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Adventure (AKA Colossal Cave)

Adventure (AKA Colossal Cave)

Adventure (AKA Colossal Cave)

After more than 30 years, one game released by one man still instills fun and adventure in possibly one of the first viral releases of the ’70s.


Written by on

Developed by

Published by

Genre: Interactive Fiction / Adventure
Release Date: 1977
Platform: Everything


You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building.
Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and
down a gully.


Every so often an invention or an event comes along which changes our perception of the world forever.

In 1920 Felix the Cat came to the movies and for the first time an animated drawing exhibited personality and a life of its own. It was as if man had created life.

In 1955 the universe consisted of the Milky Way. In 1956 the existence of other galaxies was confirmed and the world suddenly felt a lot less significant.

In 1969 Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and space travel was now real. It would not be long before we would set up colonies on all the planets and head to other stars. Or so it seemed at the time.

-> enter

You are inside a building, a well house for a large spring.

There are some keys on the ground here.
There is a shiny brass lamp nearby.
There is food here.
There is a bottle of water here.


During the late sixties and early seventies, computers were the large luxuries of big companies. One computer could take up a whole room or an entire floor. They cost millions of dollars and consumed vast amounts of electricity. And they only ran in batch mode. That is, you would submit a job for processing, it would be placed in the queue and you would return (much) later for the resulting printout.

Computers did not play games.

-> take keys


-> take lamp



Then around the early seventies, a new type of computer began to appear. It had compressed the CPU down to fit on only two or so 19-inch circuit boards. Memory and I/O required only a few more. The result was a full computer which only took up the space of a large filing cabinet and only cost a couple hundred thousand dollars. This meant that a single department could own its own “mini-computer” and put it to work on jobs you could never justify on a mainframe.

-> exit

You're at end of road again.

-> down

You are in a valley in the forest beside a stream tumbling along a
rocky bed.


If you were an engineer or college student back in those days, there is a chance you might have had access to a department’s mini-computer. There was also a chance that the mini-computer was idle on occasion and that you could mess around with it (mainframes are never idle). So you would sit down at the system console (a new black- [or green-] and-white monitor with keyboard) and take the computer for a spin.

You might ask how much memory it had or how much storage space was available. There might even be a game of tic-tac-toe or hunt-the-wumpus available. How cool was that?

-> down

At your feet all the water of the stream splashes into a 2-inch slit
in the rock. Downstream the streambed is bare rock.

-> down

You don't fit through a two-inch slit!

You're at slit in streambed.


Then one day that small 9-track tape arrived from your friend at the University. It only came with a cryptic note: “You MUST play this game!” So you waited for lunch time and dumped the tape to a spare disk pack. The contents included a FORTRAN source program and some text files. Intrigued, you compiled the program and ran it.

-> south

You are in a 20-foot depression floored with bare dirt. Set into the
dirt is a strong steel grate mounted in concrete. A dry streambed
leads into the depression.

The grate is locked.

-> down


You can't go through a locked steel grate!

You're outside grate.

The grate is locked.


You soon realized that this game was different. Up to now, the only games to sneak onto the company mini-computers had been simple implementations of classic games. But this game wanted to talk to you. You would tell it what to do and it would tell you the result of your request. And it was big. There appeared to be no end to the places you could go and explore.

-> unlock grate

The grate is now unlocked.

-> down

You are in a small chamber beneath a 3x3' steel grate to the surface.
A low crawl over cobbles leads inward to the West.

The grate is open.


Not that this was some elaborate tour guide. There were objects to take and puzzles to solve. How do I open the locked grate? How do I catch the bird? And you could manipulate the environment by opening, closing and moving things. Lunch hour was always too short.

-> west

You are crawling over cobbles in a low passage. There is a dim light
at the East end of the passage.

There is a small wicker cage discarded nearby.

-> west

It is now pitch dark. If you proceed you will likely fall into a pit.


Then one day it hit you. You are having a conversation with a machine. You aren’t just using the computer to roll dice and keep score, you are actually playing with the machine. It had no way of knowing just what you would do next, yet it was able to respond to your every request. Yes, the vocabulary was very limited, but that was just the nature of the program. Suddenly, robots and AI were no longer the sole possession of science fiction. It was sitting right there in front of you. All we had to do was expand on this simple game and we would have intelligent robots following our verbal instructions.

And somehow, the world was different from that day on.

-> score

If you were to quit now,
You would score 32 out of a possible 370, using 13 turns.


Of course, the devil was in the details and I still can’t ask Robbie the Robot for my cup of Earl Grey, hot. But whatAdventure did do was start a whole new genre of games and launch a small industry.

