J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings - Volume I Review
Posted by Damien McFerran
Middle Earth is doomed
Before Peter Jackson came along and turned The Lord of the Rings into one of the most popular cinematic experiences of all time, the video game licence to J.R.R. Tolkien's literary epic was held by the now-defunct Interplay. The company pumped out related games for the Commodore Amiga computer and PC CD-ROM — the latter of which used the new medium to incorporate footage from Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated adaptation of Tolkien's sprawling fantasy.
While these attempts to bring the world of Middle Earth to life received a reasonably positive critical reception from some sectors of the gaming press, it was the much-hyped SNES version which arguably gained the most attention — primarily down to the fact that the console market presented a much wider audience but also because Interplay wasted no opportunity in boasting about how groundbreaking the title would be when it was eventually released. Following several delays, it finally hit store shelves in 1994 to a decidedly lukewarm response; the SNES was moving into its twilight years and many players were shifting their focus to the forthcoming 32-bit and 64-bit systems.
While it could be said that the timing of the game's release was unfortunate, The Lord of the Rings: Volume I suffers from its far share of problems, and these no doubt contributed to its commercial failure back in the mid-'90s. But before we charge headlong into the issues which plague this well-intended action RPG — rather like Gandalf selflessly leaping into battle with a fearsome Balrog — let's dwell on the few elements the game actually gets right.
Delivered on a 16 megabit cartridge, The Lord of the Rings: Volume I was clearly intended to be a massive, epic adventure. Much of that space is taken up by the smooth rotoscoped character animation, which is leagues ahead of any other 16-bit title you could mention — in fact, it's the most detailed animation ever seen in a SNES game, according to the back of the box. The Hobbit characters are largely palette-swaps, but Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and the other members of the Fellowship of the Ring are all unique sprites, and those additional megabits no doubt come in handy for retaining all of the potential animation frames. Although the SNES is naturally incapable of replicating the atmospheric FMV sequences seen in Interplay's PC CD-ROM forerunner, the character portraits used in the game are taken from Ralph Bakshi's aforementioned animated movie — a fact which maintains the tenuous connection between that cinematic outing and Interplay's interactive efforts.
Another element of the game which is head and shoulders above the competition is the audio. Charles Deenen's exquisite score is a joy to behold and in our humble opinion represents some of the finest music ever witnessed on the SNES. It manages to create an atmosphere which is totally suited to the subject matter; the jaunty tune which plays when you start out in Hobbiton is stirring and catchy, while the downbeat, windswept track which accompanies your trips into the wilderness manages to ramp up the tension very effectively. Other audio elements — such as the sounds made by the main characters and enemies — are less striking, but functional all the same.
Possibly taking inspiration from Secret of Mana's co-op mode, The Lord of the Rings: Volume I includes a feature which allows up to five players to take part in the quest to end Sauron's tyranny. Using a SNES Multiplayer Adapter you can each control one of the members of the Fellowship — although this can't be done from the start as you have to gradually recruit enough characters to make a social gaming session a reality. In this sense, The Lord of the Rings: Volume I feels almost like a local multiplayer forerunner to games like Monster Hunter, Phantasy Star Online and even Diablo 3; getting a team of friends together really enlivens the overall experience — and that's a good thing, because without this element The Lord of the Rings: Volume I is incredibly hard to enjoy.
This is largely down to the fact that it's essentially a selection of disconnected fetch quests which do little more than test your patience. You're forever being asked to find lost items, collect a certain number of gems or track down a particular character. These tasks have little to no link with the original novels and come across as a fairly lazy way of extended the game's longevity. Some of them are downright silly — for example, members of the Fellowship are recruited by running errands for them. This in itself is totally nonsensical within the context of the story, where a helpless and vulnerable Hobbit is entrusted with transporting the ultimate weapon across a hostile land. Surely the heroic figures in the tale aren't so selfish that Frodo has to pacify them by tracking down lost trinkets before they will aid his noble venture? Fans of Tolkien's epic tale will no doubt facepalm themselves into oblivion when they first meet the legendary Aragorn, only to be told that he can't possibly escort you on your perilous quest to save the world because he really needs you to enter a forest packed with enemies to pick a flower for him. Has the heir of Isildur really turned into a petulant child? In the eyes of the game's designers, it would appear so.
