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Hobbit, The (1982)      

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Details (Sinclair ZX Spectrum) Supported platforms Artwork and Media
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Melbourne House
Adventure / Graphic
Beam Software, Philip Mitchell, Veronika Megler
Audio cassette
Europe (£14.95)
Game instructions, Advertisement
This was the first Spectrum game ever to sell a million copies. Later budget release for £9.95.
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Acorn BBC  NR
Amstrad CPC  NR
Commodore 64  NR
Sinclair ZX Spectrum  NR

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Nintendo GameCube

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Added: 8 Dec 2014
The Hobbit is an illustrated text adventure computer game released in 1982 and based on the book The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien. It was developed at Beam Software by Philip Mitchell and Veronika Megler and published by Melbourne House for most home computers available at the time, from more popular models such as the ZX Spectrum, the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC 464, BBC Micro, MSX, Dragon 32 and Oric. By arrangement with the book publishers, a copy of the book was included with each game sold.

The parser was very advanced for the time and used a subset of English called Inglish. When it was released most adventure games used simple verb-noun parsers (allowing for simple phrases like 'get lamp'), but Inglish allowed one to type advanced sentences such as "ask Gandalf about the curious map then take sword and kill troll with it". The parser was complex and intuitive, introducing pronouns, adverbs ("viciously attack the goblin"), punctuation and prepositions and allowing the player to interact with the game world in ways not previously possible.

Many locations were illustrated by an image, based on originals designed by Kent Rees. On the tape version, to save space, each image was stored in a compressed format by storing outline information and then flood filling the enclosed areas on the screen. The slow CPU speed meant that it would take up to several seconds for each scene to draw. The disk-based versions of the game used pre-rendered, higher-quality images.

The game had an innovative text-based physics system, developed by Veronika Megler. Objects, including the characters in the game, had a calculated size, weight and solidity. Objects could be placed inside other objects, attached together with rope and damaged or broken. If the main character was sitting in a barrel which was then picked up and thrown through a trapdoor, the player went too.

Unlike other works of interactive fiction, the game was also in real time - if you left the keyboard for too long, events continued without you by automatically entering the "WAIT" command with the response "You wait - time passes". If you had to leave the keyboard for a short time, there was a "PAUSE" command which would stop all events until a key was pressed.

The game had a cast of non-player characters (NPCs) that were entirely independent of the player and bound to precisely the same game rules. They had loyalties, strengths and personalities that affected their behaviour and could not always be predicted. The character of Gandalf, for example, roamed freely around the game world (some fifty locations), picking up objects, getting into fights and being captured.

The volatility of the characters, coupled with the rich physics and impossible-to-predict fighting system, meant that the game could be played in many different ways, though it could also lead to problems (such as an important character being killed early on). There were numerous possible solutions and with hindsight the game might be regarded as one of the first examples of 'emergent gaming'. This also resulted, however, in many bugs; for example, during development Megler found that the animal NPCs killed each other before the player arrived. The game's documentation warned that "Due to the immense size and complexity of this game it is impossible to guarantee that it will ever be completely error-free". Melbourne House issued a version 1.1 with some fixes, but with another bug that resulted in the game being unwinnable, forcing it to release version 1.2, and the company never fixed all bugs.

The Hobbit was a bestseller in the UK on both the C64 and BBC. The game won the 1983 Golden Joystick Award for best strategy game. The game was also a huge commercial success, selling over 100,000 copies in its first two years at a retail price of £14.95. There are no records of sales figures but in an article from March 1985 it was estimated in the range of 100,000 to 200,000 and a figure of 500,000 copies is possible, making it an "excellent candidate for the bestselling text adventure of all time, challenged, if at all, only by Infocom’s Zork I". The use of images on many of the locations as opposed to mostly text-only adventure games of the time, the flexibility of the Inglish parser, the innovative independence of the non-player characters, the popularity of Tolkien's work, all attributed to the game's phenomenal success.

To help players a book called "A guide to playing The Hobbit" by David Elkan was published in 1984.
Developer Beam Software followed up The Hobbit with 1985's Lord of the Rings: Game One, 1987's Shadows of Mordor: Game Two of Lord of the Rings, and 1989's The Crack of Doom. They would also reuse Inglish in "Sherlock".
In 1986 a parody of the game was released by CRL, The Boggit.
A phrase from the game which has entered popular culture is "Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold."
Also, the game is mentioned in Nick Montfort's, Twisty Little Passages, a book exploring the history and form of the interactive fiction genre.
Discworld Noir referenced The Hobbit: when the protagonist, Lewton, discovers that someone concealed themselves in a wine barrel, he wonders why that brings to mind the phrases "You wait – time passes" and "Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold."

Issue 12 (Mar 1983)
Added: 6 Dec 2016

Tolkein's tale has captured the imagination. Quentin Heath attempts to get to the ring but finds he wastes too much time.

SALES of The Hobbit, and adventure game for the 48K Spectrum. have been going very well, according to Melbourne House, the company which produces it.

It is one of the most complex games for the Sinclair machines I have seen and that is one of the reasons why it is selling so well. The plot follows closely that of Tolkien's book and there are added dangers to make it more interesting.