Adventure, aka Colossal Cave, was written by William Crowther in 1976 and later expanded by Con Woods in 1977. A full history of the game and its many versions can be found at Wikipedia and this web site.

Adventure was shared out for free. The concept of a single individual selling a computer game was unthinkable. Only big companies sold software to other big companies and what corporation would spend money on a game? So it was cast out into the void and, to use a modern term, became viral.

As expected for a pioneer, the technology was simple. The vocabulary was a list of words only four letters long, or fewer. If you typed in something which was not on the list, you would get a “don’t understand you” message. This led to the father of the Hunt-the-Pixel problem – the Find-the-Correct-Word problem. You knew exactly what needed to be done, but the game didn’t understand the word you were using. So just what word was it looking for? It could be very frustrating. (This also explains the user interface in the Lucas Arts/Sierra Online games. They were direct responses to this problem.)

The grammar was also simple. You could use a verb (ENTER) or a verb with a direct object (TAKE KEYS). You could only issue one command at a time. See the “screen shot” above and note that you couldn’t TAKE KEYS AND LAMP. But these limitations were forgivable. The very fact that you could TAKE KEYS was exciting enough.

The graphics were unbelievable. The program told you about a fantastical place and the detail was limited only by your imagination. Anyone who had ever taken a cave tour, either in person or from those wonderful View-Master disks, knew the splendor which was being alluded to.

But it was the puzzles which kept you up at night and made you yearn for that brief lunch hour. Opening the grate was easy, but how do you catch the bird? How do you move the dragon off of the rug? These required thought and experimentation.

This was not a game which you could play in one marathon session after business hours. You had a whole day to plan your next moves. Where would you explore? What strategy would you try on the latest puzzle? You then had that quick hour to run with your plan and then a whole day to plan your next moves. It was consuming.

It was also funny. You could ask the computer to do just about anything, no matter how ridiculous. But many potential requests had been anticipated by the programmer and would yield a snarky response. This added to the illusion that the computer could actually understand you. You then started making all sorts of silly requests, just to see what the computer would say.

The game was not perfect. In addition to the Find-the-Correct-Word problem Adventure also created The Unfair Puzzle. The game kept score and awarded you points for each achievement. Finally, the special day arrived where you had explored every nook and cranny, conquered every challenge and returned every treasure. But the score stubbornly stayed one point short of perfect. No amount of retrying would yield that missing point.

The only way to find that missing point was to cheat – read the source code and find out how the score was determined. And that was where you found it. The program awarded one point for entering and leaving The Jumble of Rocks, an annoying room which required you to leave in the correct direction, but would only let you free after a random number of tries. How did the scoring section know that you had been there? It checked to see if the magazine had been dropped there. No, there was no hint, clue or other indication within the game that you should drop the magazine in that room. AAAARRRGGGGHHH! It’s been 34 years and I still remember my anger from being treated so unfairly.

All of this happened before people started getting computers in their homes. So you had to have access to a mini-computer either at work or at University. And it was at MIT where several students played Adventure and decided they could improve it. They increased the vocabulary, expanded the grammar to include indirect objects (THROW SAUSAGE AT FLAMINGO) and created a whole fantasy world.

They called their creation Zork.

The game was also played by a certain Roberta Williams and her husband Ken. They loved it, but when they couldn’t find another game like it the decided to start their own company, On-Line Systems, and published the first graphical adventure, Mystery House.

Was Adventure a passing fad of the times? Not at all. It is still as playable today as it was back then. Be forewarned, however, that a walkthrough will completely ruin the game. The puzzles were meant to be tricky and you are expected to spend a day or two thinking about each one. Remember the Lunch Hour discipline.

So, what grade do you give to an independent developer who creates a whole new genre? I give him a bright shiny A. The plus sign was left back in the Jumble of Rocks.

Versions of Colossal Cave/Adventure can be found to play on any system with the smallest of resources. See the links above.

Final Grade: see above

Bob Washburne

Bob Washburne

I have been playing adventure games since 1979 when I played "Adventure" on the DEC PDP minicomputer at work. The first adventure game I ever purchased was "Zork 1" for CP/M. I can remember the introduction of the IBM PC. I remember the invention of the microcomputer (actually, it was discovered rather than invented). I remember the invention of the minicomputer. Yes, I am an old fart. I have written 80 reviews and articles for JustAdventure starting with my review of "Bioscopia" in February of 2004. I currently own more adventure games than I will ever be able to play, let alone review. And I want more!

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