Following the early primitive attempts at adaptation in Shadowfax and Journey to Rivendell, a game was released that actually told the story of the first published Middle Earth book: 1982’s The Hobbit from Melbourne House.
ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, BBC Micro, MSX, Apple II, IBM PC, Macintosh
Melbourne House/Beam Software
This game was one of the first developed by Melbourne House, who were initially a book publisher that owned Beam Software, which itself was made up of two people in Melbourne House’s own ranks; Naomi Bensen and Alfred Milgrom(Melbourne Houses’ founder) who acquired some ZX80s (an old precursor to the ZX Spectrum) when they were first being introduced in Australia. Initially they were experimenting with books about computers, then they decided to make a game, and signed up databasing student Veronika Megler to, in Milgrom’s brief; “Make the best adventure game ever. Period.” And so, in 1982, came about The Hobbit, which was the first successful computer game based on a Tolkien novel (in fact, without much documentation on Shadowfax, The Hobbit may well be the very first commercial game set in Middle Earth). The game was a best seller in the United Kingdom on the Commodore 64 and BBC Micro, and it won a Golden Joystick award for “Best Strategy Game” in 1983( I have to wonder, as the Hobbit little resembles a strategy game, what the competition was).
I initially wanted to play this game without an emulator, so I was going to play it on my Apple iBook that I’ve been tinkering with, but the experience was pretty poor and, as the first Macs (released two years after The Hobbit) were in black and white, so was the game, while the Spectrum and Commodore releases had glorious (maybe six or seven different) colors. I settled on playing the Commodore 64 version of the game, as a good chunk of 1980s Tolkien games were available on the Commodore 64 and its successor the Amiga, and I was already familiar with the systems.
The Hobbit is a text adventure game, where the general aim is to complete the Quest for Erebor Bilbo sets upon in the book, following the same beats as the book. You start out in Bag end, and traveling east you encounter trolls, goblins, Gollum and Smaug the dragon, while making friends (I guess, but I’ll get onto my friendships in a minute) with Thorin, Gandalf, Elrond, Beorn, and the rest of the cast.
One wee departure from the book is that you’re only travelling with Thorin, at least it appears that way. Every time you move, your character changes ‘room’, so at one point I’m in Bag End, then typing in “EAST” I travel to the lone lands. I know I’m in the low lands because when you enter every new room, you have a description of the room you are in and who or what is in there with you. Anyway, starting the game, and as you travel through Middle-Earth, Thorin is your steadfast companion, always entering the room after you, as the game says, but it never mentions the other characters.
When the game was published, it came with a copy of the book, and to further your progress, you have to refer back to it, sometimes the actual text itself. For example, when I was trying to get the troll’s treasure so I’d get Sting, I needed the key off of the trolls. After realising the game wasn’t so automatic as to literally let me wait for Gandalf to come and distract Tom, Bert and Bill, I decided I needed to act. First I attacked them, and got promptly killed. Then I ordered Thorin to kill them, typing “SAY TO THORIN: ATTACK TROLLS”
and promptly Thorin was killed, soon after myself. So, referring back to the book, I eventually found out you’re supposed to leave the Troll’s den following this, and type WAIT several times until you are told day has dawned, and you can go east, steal the keys from the stone trolls, back west, north, and then I was able to unlock the door. Then I could open it, and then enter. And then see that there was some rope and a sword inside. Then I could pick them up. You see the problem with this game, that makes it a little frustrating to me, is that it assumes nothing. You have to spell out every little movement Bilbo makes to obtain small goals like this one.
Now, this game is frustrating, but it’s also hilarious. Thorin is presented by the game as an impatient, musical, and gold-obsessed dwarf, just like the book , you know, ignoring the massive subtext of a diaspora-stricken nation going on a quest to reclaim a homeland, and the metaphorical mental battles going on in Thorin’s psyche between his “dragon sickness”(a metaphor for unquenchable greed or an addiction to material wealth) and his burden as a subjugated leader of men (or dwarves, in this case). But, this isn’t really a criticism, as the game only has to adapt the events of the book, not explore its meaning and themes. And it shows this with stirring portrayals of Thorin as impatient: he’ll tell you to hurry up if you spend too long in one place, and his ‘greed’ is shown as he sings about gold. Stirring, like I said.
All in all, this game is very advanced for its time, a good attempt at adapting the story of the Hobbit, but a little too old to really enjoy, and so many of its problems are really specific to it’s age they aren’t fair to criticize.
If you want to read more about the history of this game and it’s technology, I found an excellent article in my research on The Digital Antiquarian, and if you’d like to play the game yourself, the ZX Spectrum version is available to play in your browser on Archive.org