Category Archives: Nostalgia in Review

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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Nostalgia in Review Part 1: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri

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I got the idea for this feature a few weeks ago while flipping through the big CD book where all my old games are. I was smiling at my childhood favorites, remembering how much fun I used to have playing them and wondering if and when I’d ever get around to playing them again, and then it came to me: I could play them and then write about them for the blog!

And that’s when I started thinking about the nostalgia factor, and how it relates to revisiting your childhood, even one as recent as mine. Before going any further I should mention my age, and how it might be on the young side to be writing about nostalgia. As the games I’ll be talking about in this feature will eventually come to indicate, I am, at the time of writing this, only seventeen. However, I feel that that I’m well enough out of my childhood to make revisiting it worth while, especially when it comes to video games (which, as anyone who’s grown up playing them can attest, begin to show their age far more quickly than any other media). For example, where an 8-9 year old movie can easily be just as watchable today as when it first came out, a video game that old would be noticeably and significantly out of date in everything from its graphics (visuals) to its gameplay (controlling the game and moving around the game world).

I won’t go into detail about why video games age so much more rapidly; its been explained elsewhere already and I’ve already rambled long enough, but suffice to say that they do.

The Rules

Before I get started talking about the first game I’ll be doing, I’ll explain the rules I’ve set for myself. There aren’t many, and for the most part there not particularly strict, but here they are.

1: The game must be from my “Childhood”.

For the purpose of this feature I’ll be defining childhood as twelve and younger, I.E. games from 2007 or earlier, earlier releases being preferable for the purposes of seeing how well they hold up over time.

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

This means exactly what it says, I don’t want to review anything for this feature that I’ve already revisited in the past few years.

3:  I must go into the game cold.

Meaning simply that I can’t do any research on the game beforehand, I.E. reading manuals, watching Youtube videos, looking at wikis, etc.

4: I must play at least 5 hours of the game.

Again, exactly what it sounds like. I won’t necessarily have the time to finish every game I play for this feature, but I want to be sure I play enough, and I thought 5 hours seemed like a good minimum time.

Well, I think that’s everything. Now on to the feature itself.

Nostalgia in Review

(Note: While I had intended to take screenshots for this feature myself, I encountered technical issues and was unable to do so. Therefor, all screenshots used herein were found via a Google image search.)

The Game: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri: released Jan. 31, 1999: platforms PC and MAC: genre, turned based strategy game: ESRB rating, E for EVERYONE.

Alpha Centauri’s box art

The Nostalgia: (Note: in future installments this section will be written BEFORE I play the game; unfortunately by the time I came up with the final format I had already played several hours of the game.)

By the time I first played Alpha Centauri I was already familiar with the Civalization franchise, having  sunk dozens of hours into Civ 3 already. While Civ 3 (Released Oct. 30 2001) may have been somewhat flashier graphically, I’ve always loved science fiction, and so I remember being quite taken by Alpha Centauri’s somewhat dark sci fi setting.

One of the things I remembered most about Alpha Centauri, and the thing that set it apart from the Civ franchise in my mind, was the eerie sense of place the game had. The creepy, alien, menacing qualities of both the graphics and the landscapes they depicted.

The main menu of Alpha Centauri

The Reality: Simply put, Alpha Centauri is a fantastic game, one that holds up surprisingly well in many ways, while also clearly being a product of its time. The most noticeable sign of aging, and the hardest to overlook, is its unwieldy user interface. The majority of Alpha Centauri’s extensive menu systems are, by today’s standards, exceedingly clunky, unintuitive, and needlessly complex. Even after I readjusted to the old style of the UI, it still took me at least twice as long to perform most tasks as it would in Civ 5, the most recent installment in the series.

Functionality aside, I actually think the menus look fantastic. With the exception of the simple menu that pops up when you right click on the screen to issue orders to units (It looks like the menu that pops up when you right click on your desktop in Windows), the menus all have a simple, gritty, stylistic 80s-90s sci fi aesthetic that I’ve always loved.

Actually, the whole game’s style holds up remarkable well. While the graphics might not be fantastic (The resolution is low and the texture quality is poor) the style they convey is timeless and evocative. There’s a mildly unsettling bleakness to everything that, combined with the nature of a lot of the military tech, always make me imagine several of the various factions are on the verge of losing their humanity and falling down a rabbit hole of bloody warfare and unethical technology.

In fact, Alpha Centauri actually has something of a story to it. Besides the intro movie which sets things up, there are periodic “interludes” of somewhat cryptic prose that tells a vague but intriguing story. A story that I have unfortunately never seen the end of, I being the type of person who tends to get two thirds of the way through a game of Civ and then get bored and start a new game as a different faction.

 The factions of Alpha Centauri, seven all together, are one of its strong suites, and another thing that sets this game apart from other installments in the franchise. While the number of factions is much smaller In Alpha Centauri than in other Civ games, the relationships between said factions are much more dynamic and lifelike. Where as the factions in any given Civ game tend to feel like they react more or less randomly towards each other, the factions of Alpha Centauri feel like they have much more personality, and while the specifics play out differently in every game, certain factions always react each other in the same general manner every time. For instance, Miriam of the Lord’s Believers (in some ways the Gandhi of Alpha Centauri, Civ players, you know what I’m talking about) almost always sets out on a bloody religious war against, well, anyone she happens to be close to geographically.

When the UN goes wrong…

Another, perhaps better example would be the relationship between Lady Deirdre Skye of Gaia’s Stepdaughters and Col. Corazon Santiago of the Spartan Federation. Skye is a nature loving hippie dedicated to protecting the native life of the planet, and Santiago is a militant gun nut who’ll attack anyone she feels threatens her way of life. As you might imagine, these two almost never get along.

As for the gameplay of Alpha Centauri, anyone familiar with the Civ franchise will find it quite familiar. Players begin the game with a single base and a solitary combat unit and a map of the world that extends only a few squares in any direction from their base.

In the beginning…

From there, players are tasked with expanding their empire by exploring the world, building new bases, discovering new technology, growing their army, and improving the lands they claim with farms, mines, solar collectors, roads, and more.

What the game looks like

There are four ways to win a game of Alpha Centauri, they are: conquest, in which the player eradicates and or conquers all other factions;  diplomacy, whereby the player convinces the majority of the other factions to elect him/her to the position of Supreme Leader; economics, in which the player through a mixture of technology and money effectively buys off all other factions; and transcendence, whereby the player progresses far enough down the tech tree to develop the “Ascent to Transcendence” secret project and cause humanity to leap forward in its evolution.

Another picture of gameplay

All in all I think that, providing you can get past the somewhat clunky interface, Alpha Centauri remains one of the best turn based strategy games ever made. It’s certainly still just as fun, and addictive, as any of the Civ games to come after it.

~NekoShogun

More Nostalgia in Review:

The Hobbit