At first, I tried to come up with a snazzy, yet witty, opening line, setting Lord of the Rings: Volume One up as a joke which would have been followed by an earth-shattering punchline.
But, and that’s the thing, the SNES L.O.T.R. game really is much more the punchline than a joke. Really. If you’ve ever wondered at the lack of Lord of the Rings-related games (at least prior to Peter Jackson’s films), then you don’t need to anymore.
There were numerous problems that led to this Volume One staying as a single product instead of one of many. The problem for it lay in the extremely large world of Middle Earth, which Interplay (yes, really)/Silicon & Synapse (Blizzard. This is not a lie. I could lie to you — it would be easy — but I’m not) tried so hard to capture. To say the dungeons are large is an unjust statement; they are absolutely massive, as are the barren fields surrounding them that house several entrances — most of which dead end — into any particular dungeon. Sounds pretty epic, until you find out that there’s only a handful of unique, visual tiles used to build each area, so a feeling of déjà vu lingers through the game like the must of a dusty (and musty!) attic. Just about every room within a dungeon looks identical, so the player easily becomes lost within the huge, disjointed labyrinths. Additionally, the game provides no maps; the end result is a starting dungeon that can literally take three to five hours of backtracking, just to find one arbitrary McGuffin in order to get a key and leave Hobbiton.
|Get used to that torch. You’ll be seeing a lot of it, and unless you’re near it, you can’t see a thing. Better get used to the the tiles, too… and the walls, enveloping darkness… everything.|
Although the dungeons were punishment, they by no means compare to the horrendous AI that controlled your team. If you were unfortunate enough to play this game as a single player, then you almost certainly would lose one, if not all, of your allies before the second dungeon one or more times. While the monsters’ AI has enemies lock onto characters and attack until said monster is defeated (not the player, though, leading to some hilarious moments after a death where the monster will continue attacking a corpse), this programmed determination is not present within any ally. I never understood what they were doing; every one of my allies would wander off in a different direction every time I entered a new map. Each map would become a race to the next map so that my idiot allies didn’t die (permanently and irreversibly, mind you) and ruin the game for me. The worst, though, wasn’t when they died; it was always when they engaged a monster because you could hear them fighting, missing, and dying. You knew it was coming, but they had wandered so far off the screen that you just couldn’t find them. Listening to their death cries was a painful, slow torture. The AI, coupled with the lack of the ability to carry more than one of any healing item, absolutely ruined any fun the game could have provided. After a point, Frodo is no longer the player’s character, so the AI takes over for him and… well, if he dies, you lose. Just awesome.
Most importantly, the game was not fun. Let’s look at that sentence carefully. A game, whose entire point is amusement, is not fun. Of course it disappeared, never to be seen again; it was horrible, and not even the kind of “hilarious” horrible from which some satisfaction can be derived. The game was frustrating because the ability to overcome its obstacles was not within the player’s control, nor was it within chance’s. You just had to hope that your characters lived until the next map. The game devolved into quickly hopping from one area to the next; if you tried to actually play the game then you almost certainly would be penalized for it; so actually attempting to play the game, as opposed to just rushing through, is heavily penalized.
Lord of the Rings: Volume One may have flown under the radar and been forgotten by gamers, but investors certainly didn’t. Unfortunately, between this game and the cartoon movie from 1978 (directed by Ralph Bakshi) a tremendous precedent was set, so that very little Lord of the Rings content was seen until after the Jackson movies, which really isn’t surprising if you think about it. Only a few attempts at bringing Lord of the Rings from text to visual mediums had been made, and save The Hobbit cartoon movie (directed by Jules Bass/Arthur Rankin Jr.), every attempt had been horrible. It posed a situation that resembled a black hole for money and effort.
Honestly, Jackson needs an infinite amount of thanks for shattering this precedent, as Middle Earth has so much to offer video games and movies. Thank you, Peter Jackson, for ignoring Lord of the Rings: Volume One and making your movies.