pieces. I always pictured the snake, for example, as a rattler, as opposed to Cygnus’s depiction of a Rottweiler-sized cobra that flits in and out of existence.
There’s also a hearty dose of old-fashioned adventure game logic at work. Colossal Cave 3D is still willing to kill you if you don’t play your cards right and some of its solutions already felt wildly random in 1979, let alone now.
By the same token, though, this feels like an expedition into a broad swath of video game history, enabled and expanded upon by the shift into VR. Every weird puzzle, running joke or odd solution left a mark on the medium. Colossal Cave 3D is still an absorbing VR adventure in its own right, but its historical impact gives it a second layer. It’s old wine in a new bottle, sure, but people used to really like this particular wine, and you have to admit, it’s a nice bottle.
Colossal Cave 3D is scheduled for release on Quest 2, Nintendo Switch and PC later this year.