There are many objects in the game which cannot be used until certain situations have been passed or conditions met. They tend to take up a fair amount of time on this adventure. Much time can be wasted by checking objects which prove to be useless. For instance, many people who see the chest in the hobbit hole at the beginning of the game usually are tempted to look inside.

The player may suspect that the chest contains weapons or armour but there is nothing inside, That may cause further consternation and a furious search. All that has happened to most victims of the game I know, including several people in the Sinclair User office. Usually a chest is for putting things into and at the beginning of the game there is nothing to store in the chest. The one thing to remember is that the most ordinary and unmysterious objects usually prove the most useful.

At all costs you must be practical, as examining objects which seem mysterious may lead you into the dark.

The Inglish language specially developed by the makers, which all the games characters speak fluently, is causing problems for some people. Most of the time Gandalf and Thorin wander around saying 'Hurry up', 'What's this', or 'No' at the slightest provocation. You should not give up, though - experiment by talking to Thorin, Gandalf and Elrond. The information one of them will give you is certainly not misguided.

If you have managed to obtain more information from any of the characters, I would be interested to hear. In the early stages of the game it is best to follow one direction when going forward and that is explained in the Hints and Tips column. If in doubt, follow that direction and it will usually get you out of trouble.

There are some very odd moves which you can make during the course of the game. For instance, if you have a sword you could kill Elrond when you visit Rivendell. That is very easy to do but your blood lust could prevent you learning Elronds secret. That may not seem very important at the time but it could make a difference to the outcome.

A sword is a basic piece of for any adventurer and can be of use against most foes, as well as Elrond. Your sword is provided for you in the early part of the adventure and it is a good idea to pass the trolls to get it. The secret of the sword is difficult to unlock but you must remember that problems are not half so bad in the daylight.

There are two other problems which adventurers in The Hobbit are meeting. The first is the maze in the misty mountains. If anyone has managed to get out alive I would like to know. The second problem is that the program sometimes crashes when you have battled your way through the Elven Kings Halls, got into one of the barrels in the cellar and plunged into the underground river.

One correspondent has had that happen several times. The makers of the game believe that it is the fault of the particular tape copies.

Quentin Heath
Play it Again
Added: 2 May 2015
“The Hobbit” was one of the first major games produced in Australia, and is considered a classic text adventure. In 1985, it was voted number 1 in Sinclair User’s ‘Top 50 Spectrum Software Classics’.

To create the game Beam’s director Alfred Milgrom advertised on the bulletin board at Melbourne University hiring students Veronika Megler and Philip Mitchell. Originally tasked with making the “best adventure game ever’. Milgrom secured a licence to use J.R.R Tolkien’s popular book the “The Hobbit” by using Melbourne House’s book publishing relationships, and promising that a copy of the book was to be included with the game. The inclusion of the book with the game was also valuable to the player, as knowledge of the story was needed to solve the challenges that Megler had designed.

“The Hobbit” was remarkable for both its sophisticated parser and creation of a world that appeared open – where time passed, objects had physics and characters autonomy.

The games interface, Philip Mitchell’s parser Inglish allowed for full sentences with adjectives, where previously most adventure games only allowed for simpler verb-noun combinations. The program was complex enough to intuitively understand pronouns, adverbs, punctuation and prepositions. This allowed players to interact with the games in a way never before possible. Commands could be strung together not just to control the actions of the player character but with the inclusion of “SAY” directive could be issued to non player characters .

In designing the game world Megler wanted to create a place that felt more alive. Objects in the game are given a size and weight ratio which affects your ability to interact with them. You could place one object inside or on top of another. If your character was sitting on an object and that object was thrown, then your character would go with it. Another point of difference with this game and any previous text-based adventure game was that events happened in real time. If you walked away from the computer things would happen with out you. As you played each non-player character and monster had a turn when you did, meaning that many unforeseen events could occur, Elrond might kill the Warg making your journey less troublesome. Gandalf might get himself killed making that game more challenging. The set of characters actions were in part randomised but also affected by the actions of the player so attacking them was not a good idea. As was learnt by many players who became impatient with Thorin and his constant singing. At this time the expression “Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold.” entered the popular culture of gamers.

Players found “The Hobbit” constantly appealing because non-player characters existed independently. They were able to roam freely through the game-world and would not necessarily do the same thing twice. This and the games text driven physics enabled the game to be repeated and played in different ways. Due to the openness of its world, “The Hobbit” was an early game to support ‘emergent gameplay’.

“The Hobbit” was a challenging game to play requiring trial and error to progress and solve puzzles. Letters requesting assistance were sent to popular magazines who devoted columns to advising players. One player, David Elkan, wrote an entire guide to playing the game which he sent to Melbourne House who published it as a book ” A guide to playing The Hobbit” (1984).

References: ACMI Alfred Milgrom interview, 28 April 2006: Interview text provided by Alfred Milgrom 1st March 2013. , Maher, J, “The Hobbit”, The Digital Antiquarian, http://www.filfre.net/2012/11/the-hobbit/; Newman J, Simons, I (2007) 100 Videogames, BFI Screen Guides, BFI Publishing, London
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This title was first added on 17th July 2013
This title was most recently updated on 6th December 2016

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