Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. This week, the adventure that brought Tolkien's epic fantasy to life like never before - using text! Wait, hang on...
In the middle of the earth, in the land of the Shire, lives a brave little hobbit who we all admire. With his long wooden pipe, and fuzzy woolly toes, he lives in a hobbit-hole and everybody knows him. Bilbo. Bilbo Baggins. He's only three feet tall. Yes, Bilbo, Bilbo Baggins. The bravest little hobbit of them all.
Well, would you try ordering Thorin Oakenshield to carry your hairy arse around?
The Hobbit is one of those 80s classics, much beloved by everyone who ever played it, and to its credit, not a bad attempt at turning the adventure into... well, an adventure, especially by 1982 standards. At a time when GO NORTH was still seen as impressive, and GO WEST could still be typed without an immediate response of "You go west. Life is peaceful there", it dared to try... amongst other things... characters with their own lives, a real-time take on adventuring that pretty much no other commercial game tried (though there were a few, like Infocom's Border Zone), and a mix of text and graphics to both help convey the world, and punish anyone who'd bought a colour monitor for their hubris.
To hear some people talk of it, it's the greatest text adventure ever. Of course, it's not. By modern eyes, it's about as primitive as an orc's OKCupid profile. ("Name: Azog the Defiler. Hobbies: Murdering dwarf-scum, helping make what should be one movie into three snoozers. First thing people notice about me: My prosthetic murder-hand stabbing into their face as I laugh. I also enjoy jazz.")
Depending on how you play, it can also be one of the shortest adventures ever, as seen in this transcript of what happened the day Gandalf came to town while Bilbo was in no mood for anyone's shit.
Gandalf gives the curious map to you. Thorin, rising to his feet, says to you "Well Mr Baggins, all is ready for our adventure and I must say things are looking very hopeful. Shall we be off then?"
> KILL GANDALF
You attack Gandalf. With one well placed blow you cleave his skull. Gandalf is dead.
Thorin says "Well, are we just going to stand around here all day?"
> KILL THORIN
You attack Thorin. With one well placed blow you cleave his skull. Thorin is dead.
♪ Bilbo! Bilbo Baggins! The bravest little hobbit of them all! ♪
Of course, you're not guaranteed to take out both of these heavy-hitters. You have a random chance, which somehow ends up being more than the more canonically likely "You swing at Thorin, just as a bolt of lightning coincidentally strikes him from on high" or "You try to punch Gandalf in the cock. He laughs so hard he has a heart attack and collapses with a look of outraged shock."
It's also a fairly short adventure if you don't have them to hand. You can still run out through the Shire, like in the movie, only with fists covered with wizard intestines and wearing Thorin's head as a particularly hairy hat, as well as make it through much of Middle Earth without breaking a sweat. Mostly because in The Hobbit, Middle Earth consists of just a few screens. Trying it though didn't work so well, involving first stepping over Elrond's corpse over in Rivendell, and then getting trapped in a goblin dungeon. This is where you need to type one of the most famous lines in text adventure history - SAY TO THORIN "CARRY ME" - so that you can get a boost to open a window. With him lying in a puddle back in Bag End, the only possible result is... well... a Bad End. Restore, Restart, Quit?
While the story is heavily truncated, not least by taking a red pen to Thorin, Balin, Dwalin, Fili, Kili, Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur and Bombur to trim them, just a little, down to "Thorin", The Hobbit actually does a surprisingly good job of covering the game's narrative. The world is condensed down to hilarious levels, especially if you've seen the sweeping vistas of the movie, to the point that Bilbo's house is essentially next door to Rivendell, the Lonely Mountain, and probably close enough to Mount Doom to use it as a garbage incinerator. The actual plot points though are surprisingly close in a different way, including duelling with Gollum and persuading Bard to kill Smaug the dragon, meeting up with Elrond and finally making it back alive with a chest of gold and some vaguely nifty magic ring.
The main catch is that all the random elements really get in the way - they're cool, on a technical level, but a real bloody nuisance in practice. Characters routinely disappear when you need them, or take endless cajoling to do what you need, and a world where Bilbo can beat up Thorin is a world that has no problem beating up Bilbo at a moment's notice. It can be very frustrating, if you're not using a walkthrough, in which case it's shorter than a tossed dwarf's temper.
Provided you've got the dreaded Java installed on your PC though, there's no reason not to give it a try - unless of course you're racing to deliver a heart to a dying superhero, in which case do that first. Alternatively, there's the PC version which can - cough - be quite easily found. If you remember the game from when it was new, you might also be interested in a project called Wilderland , which uses fancy futuristic technology to track what's going on behind the scenes, using the Spectrum version of the game (not included, but probably not an insurmountable problem to solve, ahem...)
Speaking of that Spectrum version, here it is in its entirety. Marvel at its amazing graphics. The PC version is much sleeker and higher resolution, but you just can't beat the... okay, you can beat the original, just as someone beat it with the ugly stick. Still, when people think of this game, this is typically the version they're thinking of. It's going to take Peter Jackson about 9 hours to tell this story. YouTube, 10 minutes. Including loading time. How far we've come over the last three decades, eh?