Nostalgia in Review: The Hobbit

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Well, it’s been far too long since I wrote the first Nostalgia in Review, but I’ve finally gotten around to replaying another one of my favorite childhood games.

The rules are the same as the first time:

1: The game must be from my childhood.

2: I can’t already have played the game in question in the past few years.

3:  I must go into the game cold, I.E. no wikis, reviews, manuals, Youtube videos, etc.

4: I must play at least 5 hours of the game. (In this case I’ve actually completed the game in question.)

I think that’s all the necessities taken care of, so let’s get to the feature.

The Game:

Title: The Hobbit.

Release date: Nov. 10 2003.

Platforms: GameCube, PlayStation 2, Xbox, PC, and Game Boy Advance.

Genre: Action Adventure.

ESRB rating: E for everyone.

The Nostalgia:

When I think about my favorite games, The Hobbit is easily in the top five. I have so many vivid memories of the game that it feels almost like I’d last played it yesterday, though in reality its been several years.

I remember being so excited when I spotted it on the shelf of a Scholastic book sale–a multi-anual sale held regionally in Scholastic warehouses where, in addition to books, they sell a bizarre collection of old and/or obscure video games. I was already a huge fan of the book, and of the Lord of the Rings movies that had come out so far, and so I had to have it.

Needless to say, I was disappointed to learn that the ancient Windows 98 PC I shared with my brothers didn’t have the horse power to even boot up the game. So instead of playing The Hobbit, I read and reread the manual dozens of times. A few months later, when my parents bought a new PC, their old windows XP machine was passed down to us. The Hobbit was the first game I installed on our new-old computer, and it was well worth the wait.

I loved everything about the game–the music, the art, the combat, and of course, the story. I even loved the giant spiders in the Murkwood level, though I was and remain strongly arachnaphobic. Video game spiders don’t bother me so much anymore, but I can still remember the sheer terror I experienced every time one of those awful, giant monsters jumped out at me from somewhere off screen.

It should be interesting to see how well the game holds up to my memories.

The Reality:

So it turns out The Hobbit is a fairly decent game. Replaying it for the first time in years, I was actually a bit surprised at how well I remembered most of it–and how well the game holds up.

The first thing everyone notices about a game is its graphics, and it’s well known that a great many games don’t hold up well visually almost ten years after their release dates. There are exceptions, however, and the thing that most often saves a game from becoming a headache inducing mess of blurry pixels is strong, stylized art direction.This is a strength that The Hobbit largely possesses. Aside from a few blurry textures and roughness in some of the character models, The Hobbit is a pretty good looking game for nine years old, due in large part to its bright color palate and almost cartoonish art style.

Bag End never looked more colorful.

The second thing everyone notices about a video game is how well, or poorly, it controls, and it is here that The Hobbit stumbles slightly. Now don’t get me wrong, The Hobbit by no means controls poorly, but there here a few little issues that can be annoying. Take for example the camera: Like most video games, the mouse controls the camera. Well, that’s only half true–the mouse controls the X axis, but not the Y axis. By default the Y axis is mapped to the Num 8 and Num 2 keys, which is highly inconvenient. I was able remap the Y axis to the up and down arrow keys, making it slightly more usable, but I was completely unable to attach the Y axis to the mouse.

This wasn’t a huge issue; most of the time I could get by without moving the camera up or down, but I did sometimes find myself wanting to look around more freely. To accomplish this I often just used the game’s free aim mode, used for precise stone throwing, which actually gives the mouse full camera control. But even that has its problems; you can’t walk around in free aim, and the camera movement is frustratingly slow.

Free aim is useful for sniping enemies with stones.

Originally the game supported gamepads, and looking at the manual it seems the controls on a gamepad may have been better, but I was unable to find out for sure because the game failed to map properly to the wired Xbox 360 controller I tried to use.

Aside from the camera, however, I really have no complaints. The platforming is fine and combat controls well, thanks in part to a Zelda-esque targeting system. In fact, the targeting isn’t the only thing reminiscent of the Zelda franchise. The two games share similar health systems as well. Instead of hearts, Bilbo’s health is represented by red “bubbles,” each of which has multiple hit points. The number of health bubbles is increased either by filling a meter full of “Courage Points,” or buying an expensive potion from the end of level vendor. Courage Points are fairly abundant–low value blue courage points are used to mark the levels critical path, mid level points are dropped by defeated enemies, and higher level points float in hard to reach or dangerous places.

Defeated enemies quite literally explode into courage points.

The Hobbit is in many ways a fairly standard action adventure game. Most levels are a mix of platforming, combat, puzzle solving, and the occasional cut scene. In fact, The Hobbit really doesn’t sound like anything special on paper. What makes it special is how well all the pieces come together. All of the levels feel well paced, with just the right mix of action and platforming, and the license helps give the game a wonderful atmosphere.

I remembered this puzzle being a lot harder.

Playing through the game, I really felt like the people who made it were fans of Middle Earth and treated the world with respect. Little things, such as the fact that mushrooms restore health, put established Tolkien lore to good, and amusing, use. Of course there are some liberties taken in the interest of turning The Hobbit into a game, but they all fit well into the story and feel like they could have been there all along.

They might not look very appetizing, but those green mushrooms have saved Bilbo’s life many a time.

There are some disappointments when it comes to the story, however, namely in the pre level cutscenes. The cutscenes, which consist of an interesting mix of narrated illustrations and impressive (but low res) CGI, feel rushed, failing to provide more than a minimal amount of context and information. This isn’t generally a problem if you’re familiar with the book, but it would have been nice to see a little more of the excellent story find its way into the game.

Replaying and reviewing The Hobbit has been an interesting experience. It’s proved far harder than I’d expected to separate my nostalgia from the reality of the game, and I suspect I might look more fondly on it than someone who’d never played it before. That said, I feel confident in saying that The Hobbit is a good, well crafted game, and one that any fan of middle earth should enjoy.

The entrance hall of Erebor.

I can’t help but wonder, though, what will become of this game in the future. It can’t be found on Steam or Good Old Games. There a a few copies left floating around Amazon, but how long before they disappear? I don’t believe the game was ever very popular, and the studio that made it no longer exists. I think it likely that The Hobbit will probably just fade away, just another decent but unimportant game lost to ever changing hardware and slowly degrading CDs.

Well, I don’t want to end on a depressing note, so let me tell you real quickly about the soundtrack, which I can’t believe I almost forgot. The music in The Hobbit is excellent. It’s beautiful, it’s atmospheric, it’s encouraging and, well, just listen for yourself. And if that’s not enough, try this. And if you still want more, Youtube has plenty where that came from.

~NekoShogun

More Nostalgia in Review:

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.

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