“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.” Those three sentences promised hours of fun for 1970s geeks.
The original “Adventure” game is still popular today because it’s a classic that stands up, even though its interface is ancient by modern standards. What made Adventure special, even without graphics, was the wonderful descriptions. Each room you entered filled your imagination with what it must look like. There was plenty of humor in the descriptions, some really bad puns (paying a troll bridge for example), and even a Monty Python reference. To make the game more challenging there are some red herrings and two mazes you have to figure out how to map and navigate through.
Will Crowther wrote Adventure as a way of keeping in contact with his daughters after his divorce. Crowther and his ex-wife were enthusiastic cavers and had explored the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky. Crowther was also a fan of the original Dungeons and Dragons role playing game. His program “ADVENT” (back then programs had six character uppercase names) was a simple text based program where you used “verb noun” commands (e.g. “take rod”) to explore an intricate network of rooms inside a cave system. Adventure was based on the actual caves the Crowthers explored. The program was written on a DEC PDP-10 computer in Fortran.
At the time Adventure was written most software was freely shared (well before the concept of open source software). A copy popped up on a computer used by Don Woods – 3,000 miles from Crowther. Woods, with Crowther’s consent, expanded the program adding more fantasy elements and a point system. The classic “Adventure” (normally referred to as “Colossal Cave” to distinguish it from other adventure programs) was widely distributed and incredibly popular within the computer community. James Gillogly ported the specialized PDP-10 flavored Fortran to the C programming language and then it really took off.
By 1980 three separate companies published versions of Adventure for the early Apple II computers – Rainbow Computing, Programma International, and most famously Microsoft. It was Microsoft’s first non-language non-operating system product and an attempt to start an applications software division.
Gordon Letwin, one of the earliest Microsoft employees, is credited as the programmer through his own company, Softwin. The retail price was $29.95. The manual says, “you have the complete version of the original Adventure. Nothing has been left out of the original DEC version” without giving any credit (or monetary compensation) to the original authors. The manual also has a registration card and instructions for how to obtain a replacement diskette if your disk goes bad. (hmm, I wonder how Microsoft would react today if I mailed in that card with my 5.25” floppy diskette.) Software Toolworks (later Mindscape) published their version in 1981 and was the only publisher to pay Crowther and Woods any royalties.
Adventure quickly spawned the “interactive fiction” software industry. Infocom published text-based Zork. Graphical games (with medium resolution color graphics) came out from Sierra Online, Adventure International, Ultima, and others. Most of today’s modern story and puzzle based computer games can trace their roots back to the original Adventure.
Playing the game
The object of the game is to collect points. Each time you find a new object and pick it up or solve a problem you earn points. Dying while playing the game is very bad for your score. The classic version has a perfect score of 350 points. There have been extended versions with up to 1000 points. The different versions vary in quality and it’s confusing since no version has everything and there is no “definitive” version. The original 350 point and 550 point versions are arguably the most popular.
The structure of the rooms and how they connect with each other is consistent, but you will randomly encounter characters, like dwarves and a pirate (which makes sense since they are wandering through the cave just as you are).
Many of the classic phrases from Adventure, like the secret password XYZZY and plover egg, have entered the geek vocabulary, even if folks don’t recognize their origins. During one of the Mars Pathfinder press conferences in 1997 engineer Jennifer Harris described the confusion the engineers had figuring out why Pathfinder wouldn’t respond to commands as, “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.”
The only real change in how the game looks in modern versions is upper and lowercase text. There have been attempts to add graphics to the original game, but that’s a bit like making an illustrated version of a classic novel – pretty to look at, but your own imagination is far more exciting and detailed.
Folks who experience Adventure for the first time often consider it rather crude, with its limited vocabulary and text-only interface. They are missing the point – this isn’t a 21st century game, it’s the original 1970s disco-era classic in its original form. It’s still fun for modern users because it’s a challenging mind puzzle – not just a shoot-em-up game.
There is an excellent scholarly study with corrections for many of the myths about Adventure. It includes photos of the actual locations in Mammoth Cave which inspired the rooms in the game.
Adventure has stood the test of time. There are free versions for every platform, including iPhone and Android. I got a great kick out of playing Adventure (I still can’t get used to the name “Colossal Cave”) on my Android, using the speech-to-text function so I could speak my commands.
Author Philip Chien is the proud owner of one of the original Apple II computers built in Steve Wozniak's garage (serial number 1041). He has been writing about geek topics professionally since 1982. He can be reached through his website - http://www.neatinformation.com.
- Published 02/13/13