Galactic Hitchhiker (1980): inspo a-go-go

TL/DR: Play Galactic Hitchhiker online

Drawn by Twitter user @NoxHorror, the picture above has nothing to do with the subject of this blogpost

Fit the First

I’ve always said that if this blog had a slogan it would probably be something like “Retroactive Fiction: Very tentatively recommended.” So imagine my surprise when I read Jason Dyer’s blogpost about the 1980 text adventure game Galactic Hitchhiker: Jason played through the game and concluded that it was “far better than it ought to be” and that he would “very tentatively recommend it” — whereupon I thought to myself, “Aha! This game and my blog were clearly meant for each other!”

A. Knight’s tale

Galactic Hitchhiker (GH), by A. Knight, is an early text adventure game — possibly the very first British text adventure game, in fact — and consequently it has a few quirks that set it apart from its later, more user-friendly successors. For example, there’s no INVENTORY command in GH — instead, you have to OPEN RUCKSACK every time you want to remind yourself of what you’re carrying. There’s no LOOK command either. And you can’t just say N to go north — you have to literally say GO NORTH, including the GO.

But, despite those gotchas, Jason found that the game wasn’t without interest. He made special mention of the interplay between two of the characters in the game: (1) the player avatar, Maurice Marina, and (2) a sort of intermediary or commentator — or Guide, if you will — called Spike, whose purpose seems to be either to encourage the player or to take the mickey out of Maurice, depending on the prevailing whim.

If it wasn’t already obvious, Galactic Hitchhiker is, er, an homage (shall we say) to Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (HHGTTG), which by 1980 had already become a multimedia blockbuster, having transitioned from groundbreaking radio comedy to bestselling first novel. The name of the player avatar in GH, “Maurice Marina”, is a punny reference to a popular British car of the late 1970s, just as “Ford Prefect” in HHGTTG recalls another vintage British automobile.

The “gerbil” references, which are littered throughout GH, may have been inspired by the actual gerbils that were kept as pets by Adams’s then girlfriend. (The hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings in HHGTTG were originally going to be gerbils but were replaced with mice for reasons that aren’t quite clear to me at this time.) The “Rattius Corporation” in GH may be another oblique reference to the rodents of HHGTTG, as well as being a tortured play on the name of the Sirius Cybernetics corporation.

And then, of course, there’s the hitchhiking that you have to do in GH to save yourself when you are ejected into space with only a few seconds left to live — which is uncannily similar to the situation in which Arthur and Ford find themselves, in HHGTTG, just before the Heart Of Gold improbably rescues them after they too have been ejected into the vacuum of space…

Great artists steal

So it’s clear that A. Knight took inspiration from HHGTTG (the radio series and the book), while subtly and not-so-subtly tweaking names and scenarios just enough to avoid being sued for copyright infringement (a fate which nearly befell a later game that was written by Bob Chappell and released by Supersoft in 1981).

But what if inspiration had also flowed in the opposite direction? Could Galactic Hitchhiker possibly have had an influence on any part of the Hitchhiker’s Guide franchise?

Well, Douglas Adams was a notorious gadget freak and had started buying and using electronic word processors and personal computers long before most of the rest of the British public had caught the computer bug. It’s often claimed that Adams was the first person in Europe to buy an Apple Macintosh. Isn’t it at least possible, then, that he might have owned, or at least used, a Compukit UK101 (the only computer for which GH was released) — and mightn’t he even have played Galactic Hitchhiker himself? If GH had ever been brought to Adams’s attention, he was bound to have been curious about this intriguing new type of entertainment which, er, paid tribute to his own creative output.

But let’s not get carried away. Even if you grant that the wildly improbable set of circumstances that would have led to Adams actually playing GH really did fall into place, is there any part of Adams’s writing that has echoes of GH? Are there clues in Adams’s oeuvre that suggest that GH might have made a lasting impression on him?

Arguably, yes. Yes, there are.

This is the story…

The whole aim of Galactic Hitchhiker is to go through a series of picaresque adventures and then, via time travel, to return to the place where-and-when you began the game, in order to relive the events of that time-and-place from a different perspective — one of those events being your own escape from a doomed planet just before it explodes. Which also happens to be a fairly good description of the plot of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy game, which was written with Steve Meretzky and published by Infocom in 1984, four years after A. Knight released GH.

