This Saturday (September 22) was “Hobbit Day,” the shared birthday of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins. I might not have noticed, but the marketing for the movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey made a big deal out of it being “Tolkien Week,” releasing a new trailer and asking via their facebook page what people were doing to celebrate Hobbit Day. Since it was a Saturday and I’m always up for a random reason to celebrate, (I once threw an elvish party on Orlando Bloom’s birthday, and an Australia-themed party on Australia Day which involved watching movies set down under), I decided to celebrate by eating second breakfast and playing the Vivendi Universal video game The Hobbit on Gamecube.
I may have slept in too late to have what could really be considered “second breakfast,” but it at least counted as “elevensies.” And I did manage to play The Hobbit up to the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter, so I covered nearly as much ground as I predict the first film will. Plus I was barefoot, so, it was a pretty good Hobbit Day. Could have used more theme foods, but maybe next year I’ll have more time to prepare.
I was excited about re-playing The Hobbit because I remembered it fondly as my favorite video game, the first RPG that I played all the way through. (I didn’t grow up with any gaming consoles, so until college I only played snippets at friends’ houses.) In re-playing I discovered that it isn’t quite so perfect, but still very enjoyable, with the best video-game music I’d heard before I played Skyrim. The game music for The Hobbit actually won “Best Original Soundtrack of the Year” in 2004.
The drawbacks to this game that I either forgot or didn’t recognize the first time I played include not having any maps to refer to, so if you stray from the courage-point-gemstone-led path it’s very easy to become lost for extended periods of time. I guess Bilbo didn’t have a map for all of his burgling either, but I was jumping to a ledge so I could fight some goblins to get to the next save pedestal in a cave, and missed, sliding down the cave wall to a level below. It took at least thirty minutes to find my way up again without a map or courage points leading the way. It was extremely frustrating, and leads me to another drawback of this game-not enough save pedestals! Maybe that’s just supposed to be part of the challenge, but you can’t save unless you’re at a save pedestal, and sometimes they are few and far between, meaning I had to keep re-killing the same goblins over and over and jumping up and down the same paths because I would die before I could reach the next save opportunity. Also annoying is the fact that you can’t go back and re-play a level; when you get to the end of a level your stats tell you if you missed any chests, coins, or loot, but you can’t tell while you’re in the level if you’ve found them all or not and you can’t go back to re-play once you find out you’ve missed some. (Maybe that is just another challenge and I’m too accustomed to relying on game hints). Finally, the camera angles are super-irritating; they change in the middle of your movements and make it difficult to maneuver since the joystick direction depends on the camera angle. If you’re in a corner it’s sometimes impossible to get the camera behind you to look ahead, and you have to sort of jump blind or at an awkward view and hope you don’t miss.
The things that I love about this game far outweigh the frustrations, (except in those moments where I am being defeated by some foe or falling off an edge, in which case I temporarily scream that it sucks, until I go back and vanquish the same foe or difficult jump and then I’m back to thinking it’s awesome. So maybe I am not the most emotionally stable and rational person when I’m playing a game.) I love that the tone is a light-hearted, yet at times dangerous adventure, just like the book. The music does a lot to help set the tone, and as I’ve mentioned it is fantastic. I love that part of the game is solving puzzles, sneaking around and “picking locks”, like a good Hobbit burglar.
I love that you can use your walking staff to sort of pole-vault into a long jump, and you don’t immediately drown if you hit the water. (You can’t swim, but sometimes you can hop out or onto a rock if you’re fast enough. If it’s too deep, you die rather gruesomely–poor Biblo struggles and then leans his head back, eyes closed, and opens his mouth when he drowns.) I love that you can climb, up some cliffs if they have vines hanging, and you can hang on ledges by your fingertips and creep along them scooting one hand at a time while hanging. I love that you get to use Sting as light in dark caves, and use the Ring to sneak invisibly past foes after you acquire it. (The Ring has a time limit, which is good because otherwise the second half of the game would hardly be a challenge). I love the choices in weapons–you start out with just your walking staff, but later acquire throwing rocks and the sword Sting. The staff has a longer reach, Sting does more damage, and the rocks are a distance weapon. Sometimes you can use flaming or freezing rocks for special attacks.
I’m currently at a stage in the game where I’m trying to sneak past and/or fight goblins, and it made me realize how differently I think of the same “type” of creatures within different stories. In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, goblins are the enemy, they’ll kill you if you don’t kill them. But in the Harry Potter universe, goblins run the wizard bank Gringotts. They have an uneasy history with wizards, but they aren’t goons grunting around in caves. And in The Hobbit, there’s a whole company of heroic dwarves, while dwarves are hardly mentioned in Harry Potter. There are several dwarves in The Chronicles of Narnia, but I don’t remember any goblins. It’s funny how some fantasy elements are universals, but still re-defined in each story.
To give you an idea of what gameplay in The Hobbit looks like, here’s video of someone playing part of the first level, “An Unexpected Party.” The music for this part in the Shire might be my favorite in the whole game.
I expect there will be new Hobbit video games made in the next few years to go along with the movies, but I think I’ll always prefer this version. Despite the drawbacks, it’s truly a delight to play.