Crate Expectations: A Hyperspace Delivery Boy! Retrospective

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Hyperspace Delivery Boy! never got the audience that it deserved.

Mind you, this is how nine out of ten retrospectives begin, but this is an extreme example. Back when digital gaming libraries were starting to get established, I cataloged my collection over at Gamespot. It had a feature that let you see how many other people owned a game, and Hyperspace Delivery Boy! was by far the most obscure game in my collection, owned by a total of…four people. Only a fraction of the internet gaming population actually used Gamespot’s system, but it was still minute in purely relative terms; I couldn’t find a single other title in the database that had single-digit ownership numbers. In short: no one played this game.

Which is too bad, because there’s nothing else like it. In a game-spanning parody of countless FedEx quests, Hyperspace Delivery Boy! casts you as Guy Carrington, a—you guessed it—delivery boy who flies around a the galaxy delivering all sorts of ridiculous packages. Along the way, he encounters an array of offbeat characters, all sporting Tom Hall’s trademark dialog (characterized by a sort of understated whimsy, like someone quietly reading a Monty Python script at an open mic).

While HDB! sports elements of both the RPG and the graphic adventure, it’s ultimately best described as a puzzle game. The various monsters Guy encounters are the least of his worries, easily dispatched in some lightweight combat in one game mode and altogether absent in another. No, his foe is a most ancient evil that has plagued game protagonists since time immemorial: the crate.

Sure, sometimes crates seem innocuous enough. They’re mostly used as easy (and sometimes lazy) ways to define level boundaries. Sometimes they contain goodies. But by the early ’90s crates had become an object of scorn, mostly for use in the dreaded Crate Puzzle. Lara Croft would be doing her archealogical thing, delving into ancient ruins and shooting innocent wolves, when she’d come across a door that could only be unlocked by shifting crates (or stones, or barrels) around in a specific order. Millions of gamers screamed out in terror, and were suddenly silenced when their mom told them to shut the hell up. So you may be dismayed to learn that Hyperspace Delivery Boy! has crate puzzles. Lots of crate puzzles. Four entire planets full of crate puzzles. Crate puzzles are the meat of the game. Really.

To recap what we’ve learned so far: Hyperspace Delivery Boy! is a low-fi game released before the indie revolution had normalized homebrewed visuals, and was built on FedEx quests and crate puzzles, two of the most hated structures in all of gaming. One begins to see why it didn’t find an audience.

All of this makes explaining why it’s such a joy to play rather difficult. But I’ll give it my best shot.

The first charming element is the aforementioned writing. While acknowledging that most games have scripts that seem to have been assembled by the proverbial million monkeys, there are still enough releases with genuinely engaging narratives that it’s not that surprising when another one comes along. But even the best games tend to stay well within their genre, and you often have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen next (this is nowhere more true than celebrated game storytellers Bioware, whose narrative construction is just a wee bit predictable). Yet with Hyperspace Delivery Boy!, I never had the slightest idea what was going to happen next: just that it would be somewhere between amusing and laugh-out-loud funny, and that there’d eventually be a Dopefish cameo.

While this was the reward that drove me through a few frustrating puzzles, by and large they were actually fun in and of themselves. Which seems strange, but makes perfect sense if you think about it. I mean, there’s nothing inherently wrong with crate puzzles; like any puzzle format, they have rules, strategies, and varying degrees of difficulty; with a bit of creativity, you can easily make enough different crate puzzles to fill a game. The problem is they tend to appear where they’re least wanted. No one really wants to stop in the middle of Tomb Raider or Heretic to shove around some blocks. It grinds the rest of the game to a halt, and sticks out like a sore thumb. But when they’re the main attraction, when there is nothing standing between you and a screen full of crates…well, you start to work with it. Like all good puzzles, they oscillate between a sort of zen satisfaction and hair-pulling rage when you slide things into an unsolvable position (thankfully easily reset by exiting and re-entering the screen), but always deliver genuine satisfaction upon completion. And like that most elegant of puzzle games, Portal, there’s a real sense of learning throughout. When I started HDB!, I couldn’t shove two barrels together; now, I feel confident I could solve any crate puzzle thrown at me, even nine years after playing it.

The story behind Hyperspace Delivery Boy! is almost as unusual as the game itself. After the collapse of Ion Storm, co-founders John Romero and Tom Hall decided to take a back-to-basics approach to game development, and took things farther than most. Rather then heading up the traditional “small” 30-person dev team, they formed Monkeystone Games, containing all of 4 employees: Hall, Romero, Stevie Case (a level designer at Ion Storm and then-prominent Girl Gamer), and producer Brian Moon. They used little to no external help, going so far as to do the voice acting for HDB’s kooky cast themselves, which resulted in voices that made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in professionalism. With such famous talent behind it, you’d think the game would have at least some sort of cult following, like Hall’s previous effort Anachronox. But nope. I can honestly say that this post is the first thing I’ve read about the game since Gamespot’s 2002 review.

In an ideal universe, this entry would do its part to lift this little gem from its undeserved obscurity. Sadly, you couldn’t play it now if you wanted to. Hyperspace Delivery Boy! was digitally distributed before the likes of Steam, and with the Monkeystone web site long gone, there’s no where to buy it. And even if you wanted to pirate it, well, good luck; I suspect the game’s obscurity is such that the PC version is entirely absent from the internet. I don’t even have a copy anymore, having lost it during some computer upgrade.

There is hope, though! While nothing is confirmed, I’ve heard rumors that a remake is in the works. I can only hope so. Hyperspace Delivery Boy! represented a sincere, heartfelt approach to puzzle gaming that I haven’t seen the likes of since. Spacechem may be brilliant, but it doesn’t have a single exploding chicken. It doesn’t even have a crate.

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