In GH, you eventually have to go back in time to the start of the game and realise that the person you saw picking up a ticket to ride off the planet in a starliner was in fact yourself in the future. So you pick up the ticket, board the starliner, and leave the planet before it blows up.

The plot of Adams’s HHGTTG game is more mindboggling and convoluted than that of GH, but at one point you similarly have to return to Earth and replay the events that unfolded at the start of the game, but this time you’re playing as Ford Prefect rather than Arthur Dent, so you see things from a different angle, but you still have to make sure that you and Arthur leave the planet before its violent demise.

Look, Douglas Adams was obviously clever enough to have come up with the plot for the HHGTTG game all by himself. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Adams was a genius, stylistically and creatively. He packed his books and games with more ideas than any single human being could reasonably be expected to have in a lifetime. And yet nothing comes from nothing. HHGTTG wasn’t created in a vacuum. Adams’s genius was, in part, that he had a restless and curious mind that roamed far and wide, gathering vast quantities of new information from the fields of art, science, world history and popular culture, which he would twist, pummel, and polish into glittering baubles of literary and ludic delight… So he might have nicked the plot from GH. I think it’s possible, at least.

Of course, you may wish to disagree. But before you do, why not try playing Galactic Hitchhiker yourself? Because you can, fairly easily. Just click here:

>> Play Galactic Hitchhiker online <<

Babel fishery

You see, after reading Jason’s blogpost I was sufficiently intrigued to play through Galactic Hitchhiker myself. Moreover, I was then compelled to break the habit of a lifetime and dive into the strange and forbidding world of machine-code programming. My aim was to convert the game so that it would be accessible to more players — ideally, to make it playable in your web browser — because the slight problem with the original game is that it was written for the Compukit UK101, a sadly forgotten early British clone of an 8-bit Ohio Scientific computer with a 6502 CPU, and if you want to play the original today you have to go through the rather fiddly process of installing a UK101 emulator and loading the program off a “virtual tape”.

But, seeing that Galactic Hitchhiker was distributed as machine code for the 6502 CPU — the same CPU that’s in my favourite 8-bit machine (and stalwart of this blog), the BBC Micro — I thought that this might be the ideal opportunity for me to finally face my fear of coding-close-to-the-metal and to get down and dirty with assembly language: I reasoned that if the Compukit UK101 and the Beeb were both 6502-based computers, then it ought to be the work of a moment to translate the game from one to the other.

It wasn’t quite that easy, but, to my surprise, it wasn’t completely impossible either. I’ve now converted Galactic Hitchhiker to the BBC Micro, and, as a result, it can be readily played in your web browser (through the magic of JSBeeb, the in-browser BBC Micro emulator). So I hope that I’ve now fulfilled Jason’s implicit request for “a port [of GH] to something easier to work with [which] would bump it up to … well, still only tentatively recommended”:

>> Play Galactic Hitchhiker online <<

If you want all the gory details of the conversion process, then my Github repo has lots and lots of assembly code, plus some rather inadequate notes. Suffice it to say that I didn’t really have to change very much of the original code at all. Crucially, the on-screen text and the gameplay-logic are completely unaltered. The room descriptions, the vocab, the parser, the map, the puzzles — and pretty much the whole gameplay experience — are exactly as they were in the original UK101 version of the game. For better or worse.

My BBC Micro conversion of A. Knight’s game Galactic Hitchhiker

Anyway, so long, thanks for reading, and for Zark’s sake don’t panic.


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3 Responses to Galactic Hitchhiker (1980): inspo a-go-go

  1. Jason Dyer says:

    Terrific! I need to get a news post up soon to update on this and a few other things (including the fixed version of Restaurant at the End of the Universe).

    • Ant says:

      Thanks, Jason! My blog is (and really always was) essentially a series of sporadic footnotes to yours. And I’m happy with that. 😉

  2. Pingback: News: Podcast + Hitchhiker’s Guide Updates | Renga in Blue

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