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Double Fine and Ron Gilbert blend Maniac Mansion and The Lost Vikings in: The Cave

A talking cave and seven unlikely adventurers

The Cave announcement screen
The Cave announcement screen

Ron Gilbert and Double Fine introduce The Cave, a downloadable adventure game that borrows elements from one of Gilbert's classics as well as some other inspirations.

The voice at the beginning of Ron Gilbert's new adventure game project does not come from a person. Instead, it booms forth from an open hole in the ground, the entrance to the titular cave that lies at the heart of Gilbert's latest madcap creation, in development at Double Fine Productions.

"Yeah, I'm a talking cave," it shouts at the player. "Don't laugh. It makes dating hell."

With that goofy introduction, you're off to start your journey through The Cave, a 2D sidescrolling adventure game that combines elements of Blizzard's ‘90s puzzle-platformer The Lost Vikings with Gilbert's classic LucasArts adventure game Maniac Mansion. In fact, Gilbert says he's had the idea for The Cave brewing in his head since before Maniac Mansion came out back in 1987.

Instead of a single protagonist, The Cave features seven possible heroes - the Monk, the Adventurer, the Hillbilly, the Scientist, the Twins, the Knight, and the Time Traveler - each with a different motivation for venturing into the mystical cave. The Hillbilly, for example, is looking for love. The Monk is seeking his missing master. The Time Traveler wants to right a wrong from the past.

Rather than choosing one of these colorful characters to control, you pick three at the start of the game and will be able to swap between those three on the fly. In the demo that he shows me, Gilbert chooses the Hillbilly, the Knight, and the Scientist.

As the group begins delving into the cave, the game looks like a fairly traditional platformer, with jumping, climbing, and even swimming. However, Gilbert quickly reminds me that this is an adventure game. "You want to pick up everything that you can," he says as the Scientist grabs a bucket of water sitting on the ground.

An unlikely team working together

The Hillbilly quickly reaches an impasse that requires the help of his companions. A gate blocks his way, and a nearby lever only opens it halfway. Gilbert switches to the Knight and begins exploring in the opposite direction. He quickly discovers a second lever. While the Knight holds this lever in place, he swaps to the Hillbilly and grabs the original lever, fully opening the gate.

Further in, the Hillbilly encounters the first of many deadly dangers in the cave: a monster that roasts him in blue flames. After the Hillbilly is killed, his spirit floats to the right, out of the monster's reach, and he's resurrected. Gilbert says he wants players to feel like the cave is a safe, fun place to explore, so repercussions for death are being kept minimal.

Proving The Cave's adventure game roots, this beast must be bested through an elaborate puzzle. Elsewhere in the cave, the Scientist discovers a hot dog vending machine that is broken. Using the bucket of water magically restarts the machine, much to the audience's bewilderment. "Fine, it's a stupid puzzle!" Gilbert admits with a laugh.

Once the machine is running, the Scientist grabs a juicy hot dog that can be thrown onto a spike near the monster's lair. Ringing a bell nearby gets the beast's attention, luring it out to the hot dog. Then the Knight climbs up higher, activating a series of pullies that grab the monster and remove him from the party's path.

While the explanation sounds convoluted, The Cave's zany logic fits right at home with the goofy tone of the game and with the style that made Ron Gilbert a beloved developer in the first place.

The seven characters seem interchangeable from a basic control standpoint, but each has unique abilities as well as a special area of the cave themed after their story. Gilbert jumps ahead in the game to show off the Knight's area, an underground castle housing a princess whose amulet he needs.

In order to convince the princess to part with her jewelry, the Knight is going to need a special store of gold that's guarded by - what else? - a huge flame-breathing dragon . In Gilbert's demo, the Scientist unlocks a back entrance to the Dragon's domain, but the mythical creature keeps frying her when she tries to sneak up and snatch the treasure.

Saving grace

This is where the Knight's special ability comes into play. He has a power called "guardian angel" that allows him to fall further than other characters and absorb certain types of damage, including flame. The Knight activates guardian angel and runs into the front of the dragon's chamber, keeping it busy while the Scientist successfully nabs the gold from the back.

Beyond these character-specific special areas, Gilbert says that some puzzles will have multiple possible solutions depending on which heroes you chose at the beginning. For example, the Hillbilly has the ability to swim indefinitely, so he may be able to find underwater passages leading around hazards that teams without him would need to get past in different ways.

In addition to the powers, the different goals for the characters will lead to different conclusions, encouraging multiple playthroughs. Gilbert isn't ready to share many story details beyond that, but he hints that the characters may be hiding some dark secrets.

With three playable characters at all times in the game, co-op seems like a no-brainer, and the Cave follows through, albeit in a limited form. One or two friends can join you in the action from the same room, but the characters need to stick on screen with you - there's no split-screen option - and sadly online co-op will not be available.

There's still a lot of mystery to uncover about Ron Gilbert's crazy talking cave, but what I've seen so far has me eager to keep exploring. The mix of old-school puzzles, beautiful animation, and seemingly smooth controls seems like an answer to one of my greatest desires. I'll see if it pulls it off without any surprises when Sega publishes The Cave as a downloadable title for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC in early 2013.