Revisiting: ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ (1984)

ScreenCritics blasts to the past with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Does this game based on a book have any worth and can it still stand out?

Today, in our blast from the past, we’re looking at the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. What was this game based on a book, why is it notable and can it hold up today? Let’s find out…

In the 1980’s, if you wanted to play a story-driven game, there were only a few choices, like LucasArts, or Magic Scrolls, or the then king of them all: Infocom. And, if you wanted a game about a book, there were even fewer options than there are now. But there were a few, and one of the more notable ones is based on Douglas Adam’s classic sci-fi series of novels, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, specifically the title-sharing book one.

The game, which was made by Steve Meretzky and Douglas Adams, with help from other Infocom team members was published in 1984 for numerous computer systems, including Amiga, Apple II, Macintosh and Atari. It was released to acclaim and commercial success selling over 400,000 copies. The game box, which featured an illustrated view of outer space along with a spaceship and a smiling, tongue sticking out green moon holding a sign reading “DON’T PANIC,” featured a copy of the game (on all of it’s Floppy Drive glory).

Like most Infocom titles of the time, the game came with a collection of feelies, or small physical items, in the box. These were used for dual reasons: both to add to the general immersion in the game and provide people with more information about the game and its world; as well as a form of copy protection. In Hitchhiker’s case, there were seven: a DON’T WORRY button, a small (empty) plastic bag reading Official Microscopic Space Fleet, orders for destruction for both Earth and Arthur Dent’s house, an advertising brochure, some pocket fluff, and a pair of opaque black cardboard sunglasses (“The Peril Sensitive Sunglasses”).

Though widely enjoyed, it was nearly instantly infamous for it’s difficulty, which Douglas Adams once described the gameplay as “[j]ust as the player gets comfortable in the narrow neck, the bottom drops out!” For all this, however, Infocom only gave the game a “Standard” rating.

But what caused this difficulty? It wasn’t it’s pretty basic story line, which was fairly simple though it could be a bit confusing as you jumped around time and space (But more on that later). Nor was it the progression from zone to zone, and within each zone, room to room. Rather, it was the usual suspect, the puzzles.

The puzzles within Hitchhiker’s were devious, tricky, and unforgiving. With some puzzles, mess up just once or twice and it was game over, though you may not realize it until down the road. With others, forget to do one small thing and you wouldn’t find out until near the end.

One such puzzle — the most infamous of them all, to the point where Infocom sold T-Shirts proclaiming that the player had solved the puzzle — was the Babel Fish. The puzzle, encountered in the second “zone” and fairly early in a play-through, involved getting a Babel Fish out of a babel fish vending machine. Sounds simple, right? Wrong.

First, you only have a limited number of chances, represented in the form of how many Babel Fish were left in the machine, and it was just enough so that if you did it one step at a time, pressing the button each time, and got all of the steps right, that you’d have one spare move. To get the fish, you had to first make sure you had certain items: a towel, a satchel, a pile of junk mail, and a bathrobe, some of which could not be gotten if not originally taken as Earth was by now destroyed so couldn’t go back there. If you did have all the items, you had to place them in the correct spots or use them in the correct way so that the Rube Goldburg like machine would work and not get in the way of itself. Only then would you get the indispensable Babel Fish, required for the next puzzle and the only way to get to the next zone.

Another puzzle, this time of the don’t-do-and-you’re-screwed-but-not-until-the-end-game variety, Lower the Landing Pad. Though it’s not technically a puzzle, it is the last challenge in the game, and is something that had gamers pulling their hair out over. At the end of the game, Marvin must fix the landing gear and he needs a tool. What tool? He won’t tell you. Rather, you have to have had a premonition, which is triggered by a rather complex series of moves earlier in the game. Or, you must go into the small space and ask him. Either way, you then must retrieve the tool — but with a very stringent move limit that will simply not, without exploiting a small flaw, give you enough time if you hadn’t had that premonition. Worst of all? That tool that he requires? There are 10 possibilities scattered across the game (including in places you can’t go back to once you leave), of which the necessary one is randomly chosen unless you were missing one or more, in which case the game always selected one of those.

Luckily, though, the titular object is there to help, or at the very least entertain. Full of entries that you can search using the command CONSULT GUIDE ABOUT plus the name of the object/place/person/thing you want to read about, the guide has marvellous and sometimes funny entries on a wide variety of subjects. Some of the entries, such as the one for Earth — Mostly Harmless — are just there. Others provide important clues for the game and its puzzles. This really is the only help given (besides the games sold-separately InvisiClues) as knowledge of the book or radio series will only go so far thanks to areas not visited in the book and the added game-only puzzles.

As evident above Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, like many puzzles of it’s time, had numerous inventory puzzles, and the number of items you had to carry — including, and this is not a typo, “no tea” — was far too much for your player. This is where one of the game’s most interesting mechanics comes in: “a thing your aunt gave you which you don’t know what it is.” This item is a magical thing, capable of holding nearly infinite weight and always, no matter where you leave or loose it, coming back to you in a few turns or so. Without this bag, not only could you not bring everything to where it was needed when you needed it, but you’d also be unable to escape numerous situations.

Other than the inclusion of the (extremely frustrating) puzzles, though, the story line generally kept with the book’s, though it added areas or allowed you to play things only described as happening in the books. You start as Arthur Miller, and throughout the game will assume the role of Ford Prefect and Zaphod, among others. You’ll travel to interesting places such as Traal, Earth, the Heart of Gold, a party, your own brain and more. And, with any luck, the magical planet of Magrathea, which getting to is the whole point of the game.

Of course, you won’t step onto the planet. Nope. You’ll end the game with the Heart of Gold landing on Magrathea, the landing door opening and an advertisement to buy the next game in the series, Milliways: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, which never came out. Because of course it didn’t. Two small playable demos did eventually find their way online along with various notes, ideas and sketches of the game, and are still available to ponder and play, but the full game — and your exploration of Magrathea ­— never came to be.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a worthy game for anyone who enjoys retro games or the book/radio series. Even better, you can legally and author-sanctioned play it for free online in three different places, thanks to Douglas Adam retaining copyright of the game and allowing versions to be made. The first, which is an exact clone of the original game, is available on his website, while the other two, which are slightly updated and have static images of the different scene and your inventory as you move through the game, are available on the BBC’s websites (play BBC’s version here, and play Douglas Adam’s original version here).

Not only is it good for people who enjoy retro games, it is also a great game for fans of Douglas Adam’s work, masochists, sadists, and everyone else who enjoys some puzzling that is harder than anything else in the galaxy.

So next time you’re in the mood for some puzzles or space voyaging adventure, load up Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, grab some pencils and some calming tea and prepare for the adventure of a lifetime. And if you can’t solve one of the puzzles, Don’t Panic.

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