Monday, May 18, 2020

Game 190: The Hobbit

Read the manual here:

Beam Software was the internal development studio of Melbourne House, a British/Australian publishing firm who had by the early 80's diversified into computer games, becoming Australia's first such publisher. Mobygames lists these as the same company, but they seem to have fairly consistently separate roles, with Beam Software often credited with development or porting jobs of games not published by Melbourne House, and Melbourne House occasionally publishing or localizing games not made by Beam Software. Their earliest credits on Mobygames are Double Breakout and Super Invasion; clones of Breakout and Space Invaders on the ZX80. Presumably these were released domestically by Melbourne House, but the only publishing credits listed are for 1981 international releases by Softsync Inc and The Essential Software Co.

I couldn't get these games to work by emulation. Granted, I didn't try very hard - I was not enthused at all about playing yet even more derivative games on the ZX81's crappier older brother.


Screenshots by

Beam's earliest whale, then, is The Hobbit, published the following year in the UK for the newly-released ZX Spectrum microcomputer. This was another budget machine intended to succeed the ZX80 line - the unexpanded 4KB VIC-20, considered a budget computer in the US, cost £200 in the UK, whereas the ZX Spectrum cost £125 for the 16KB model and £175 for the 48KB model. This machine and its games had a regional cultural impact that I'm totally unqualified to discuss - I'm tempted to compare it to the NES's impact in North America, but even that may be selling it short. The NES was merely a games playing machine, whereas the ZX Spectrum, like other microcomputers, came with the tools needed to create its own games in BASIC and machine code, and is responsible for a generation bedroom programmers who developed and distributed games of their own, not to mention the national pride that so many British gamers must have felt owning a homegrown computer, and using it to run homespun software.

The manual opens with some blatant puffery, needless considering the user reading it already bought the game:
Congratulations! You are about to play the most sophisticated game program yet devised for any microcomputer.

Melbourne House in association with the Tolkien Estate are very proud to be able to present to you THE HOBBIT, an amazing program based on J.R.R. Tolkien's brilliant fantasy novel.

You are Bilbo Baggins, and your wizard buddy Gandalf talked you into helping Thorin retrieve a dragon's treasure. You know the drill, I'm sure. The meager plot section emphasizes hobbits' diminutive size and lack of innate magical talent, as a warning that most creatures you encounter will be bigger and stronger than you.

Gameplay mechanics are described as very similar to Infocom's titles. One notable difference which I'm completely sure is taken from Scott Adam's adventures is that the game screen is split into two windows, with the top window displaying graphics, text descriptions, and ingame events, while the bottom window displays anything only related to the parser.

There are a number of rules which should be familiar to Infocom players:
  • The parser, deemed "INGLISH," accepts natural English grammar sentences of some degree of complexity, and can even understand adverbs. Sentences such as "CAREFULLY ATTACK THE TROLL WITH THE SWORD" are valid, for instance.
  • Objects have weight, and there is a limit to how much weight you can carry at once.
  • Objects can not be used if someone else is carrying them.
  • Some objects are containers for other objects, and non-transparent containers must be opened to see what is inside.
  • Liquids may only be carried inside container objects.
  • Doors, chests, windows, etc. may be locked, and cannot be opened without unlocking them first with the right key.
  • Some objects can be broken with other objects, but care must be exercised when trying to do this deliberately. Attempting to break a door with a bottle, for example, is more likely to break the bottle than the door.
  • Some areas are dark, and moving without a light source is dangerous.
  • Characters can be given instructions through the parser, though they may not obey.
There's one new rule - while Zork had combat that could sap your strength when you took damage, Bilbo gets weaker just from fighting. Resting won't be enough to restore your strength either; you've got to eat.

The manual also touts a system called "Animaction," boasting that characters such as Gandalf and Torin are free agents, who travel on their own, perform actions on their own, and interact with the world and other characters on their own. Their own disposition toward you will change depending on your actions - talking too much or making too little sense, for instance, may disincline them to listen to you. Infocom's Deadline also had this to some extent, so it will be interesting to see how The Hobbit compares. We're explicitly warned, however, that the complexity of this system makes it "impossible to guarantee it will ever be error-free." Indeed, The Hobbit has a reputation for being buggy.

I opted to play the TZX format version marked "v1.0" in spite of the risk of bugs, and loaded it up in Fuse.

This was an unexpectedly small party - where are Thorin's twelve dwarf pals at my service, eating me out of house and home?

I wasn't really sure what to do with the map. Examining it simply informed me it was covered in arcane symbols, and the manual's suggestion of asking him to read it for me was useless; he couldn't read them either. Gandalf soon took it back from me anyway.  I couldn't meaningfully interact with the chest either; it opened fine, but the parser resisted my attempts to examine its contents, and I eventually was satisfied that the chest was empty; an assumption I then verified by putting the map inside, and seeing that its description changed accordingly to inform me that the map and only the map was inside it.

A note on emulation here, the ZX Spectrum's keyboard layout is not the same as the modern PS/2-derived standard. You'll need to type quotes in this game to give other characters instructions, and in Fuse this is done by pressing Shift+P.

I worked on Trizborting out Wilderland, a task made more tedious by the game's tendency to lie about valid exits, necessitating exhaustive searching. As I did this, Gandalf sort of wandered off and did his own thing, while Thorin followed me around, frequently told be to hurry up, and at least twice sat down and sang about gold. Occasionally Gandalf would just show up and tell me I was doing a great job.

Some landmarks included:
  • The troll's clearing, where two trolls lived, one of whom carried a key. Inaction got me eaten, and produced the odd message "his foul gluttony has killed the hideous troll." Walking past took me to a hidden path leading to a cave sealed by a locked door.
  • Rivendale, where Elrond greeted me and offered me lunch.
  • The Misty Mountain, a MOTLP of identically-named "narrow path" rooms which mercifully differed by visible exits, which when fully explored revealed a steep downward path to a valley hiding a golden key.
  • A large dry cave, where a goblin captured me and locked me in a dark dungeon where I hit my head and died.
  • Beorn's empty house, by the great river and Mirkwood beyond.
  • Mountains past the great river, with an impassable eastern passage producing the cryptic message "THE PLACE IS TOO FULL FOR YOU TO ENTER" when I tried.
  • A bewitched gloomy place, where a wood elf captured me and locked me in the dark dungeon of the elvenking, where a warg wandered in, and then I hit my head and died.
  • A forest road, leading to a waterfall, where something fell on my head and stung me to death.

Canonically, the trolls are Bilbo's first challenge, and he would solve it by tricking them into arguing among themselves until dawn breaks. That's a little much to expect of an 8-bit parser, even one that claims to be the most sophisticated natural language recognition program ever written. But here, the solution is simpler; just walk past them to the hidden path, wait until dawn, and return to the clearing where they have turned to stone and their key is there for the taking. This, as expected, opens the locked door to the troll's cave, although their treasure isn't so impressive.

My Trizbort map so far:


  1. I'm looking forward to you digging into this one. It's many sub-systems and wandering characters make for a dynamic game, albeit one that occasionally gets into an unwinnable state. I'd love to know more about what's going on under the hood.

    1. "I'd love to know more about what's going on under the hood."

      There is a custom Spectrum emulator called Wilderland [1] that can supposedly show a bunch of that wile running the game. I've only tried it very briefly myself, partly because it wasn't until I looked it up now that I found out that someone made a Linux version of it.


  2. This always sounded like an interesting game that really outstripped the Speccy's capabilites...

    Looking forward to the dig!


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