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'The Hobbit' retrospective: Interactive fiction on the ZX Spectrum

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The Hobbit 1982 game

First Released: 1982 (ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, more)
Now Available On: N/A

Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is less than a week away from release and JRR Tolkien fans everywhere can scarcely contain their anticipation. The Lord of the Rings prequel has been adapted on numerous prior occasions, for the mediums of radio, television, theatre and, of course, video games.

Melbourne House's 1982 Hobbit for home computers remains one of the most famous games based on the classic children's book. It was a text-based adventure developed by Beam Software that set new standards in its genre with an advanced parser and innovative puzzles.

The Hobbit 1982 game


Early text-based games such as William Crowther's Colossal Cave Adventure supported basic verb-noun parsers, such as 'get sword', but The Hobbit was more sophisticated. The game used a subset of English created by Stuart Richie dubbed Inglish, enabling players to enter advanced sentences with adverbs and pronouns like 'pick up sword and viciously attack troll'.

Although text and the player's imagination accounted for much of the experience, The Hobbit featured images of each location, based on sketches by Kent Rees. These were rendered in what now looks like a primitive 8-bit style, but added some welcome context.

On platforms using the cassette tape format such as the ZX Spectrum, backgrounds were stored using a compression technique and had to be unpacked while the game was running. This created the illusion that the scenery was being hand-drawn in front of the player.

The Hobbit 1982 game


The Hobbit also featured gameplay innovations that other text adventures simply did not. For instance, every character and object mentioned in the story had a calculated mass, which had a far-reaching effect on how they could be manipulated. The game even progressed in real-time, with events continuing to unfold if the player stepped away from the keyboard.

Melbourne House had a hit on their hands with The Hobbit, with the game garnering universal acclaim and bagging a Golden Joystick award for 'Best Strategy Game' in 1983. More than one million copies were sold by the end of the decade.

The Hobbit 1982 game


The enduring popularity of Tolkien's original novel, which came bundled with the title, and the strength of the Inglish parser were credited as the driving force behind its success. A parody of the game, titled The Boggit, was released by CRL Group in 1986 to generally favourable reviews. You know you've made it to the top when people start parodying your work.

Adapting the Lord of the Rings books in the same format was the next logical step for developer Beam Software, but its take on the great trilogy was not as critically acclaimed as its earlier work, with fans criticising the removal of the real-time elements and sophisticated AI.

The Hobbit may have lacked the cinematic quality of Jackson's upcoming movie, but it was an important release within the adventure genre, taking text-based titles to new heights. While it doesn't look like much today, Tolkien fans the world over rejoiced when this landed on home computers back in 1982, and look back on it fondly.

Do you have any fond memories of The Hobbit? Post a comment below:

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