Page to Pixel: The Hobbit

Page to Pixel is a new weekly series where Chad will take a look at games based on written works.

 This week we’ll look at a work that’s familiar to many: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. It has been twice converted into game format: first, with a popular text-based adventure game in the 1980s, and later with a 3D action adventure title in the early 2000s.

Map of the Dwarven domain of Erebor. You should probably know this already…

The Hobbit, if you’ve never read it, is the story of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who lives in a comfortable hole in the ground in the quiet countryside of the Shire – at least, that is, until the day that a band of dwarves and the wizard Gandalf come barging in, requesting his aid as a burglar. While this may sound more like a gang initiation than a fantasy quest, they have a noble purpose, in ousting the dragon Smaug from the dwarves’ former kingdom of Erebor. And off they set, on the granddaddy of all modern fantasy epics, and in a more literal sense, on the prelude to Tolkien’s crowning achievement, The Lord of the Rings.

The first game based on the Hobbit was released in 1982, and was developed by Beam Software for the popular computers of the time, including the Apple 2, the ZX Spectrum, and the Commodore 64. It’s generally considered to be one of the more notable non-Infocom text adventures released.

Where are Bert, Tom, and Bill? Why is the ground bloody?

The game is a text-based adventure along the lines of some of the games Sierra was making at the time, such as Mystery House. The graphics are simplistic, and there’s a noticeable draw time as they appear on screen. In any case, they’re just there to illustrate the story and locations and aren’t interactive. The text, on the other hand, is highly interactive and the parser is often considered to be quite good for its time. As far as the storyline goes, it sticks pretty close to the source material (and why shouldn’t it?). In addition, the game featured some rather advanced AI for its time. Advanced, highly problematic AI. While ambitious, I don’t think it was particularly necessary to have a condition where Bard the Bowman DOESN’T FIRE HIS BOW for some reason. Sometimes people aren’t where they should be. In the first few scenes it’s entirely possible for Gandalf to wander off, never to be seen again. It’s like the game’s world is ruled by some unholy random number god that you can never count on. That said, it’s quite satisfying when that random number god smiles on your efforts and everything goes completely right.

The game was also the source of one of gaming’s earliest memes – “THORIN SITS DOWN AND STARTS SINGING ABOUT GOLD.”

The second Hobbit title was released in 2003. While Electronic Arts had the license for the Lord of the Rings films, Sierra bought up the rights to adapt his literary works, resulting in a very forgettable Fellowship of the Ring, a cancelled sequel, and The Hobbit. These titles were released in competition with the EA titles and were pretty much rushed to market for a quick buck on the popularity of the film versions (the EA titles, while not perfect, were pretty decent). That said, The Hobbit isn’t a bad game. It’s just nothing particularly special – essentially a mediocre Zelda clone that never really does anything to stand out among the other action-platform-puzzle games of the time. It is, at its heart, a cash-in, but it’s one that doesn’t completely suck. I still wouldn’t particularly recommend tracking down a copy, as it’s neither rare nor particularly interesting.

Think it looks generic? Wait until you play it.

But hey, it’s better than Quest 64.

The text game was strictly by-the-book: it didn’t deviate much from the novel’s underpinnings. Sure, you could have times when Gandalf would wander off like some kind of drunken fool, and sometimes Bard the Bowman just refuses to fire that all-important shot, but it’s still essentially a straight-up retelling of the book. The later game, however, deviates from the story significantly, with playable dream  sequences of Bilbo fighting at the Battle of Five Armies, finding random keys and running errands for the Laketown guard. This seems a little suspect to me – Bilbo is specifically hired by Thorin’s company as a burglar – a stealthy figure with an advantage in his small size. He’s not really a fighter, so why is he doing all this fighting? Oh, right, because it’s an action game, and we couldn’t have Bilbo sneaking around and dropping rocks on Goblins’ heads. Really, this game should have taken more inspiration from Metal Gear or Thief for the full ‘burglar’ experience. It’s true that Bilbo does draw steel a few times in the book, but more often he bluffs his way out of trouble or tries to sneak around it.

If you’ve got an interest in gaming history and like text adventures, I’d recommend trying the original, if for no other reason than learning the frustration and triumph involved when the insane AI works (a Windows-playable version may be found here). The PS2/GameCube/XBox version on the other hand…you can go ahead and skip it.

So until next week, the road goes ever on and on…

One Response to “Page to Pixel: The Hobbit”
  1. Gregg B says:

    I remember The Hobbit on the Spectrum even though I was born in 1983. My uncle had it when he was in his teens and he used to play it in the living room when I was over at my nan’s. I’d never been exposed to a text driven game before (Commando, Bomb Jack, Crazy Golf and Spy Hunter were my earliest Speccy memories) and I’ve got to say that the pint-sized me didn’t appreciate all that text. I can see the appeal of it now over the abomination that appeared in 2003 though. Crikey.

    Great idea for a series Chad and I’ll be following it as closely as I can!

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