Review by Alecto

"The OTHER Lord of the Rings game"

Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings have earned well-deserved praise and respect from just about everyone except nit-picking Tolkien purists. However, some of us may remember the other LotR film, made in 1978 by Ralph Bakshi. This version was pretty much universally derided and despised by both critics and Tolkien fans alike. The Lord of the Rings: Volume 1 for the Super Nintendo is the videogame equivalent of the Bakshi movie. The other Lord of the Rings videogame.

The game’s connections to the atrocious 1978 film run far deeper than the fact that the characters’ head-shots are modelled after those from the movie. Like the film, this game is a shallow and confusing mess of hackneyed plot strands, glaring continuity errors, and woefully ill-advised use of “creative license.” But being a videogame, the agony does not stop where it did in the film version, and is instead extended to include poor gameplay, control, graphics, and level design as well. The combination of annoyances in this game insults not only Tolkien fans, but RPG fans, SNES owners, and gamers in general.

The game spans the first part of Tolkien’s trilogy, opening with Bilbo’s infamous eleventy-first birthday party in Hobbiton and taking us through to Moria before abruptly ending. (Ambitiously titled “Volume 1,” the game did not actually get a sequel. Thankfully.) Now granted, the first book of the Lord of the Rings isn’t the most exciting read; the pacing is leisurely and much of the story takes place in the insular land of the Hobbits -- a simple and pastoral people who actually go out of their way to avoid anything remotely resembling adventure.

This is not the easiest material to base a videogame on, but surely Tolkien’s world is nevertheless rich enough that if the developers had cared a little more, they could have coaxed a decent role-playing scenario out of it. Instead, they fell into the trap of simplification and skimming, and turned Tolkien’s compelling universe into a dull and ridiculous farce that exploits every bad RPG stereotype in the book.

Frodo begins the game in Hobbiton, as the bearer of the One Ring who must make his way to Bree to meet the wizard Gandalf, and then to Rivindell, where the fate of Middle Earth is to be decided at the Council of Elrond. Frodo’s situation is quite dire: if the Ring should fall into the hands of the Dark Lord Sauron, or his evil minions, the Nazgul, all that is good in Middle Earth will perish. Unfortunately, I am able to fill in this back-story only because I have read the books. The game does nothing to communicate the gravity of Frodo’s situation, and in fact most of the pointless hoops you are made to jump through as part of the “plot” give the impression that Frodo has all the time in the world to carefreely traipse around the countryside running pointless errands.

The companions who make up the famous Fellowship of the Ring will all join Frodo at some point (except for Boromir who apparently isn’t important enough to exist in the game), although many of them do not seem very enthusiastic about the idea. For example, Samwise the Hobbit refuses to accompany Frodo unless Frodo can find and return a pair of eyeglasses to Sam’s father. The fate of Middle Earth hangs in the balance, but Sam won’t leave until his ol’ Gaffer gets his glasses back. Aragorn, whom Frodo encounters in the town of Bree, also refuses to join the Hobbits initially. This makes no sense at all, since in the books, Gandalf had sent Aragorn specifically to guard the Hobbits with his life and escort them safely to Rivindell. But no, our brave ranger, who is supposedly an expert of the wilderness, foolishly sends a bunch of hobbits out into a forest crawling with Nazgul and orcs to find a flower for him. Legolas, too, comes off as an incompetent twit. The party comes across him in a forest searching for his bow, which he dropped somewhere! Predictably, it must be found and returned to him before he will join. Gimli is found lurking around the entrance to the Mines of Moria, like some homeless squatter.

As each new companion joins the party, he trails behind Frodo and is controlled by the computer, although it is possible to switch between the companions with a single controller, or plug in another controller and have a second person control a secondary character. Characters frequently wander off and die, or get stuck on the scenery and get left behind. Fighting is done in real-time as opposed to implementing a turn-based battle system, and unfortunately the AI is so poor that the characters are awful fighters if left to their own devices. Once a character dies, they cannot be resurrected. You must either continue on in the game without them, thus destroying all plot continuity, restart the game from the beginning, or restore from a previous location using a cumbersome password system.

Negotiating the companions is a pain to begin with, even in open ground, but it becomes a masochistic ordeal whenever a special area is entered. Each important area in the game, such as the Barrow Downs, Moria, and various caves, are gigantic labyrinths, each one more hellish and confusing than the last. The instruction booklet came with maps to these mazes; without them, there is absolutely no point. Unfortunately, every nook and cranny of these awful places must be explored, because they contain “key items” that are needed later on in the game. If even one key item is missed, you will be unable to continue past certain areas. For example, the party can’t enter Rivindell unless they have a letter from some woman named Beth in Bree. Also, they need all five “gateway gems” to be able to enter the final dungeon. If you missed one along the way…well, it pretty much sucks to be you.

I cannot emphasize enough the stupidity and pointlessness of these fetch-quests. They are used in every capacity as an excuse for failing to come up with cogent ways to advance the plot. The council of Elrond, one of the most important and pivotal moments in the books, is non-existent in this game. Basically, Frodo is allowed to continue as the ring-bearer because he has collected a bunch of keys, amulets, and scrolls along the way. Elrond doesn’t really believe that Frodo has what it takes to be the ring-bearer, but Frodo is able to change Elrond’s mind by finding six amulets that are inexplicably scattered around the forest. Some of the quests will just make your head spin. Early in the game, you have to cross the Brandywine River, but the oarsman has lost his oar. To get the oar, you have to take a jar of honey to Farmer Maggot, who will give you the oar. To get the honey, you have to find a hobbit named Ted Sandyman, and give him a bottle of Shire Juice. Then, instead of just giving you the honey, he’ll tell you he dropped it somewhere in the forest and you have to find it. After searching, you’ll come across the honey. It’s actually right in front of Farmer Maggot’s house. Are we foaming at the mouth yet?

Another eerie similarity between this game and the Bakshi movie is that its only saving grace is the music. But the pleasant, orchestrally-scored Celtic soundtrack is like a small seedling trying bravely but futilely to struggle out from under the giant concrete slab of crap that has been slapped down on top of it. Graphically, the game is also a disappointment. The dungeons and caves are impossibly dark, dreary, and lacking detail. In an unfortunate decision, the main enemy in these caves are bats, which, being black, blend in almost perfectly with the background so that they are often impossible to see until it’s too late and they have already attacked and flown away again. Much of the overworld is screen upon screen of bland forest. The most disappointing thing about the graphics, however, was the carelessness taken with the character sprites themselves. Each of the four hobbits are actually the same sprite, simply given different colored cloaks to differentiate between them.

I was expecting a certain amount of frustration going into this game. It is, afterall, one that is hardly looked back on as a classic. However, I was willing to put up with certain gameplay faults because it was The Lord of the Rings, and we fans will get our Tolkien fix wherever we can. In the end, after being proven virtually unplayable to the casual gamer, the game fails even to satisfy the fans who may have been willing to tough it out to the end. Besides the fact that certain names are familiar from the books, the game is an inaccurate and incomplete portrayal of Tolkien’s universe. Tolkien’s plot is destroyed, his universe cheapened, and his heroes degraded. For shame.


Reviewer's Score: 2/10 | Originally Posted: 02/01/03, Updated 05/06/03


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