The mediocre 2005 movie killed dozens of years of fan speculation and interest. And the less said about And Another Thing…, the 2009 non-Douglas Adams sequel, the better. Without the magic of Douglas Adams behind it, The Hitchhiker’s Guide series became a bland imitation of itself, all wackiness and no heart.
With so many bad turns in the last decade, it’s hard to remember that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a major multimedia franchise in the 1980s. Besides the novels, there was the radio series that spawned them, a fantastic BBC television series, and — obviously what I’m going to talk about here — a video game.
In 1984, Douglas Adams teamed up with Infocom writer Steve Meretzky to create a Hitchhiker’s Guide text-adventure. And it’s the funniest video game that’s absolutely no fun to play.
The text-adventure version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy follows the basic plot of the books, television show, and radio series. You (mostly) play Arthur Dent, and you have to escape Earth before it’s destroyed by Vogons, get rescued by the Heart of Gold, and find the planet of Magrathea.
With Adams at the helm, the humor of the series is kept squarely intact. Trying to type something after you die results in such witticisms as, “For a dead person you’re talking too much” and “You keep out of this, you’re dead.” Half the fun of the game is exploring the environments, getting told how stupid you are, dying, and then getting told how stupid you are once more.
If you know the series, meeting and talking to characters such as Zaphod Beeblebrox and Ford is a delight. The implementation of The Guide in the game is also perfect. Before Wikipedia and The Internet, being able to get a hilarious explanation of a topic by just typing it in felt delightfully science-fiction.
Unfortunately, the game is impossibly hard. While most adventure games tend to suffer from “Guess What I Want You To Do” syndrome, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is cruelly unfair with its expectations of the player. As a text-adventure, players couldn’t just click until something worked. Rather, they had to guess and guess and guess. Getting the Babel Fish — an early-game event that’s absolutely necessary — requires you to have picked up the exact right elements from Earth before it was destroyed and then use them in a very specific order in a short number of turns.
With thanks to a FAQ, here’s the exact order of actions necessary:
EAT PEANUTS, GET TOWEL, REMOVE GOWN, PUT GOWN ON HOOK, PUT TOWEL OVER DRAIN, GET SATCHEL, PUT SATCHEL IN FRONT OF PANEL, PUT JUNK MAIL ON SATCHEL, PRESS DISPENSER BUTTON, GET ALL, DROP SATCHEL, PRESS SWITCH.
While the difficulty of the game became an inside-joke amongst gamers in the ‘80s, the almost necessary purchase of a walkthrough guide turns what’s supposed to be a game into a version of the novel where you have to type what comes next. It’s a very good version of the novel, but still not quite to to play. The only interactive part is the dying, and that only stays funny the first hundred times.
So is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy still worth playing? That depends. If you’re willing to deal with the eccentricities of text-adventures and use a FAQ (see above), it’s a lot of fun. And free! The BBC updated the game as a browser app a few years ago with simple graphics that made playing it a smidgen easier.
Just don’t panic.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that the radio series was adapted from the novels, when the opposite is true. Bad nerd! Bad!
“Andy Grossman” works in the video game industry.