What makes all of this even more painful is that the game has no in-game mapping system. Maps for a selection of the game's dungeons were included in the instruction manual when it was first released, but in the twenty years that have elapsed since then many of these will have been lost. With no way of knowing where you've explored previously, combing every inch of the game's many caves to find items that are essential to your progress is an experience that many will rank alongside root canal surgery without anaesthetic and having fingernails removed with a hot poker. It's hard to conceive how any game designer could have possibly believed that such an arrangement would be enjoyable for players.
Moving away from the abysmal game design, things aren't helped by an awkward combat system which restricts you to moving in just four directions. By 1994 most decent action RPGs had mastered the art of eight-way movement, and as a result The Lord of the Rings: Volume I feels hopelessly clunky and outdated. Lining up successful blows on enemies is usually a case of watching for their 90 degree turn and then moving out of the way before landing a blow as they pass harmlessly by. Issues with the controls also frustrate; when you're not playing with friends the other characters are left in the not-at-all-capable hands of the AI. Thankfully you can assume control and manually influence their movement, and as your party grows in size this becomes essential. Allies often get stuck behind walls or wander off-screen to their doom. The whole process quickly becomes an infuriating exercise in micro-management as you valiantly fumble with the controls in the vain hope of keeping your rag-tag bunch of heroes alive. The option to use the SNES mouse doesn't really help matters, either — this is a game that barely works with its default joypad control system, so introducing another just makes matters worse.
Visually the game is a disappointment, too. The impact of the superb animation is diminished by the uninspiring character designs, which boast little in the way of detail or colour. Backgrounds are slightly better — Hobbiton looks just like you imagined it when you read the original book and the cold and desolate wastelands possess an eerie quality — but the caverns you explore all look identical, and after a few hours you'll notice that all of the other locations are basically the same, too. The colour brown is everywhere, and on the whole the game lacks the visual punch you'd associate with a SNES game from the middle of the '90s.
Given that it's based on one of the most famous literary creations of all time, it's also puzzling how little story there actually is in this game. Aside from the somewhat lengthy intro, you've given next to no indication of what's actually going on — presumably because the designers assumed you'd already know from the original books. At least this SNES outing does one thing that neither Ralph Bakshi or Peter Jackson were capable of — it features Tom Bombadil, although his inclusion here makes about as much sense as it does in the original book.
The final nail in the coffin for The Lord of the Rings: Volume I is the lack of a battery back-up save system — instead, you need to painstakingly note down passwords and then input them later on to continue your adventure where you left off. Ironically, this system is actually a benefit when playing the game almost two decades later, as it means you don't have to replace the cart's internal battery — which will be reaching the end of its operational life round about now. However, that doesn't make the process any less annoying or irksome, and to be brutally honest a dead battery would present the ideal excuse to not bother playing the game in the first place.
The Lord of the Rings: Volume I promised so much prior to its release in 1994. Magazine previews spoke of a revolutionary adventure with peerless visuals and incredible gameplay — a title to challenge the likes of The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past and the countless other action RPGs available on the SNES. The final product was in fact a million miles away from what was originally mooted and ranks as one of the most bitterly disappointing uses of Tolkien's world in the realm of interactive entertainment.
There are faint glimmers of quality here; the soundtrack is wonderful and almost worth enduring the pain of the gameplay in order to sample. There are also moments when you're able to ignore the pointless fetch quests and get a feel for what it would be like to journey through The Shire on your risky mission. However, these moments are few and far between, trampled and lost amid the downright broken game design, terrible controls, laughable AI and almost non-existent plot. Tolkien was famously very sceptical about media adaptations of his work; it's likely that almost two decades after it was first released, he's still spinning in his grave about the disaster that is The Lord of the Rings: Volume I.