Colossal Cave presents such a challenging review for me to write. And I’m not just talking about the gameplay difficulty, which is substantial. It’s trying to apply my gaming acumen to a reimagined text adventure that originated before I was alive. So how can I find that balance, looking at elements that remain faithful to the game’s humble roots and those that have been updated?
While the launch-day audience might’ve been those with memories of playing the game back during America’s bicentennial, what will give it enduring legs on the Nintendo Switch is appealing to more modern players. And it does a reasonable job with this. You start above ground before quickly moving to the cavernous underground setup. There’s little context, but the original text is nicely narrated to make you feel like you belong. Thankfully, you can adjust the volume settings to hear it properly over the music. It’s mysterious enough to lure in fans of first-person adventure games, such as my wife and I.
It’s from that perspective that you’ll be able to take in the game’s sights during your treasure hunt. While the ‘70s build left you to your imagination, here you’ll be able to appreciate a realized world. And here is where I need to wrestle with being balanced. The “scenic” visuals range from solid to meh, with dark and muddy textures appearing pretty darn dated in 2023. But for somebody coming from the 1976 version, a presentation like this might be almost unimaginable. It leaves me torn.
One graphical quirk I’m less forgiving of is the lighting. Your lantern running out of fuel and leaving you in pitch darkness is a gameplay mechanic; I get it. But when the presentation shows me other light sources, I will rightly question why these all cease functioning simultaneously. Are other light sources somehow magically linked to my lantern? The devs might’ve thought removing this oddity would compromise the game design. But, when adjoined by other updates, it just feels silly, if an ultimately minor annoyance.
Another quirk (more gameplay but connecting to the visuals) is navigation. It’s one thing to tell me I can’t use a ladder because I’m not close enough to it. But why can a gold nugget be carried up a rickety wooden ladder but suddenly be too heavy for stairs carved out of the grotto itself? Again, I might’ve overlooked this with better-defined visuals, but the game paints itself into such corners, inviting these observations and questions. How much of an impact these things have depends on the type of gamer you are.
Regardless of your feelings about the visuals, the thrill of discovery might be tempered by other things. The limited inventory only adds to backtracking through familiarly drab areas. Mazes (hit or miss in games) are more miss here, coming off as time wasters rather than satisfying challenges. Dwarves are an interruption at best, a random defeat at worst. Hints from the narrator are sparse, as are continues. Maps are of marginal quality. And the odd glitch (one wiping out two rows of saves) might occasionally rear its unpolished head.
Still, from a pure time perspective, $39.99 is reasonable, even if much of our time wasn’t exactly what I’d call “fun.” The way the rooms are connected higgledy-piggledy no doubt padded our 10-plus hours. We accumulated just over half the treasure, which was enough for us. Replaying to collect them all (and achieve a perfect score) is something that only the biggest Colossal Cave enthusiasts will tackle.
Colossal Cave was a classic text adventure, but whether this reimagined take is “the adventure you’ve longed for” might boil down to your tolerance for dated elements. So much has changed in the decades since the original title, and the developer and Roberta Williams were household names in the gaming community. Going through the passages of this non-linear adventure can still be a mysterious, secret-filled romp. But it’s likely best tackled with a good dose of nostalgia.