There’s no shortage of franchises, across the vast world of multimedia entertainment, that have tried to translate their success into a video game tie-in. Look at the huge pile of Star Wars games, for instance, or the sizeable stack of superhero games on the horizon.
While these releases will usually coincide with a blockbuster film or TV series, occasionally we get to experience the magic of our favorite franchises in video game form before Hollywood gets its hands on it. A great example of such a franchise is the work of J.R.R Tolkien, which has enchanted the imaginations of readers since before video games were even a thing.
Today, we are going to journey across six iterations of Lord of the Rings video games, exploring how each title brought Tolkien’s vision of Middle-earth into the hands of gamers…
The Tolkien Software Adventure Trilogy
1982 | Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum
While trying to explain text adventures and microcomputers to a modern-day gamer might be a bit like showing a spaniel a card trick, it’s important to look at the humble beginnings of franchise-based video games. Microcomputers such as the Commodore 64 are where it all began for digital Middle-earth, with the release of The Hobbit Sofware Adventure in 1982.
The Hobbit by Beam Software was the first of four titles to be released on microcomputers of the time, with each game covering part of the LOTR saga. As you might expect, fancy visuals and audio have no power here, with the player’s imagination and ability to read being the key parts of the experience. If you’re unfamiliar with the text adventure genre, the player is essentially given a description of the scenario that they’re in, which then requires an appropriate command to be typed in response. The best modern-day example of this is the Black Mirror episode “Bandersnatch,” which features a similar text adventure, albeit with more psychological trauma.
The Hobbit was followed by another 3 titles by Beam Software: The Fellowship of the Ring, Shadows of Mordor (No, not THAT game), and The Crack of Doom. Each title also included its accompanying paperback novel as an added bonus, which was a fantastic way to introduce new fans of the time to the franchise. Meanwhile, here in 2019, a simple manual with your game is like finding a golden ticket in your chocolate bar.
You may have noticed a heavy emphasis on referring to these titles as software, which is probably wise considering it’s a text adventure. In terms of excitement, these games can’t really hold a candle to the arcade adrenaline rush that was in vogue back in the ’80s. However, this format is a perfect starting point for adapting a beloved work of fantasy into an interactive format, without doing anything silly, like turning it into a spaceship shooter. Despite the only visuals in the game looking like a Microsoft Paint masterpiece, the actual interactive functionality and depth of content within these games were the perfect way to experience Tolkien’s fantasy epic at the time.
The Lord of the Rings Vol. 1
1994 | SNES
As we leave behind the horrors of cassette and floppy disk load times and move onto the luxurious world of ’90s video games, we also get to experience the birth of LOTR action-adventure games. Produced by Interplay Productions, The Lord of the Rings Vol. 1 is an action RPG for the SNES, which resembles the likes of Secret of Mana.
The graphics weren’t exactly cutting edge and the gameplay itself left a lot to be desired, but in terms of its presentation and atmospheric soundtrack, this was a great start in terms of introducing gamers to Tolkien’s work. Not to mention this game supports four-player co-op via a multitap adapter, which allows players to take on the role of various iconic characters such as Frodo, Samwise, Legolas, and Gimli.
For a game based solely on works of literature, Interplay did a fairly good job of converting it into an action-adventure. The 16-bit world painted in this title does a good job of assisting the imaginations of gamers, who didn’t have much imagery to draw from until the dawn of Peter Jackson’s films.
The Fellowship of the Ring
2002 | PS2, Xbox, PC
Considering that the first New Line Cinema film based on LOTR was released in 2001, you’d assume that the officially licensed game was based on said film, right? Well, no actually, the 2002 Fellowship of the Ring game published by Vivendi Universal is yet another title based solely on the original book.
Featuring an action-adventure style, with a similar feel to the likes of Fable, this title features practically the same story as the first film, with certain sequences having an uncanny similarity. Many great adventure game aspects reside within this adaptation: item collection, puzzles, stealth, and combat all make the experience feel like a true video game translation.
The game’s story itself does do an adequate job of telling the story of Frodo’s departure from The Shire, yet was perhaps at the mercy of being compared to the films, which were ground-breaking for the franchise, after all. Let’s be honest, we know the difference between Ian McKellen and the voice of Professor Utonium from The Powerpuff Girls (No offense to Tom Kane).
For those unaware that this game wasn’t associated with the films, it’s likely that the rich environments and adventure style gameplay gave players a chance to walk merrily across Middle-earth in the bare feet of familiar characters.
The Two Towers/Return of the King
2002 | PS2, Xbox, GC
Despite Vivendi’s LOTR title being released just months before, EA also managed to get their hands on the license, with the added bonus of being able to make games associated to the films. Debuting in 2002, the movie-based titles featured less adventuring and more action, with core aspects of the gameplay being based around wiping out hordes of enemies during movie sequences.
While these games are definitely an effort to immerse players into the films, rather than the books, they still serve as a great way to deliver an interactive version of Middle-earth’s conflicts. Strangely, The Two Towers covers events that took place in the first film, which is perhaps down to the fact that EA couldn’t make a whole game based on that part of the story.
The following title, Return of the King, uses the same mechanics and style established in EA’s first title, which proved to be popular. Luckily, the series managed to avoid the stigma associated with movie games (i.e. that they’re cash grabs), with legitimately fun gameplay and a respectful translation of the original story.
2003 | PS2, GC
It may have taken until 2012 to finally get a film adaptation of the first part of Tolkien’s epic fantasy, yet this didn’t stop our old friends Vivendi Universal from taking matters into their own hands. Even though Vivendi first Middle-earth title failed to make the impact it desired, Inevitable Entertainment teamed up with Vivendi to create The Hobbit in action-adventure form.
This cutesy adventure featuring Bilbo Baggins bears a resemblance to The Fellowship of the Ring, with some slight changes, such as a more light-hearted aesthetic, faster movement, and a more fluid approach to combat. The developers also took some liberties with the dialogue and voice acting, being more confident in their approach, rather than repeating the first game’s attempt to sound like the movie actors.
It’s easy to compare action-adventure titles like The Hobbit to others in the genre, but for what it’s worth, this game is an amazing way to experience Tolkien’s fantasy prelude. With its colorful environments, quirky characters, and enjoyable gameplay, The Hobbit is a refreshing way to delve into the story of The Lonely Mountain without having to endure unsettling CGI.
The Lord of the Rings Online
2007 | PC
Most major movie franchises have tried their hands at MMO titles. While many of these attempts have failed to capture the success of juggernauts like World of Warcraft, with Lord of the Rings Online, a combination of a beloved world and a dedicated fanbase has managed to keep the game alive since its release in 2007.
The game features many of the MMO tropes that you’re familiar with, yet it puts emphasis on placing the player into the shoes of a citizen of Middle-earth during the third age, which matches up to the events of the novels. Unlike a lot of MMO and sandbox games, LOTR Online draws its attraction from having rich lore and landscapes that have already been established, which does well for attracting new players. The fact that this game is also now free to play means that players can experience a big portion of Middle-earth without the need to splash out.
There are numerous games that we haven’t mentioned among these six key titles, and honorable mentions should go to the LEGO-themed games and the likes of Shadow of Mordor. Certainly, gamers aren’t short of access to one of the best fantasy stories ever told. And with the recent announcement of Daedalic Entertainment’s action-adventure game about Gollum, we can be sure that Middle-earth will stay in the palms of gamers for many years to come…