A Colossal Cave Adventure

This article is going to date me, but looking at some sites on my blog roll, I am sure, I am not alone.

Way back, as a Computer Science student I spent a lot of time in the computer terminal room. Much more time than my fellow students, but about the same time as my friend who was living on the same dorm floor as I. Aside from our assignments we did a lot of research, aka snooping around. Of course we found something, a FORTRAN program called Adventure.

Trouble was, we couldn’t just run it in the terminal room. Those 20 terminals were lined up along the 4 walls without any dividers. Everybody could see what the others were doing. The terminals were shared between 1000 students with varying needs of access. As long as it looked like serious work, we were fine. To play, we either had to wait until the room was empty (fat chance) or visit the smaller terminal room at the local university at night or drive all the way to the Heidelberg data center.

All this was running on the IBM/370 mainframe computer of the University of Heidelberg, who gave terminal access to  our college. This was not the internet, the terminals were just that, some monitor and a keyboard. Cables were running into a box twice the size of today’s computer tower. It ultimately connected us to the mainframe some 20 miles away at mind blowing speeds. Did I mention, the terminals where 80×24 characters, green or amber on black? RAM at the mainframe had just been upgraded to a whooping 4 Mbyte, and each interactive session had 4 minutes of CPU time assigned, which was just enough for 3-4 hours of play.

This is what we finally saw on our terminals. It’s one of the very first text adventure games ever. It lets you explore a colossal cave, with huge halls, labyrinths and get occasionally annoyed by a wandering dwarf who throws an axe at you. And don’t forget the bridge troll. You can still play it on the internet here.

This kept us busy for a semester or two, until we started working on a side project for a company which gave us a loaner micro computer. There weren’t any IBM PCs around it could have been compatible to. It was an Ontel Op-1. It had a 5 1/2″ diskette drive and a BASIC interpreter. One of the first things my friend and I did was to port the FORTRAN program into BASIC and let it use the diskette to store the text, otherwise it would have been to big for the 55 kByte left useable by the interpreter.

And what did I get out of all this aside from entertainment? Education. I got plenty of my professional skills just by dealing with this,  by today’s standards, simple program. I never went into the games industry, which at that point in time not  even existed and only a couple of years later started to grow in the US. But it gave me experience in dealing with software projects, something I could actually mention in interviews as a college graduate.

It wasn’t the first computer game I encountered. The first one was a moon landing program on my TI-57 programmable calculator. The second one was a small chess computer, which moved a tower from the sidelines back onto the field when it got into trouble. It’s been a long way from a 10 digit LED display, an 80×24 terminal to todays 1920×1080 pixel standard and 3D models. Going from text based, to Pac-Man, to Pools of Radiance, to Baldur’s Gate, to Everquest, WOW and Guildwars 2. It’s been a long trip.

A shoutout goes to the “/con mmob blog” and this article about MUDs for the insporation for this article.


  1. I played Colossal Caves/Adventure on my ZXSpectrum in the early 1980s. That makes me sound younger than I am, though – I’d already left University by then. I played a lot of text adventures but I hardly ever finished one. Occasionally I look at them on the web – pretty much all of them are there for the playing – but it never goes any farther than looking.

    • Oh yes, it certainly popped up on various micro computers during that time and certainly on IBM PCs, Ataris and Amigas as well

  2. A version that’s truer to the original Fortran version you played is here:

    And of course I invite everyone reading this to back “Colossal Cave: The Board Game”, on Kickstarter from now until May 19, 2012! http://kck.st/colossal-cave

    • Doh ! A 30 year old game and nobody managed to make a board game of it? Guess we’ve all been hit by that axe once to often.

  3. Check out the iPhone/iPad version of Colossal Cave:

    • Of course there had to be one. 🙂 Since I am using Android, I now have to search for an Android version

  4. In 1982, while taking a 1 year Data Processing pilot program at LAVC in Van Nuys, CA, I had access to a Honeywell Level 77 mainframe to do my computer assignments in COBOL and Assembler. This machine was the entire LA Community College’s mainframe. It served 9 colleges, and administration. There were 40 terminals at LA Valley College. While using my lab time to do my COBOL assignment one afternoon, a classmate showed me how to access the Games Library on the machine, and execute a game I had never heard of, called CAVE.

    Before my eyes, an interactive program (not batch!) was asking me to give it commands! Astounding! The pictures it painted in my mind drove me to seek this game out, and use my lab time for something other than school work.

    I was a late starter with home computers, and had been out of the country from 1979 thru 1980, A year later I owned an Apple ][ Plus clone from Korea, called a Sekon. I searched for a long time for “CAVE” not knowing it was Colossal Cave, or Apple’s Compleat Adventure! How happy I was to finally find it!

    Today, I’m searching for a good version for my Lenovo tablet. I still love that game, and its variations. And I owe it all to the Honeywell “CAVE /E” command.


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