Written by Joe Pranevich
|Smaug looms large in the Hobbit.
Box office brilliance was still well in the future in 1982 when Beam Software and Melbourne House produced their own version of The Hobbit, an illustrated adventure originally for the ZX Spectrum. At a time when text adventures were still cutting-edge, they produced a game engine that that supported full sentences, an in-game physics system, and simple AI-based NPCs. The last of these can’t be over emphasized: every character in the system pretty much does its own thing, whether you are watching or not. As a side-effect, the game has a reputation for becoming unwinnable because key characters can go off and die without you noticing; I look forward to playing and seeing whether that criticism is well-deserved. Whatever the reason, The Hobbit stands out as one of the most popular adventure games of that era with more than a million copies sold. When it comes to “Missed Classics”, I don’t think we can get any more classic than this one.
|Original box art with much scarier dragon.
|“The most sophisticated game program yet devised for any microcomputer.”
|A very useful map!
Enough research! Let’s play the game already.
An Encounter with Trolls
|The adventure begins!
|It’s like a Troll Scout jamboree!
But, you might ask, what are Thorin and Gandalf doing while Bilbo is facing off against trolls alone? Not much, it seems. Gandalf has already disappeared, while Thorin “sits down and starts singing about gold”. Since Bilbo needed Gandalf’s help to defeat the trolls in the book, I head off to find him two screens away. Using that ANIMTALK magic (patent pending), I order him to head back to the trolls clearing. I get him in with the trolls, but he does absolutely nothing useful. I still die. Is the solution elsewhere? I explore further and find a hidden path in the woods with some troll tracks leading to a locked door. That’s obviously where the key goes, but still no way to get the key. I’ll have to keep searching.
|The Mystery House school of videogame art?
I’m not sure that I like this puzzle much. In the book, Bilbo has to distract the trolls so they don’t realize that day is dawning, plus get an assist from Gandalf at the end. Here, you just sort of go about your business until daybreak and then come back and find them dead. There’s a missed opportunity here. I snatch the key and unlock the troll’s cave to discover a sword and some rope. Those will probably come in handy!
The Misty Mountains
|At least the moon doesn’t have stars behind it.
The Misty Mountains turns out to be a collection of two separate, but connected, mazes. Mazes here do not work like they did in Colossal Cave and similar games. Many game mazes of this era consisted of a group of identical rooms connected in seemingly-random ways. To map them, you drop an item in each location to make them unique and keep track of which exits lead back to which items. Since dropped items in this game are liable to be moved by the random NPCs wandering around, the designers took a different approach. Instead, the rooms are only mostly the same: they each have a distinct name and set of exits. For example, there will be only one room called “Narrow Path” with exits to the east, northeast, and south. Since exits are still not straightforward-- heading west then east will usually not bring you back to the start-- you have to carefully check every exit from every room. It is easier to map than “passages all alike”, but still quite challenging.
The first maze is the mountains’ exterior, a warm-up exercise for the challenges in the caves. This one turns out to be eleven rooms named either “Narrow Path” or “Steep Path” with one clear objective: a golden key in a hidden valley. Along the way, we also discovered a cave containing a suspicious looking “small crack”. Every now and then, the crack opens to reveal a goblin. As soon as the goblin appears, I type “go crack” and we manage to get by him and into the second maze.
|My interior map, thanks to the power of spreadsheets.
But… I spent a lot of time in the dungeon. On the surface, it’s not that complex of a puzzle: there is a locked door that neither of my keys open, a window, and a pile of sand. On my first time getting thrown in the slammer, I find that Gandalf was also captured! He just disappears for long periods of time, so maybe he wandered somewhere that he shouldn’t have. Still, I can’t imagine the Gandalf of the book giving too much thought to a couple of goblins. The window seems like our best choice for escaping. It’s too high for Bilbo to reach, but Gandalf is taller and he has no problem opening it. But before I can celebrate my victory, the wizard climbs out the window and leaves me to my misery. He doesn’t come back. What a lousy wizard.
|The goblins’ dungeon is secretly an igloo?
That leaves the sand pit. With just a bit of experimentation, I find that I can dig in the sand to reveal a trapdoor. It’s locked and again neither of my keys open it. A bit later (and in an act of frustration), I discover that I can break the trap door with my sword. That plunges the room into darkness and Bilbo dies after a few turns. The game doesn’t say this-- at all-- but the sword that Bilbo found in the troll’s cave glows when near goblins and it has been acting as my light source. It would have been nice to be told about that! After restoring, I ask Thorin to do my dirty work instead and he is able to break the door. Inside is a “curious” key (to match the “curious” map?), which Thorin says originally belonged to his father. That sounds important! Unfortunately, this is still a dead end for me as I still don’t know how to escape with the key. I restore back to before I was captured and continue exploring the maze.
|Look! A different room in the maze!
- An “Underground Lake” where Gollum lives and swims around. I actually found Gollum a few other times while exploring, but I tried to avoid him. He asks what I have in my pockets and I run like hell.
- Rooms labeled “Big Cavern With Torches” and “Dark Winding Passage” turn out to be where the dungeon is; the door to the dungeon is in the big cavern while the window looks out on the winding passage. I can get into the cell this way, but I still can’t get back out. In a stroke of brilliance, I try instructing Thorin to go in, dig, break the door, get the key, and come back out. Let’s just say that didn’t work, but I’m not sure if it’s because complex commands don’t work or if Thorin would just get bored somewhere in the middle and say “no”.
- The golden ring is lying on the ground in an otherwise unimportant room. I pick it up because rings of power always come in handy.
- “Inside the Goblin’s Gate” is the so-called backdoor to the mountain, the exit that I remember Bilbo using in the book. I can open the door and escape if I want.
Eventually, I explore the whole maze and get the ring, but still cannot crack the dungeon puzzle. Since I seem to need a key that I don’t have, I elect to march forward in the hope of finding it further along in the game. Leaving the goblins’ cave takes you first to Beorn’s house (but he isn’t home) and then to the entrance to Mirkwood. But that also seems like a pretty good place to stop for this post.
|The foreboding forest will have to wait for next week.
Before I go, I just want to stress how random this game can be at times. In my numerous attempts to map the maze, I had occasions when Elrond (!!) would be captured by the goblins, where there was a warg imprisoned with me, and times when Gandalf or Thorin would be around or not. Breaking the trap door also turns out to be harder than I thought: on a subsequent restore, it took me dozens of attempts to break through. It’s largely random (and, I later found out, based on how injured you and Thorin are from battling goblins). This is disheartening because if I am doing the right thing, but it still fails 90% of the time, I will never know. I could be typing the exact right things and the game decides not to let it work. It’s certainly going to make solving puzzles more difficult.
Next week, I’ll kick some dragon butt. Don’t forget that this is an introductory post so you can still guess the score or make wagers even though I made it through a fair chunk of the game this time. Since many of you played the international version of the game, let’s make it fair: you can guess TWO scores. I’ll do PISSED ratings for both versions of the game and you can get CAPs based on correctly guessing either or both of them.
See you next week!