The year was 2002. Peter Jackson was about to release the second instalment in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, EA had bagged the rights to the video game adaptations of the films and Vivendi was just about to release its own console adaptation, not of the New Line Cinema property, but adapted directly from the Tolkien-penned source material.
It is hardly a hot take to say that the motion picture trilogy is fantastic. The fellowship is perfectly cast, Howard Shore’s score stands up today as one of the greatest of all time, and each film efficiently serves Tolkien’s original work through the scope of their worldbuilding. Though even with a combined runtime just short of 12 hours (extended editions, of course), the films could never really capture the entirety of the world about which Tolkien had written.
This presented a considerable challenge for not only the filmmakers but also for video games developers, whether they were aping the films' treatment of the source or steering clear for rights reasons. Vivendi (publishing under its Black Label Games label) needed to make a game that would do Tolkien's world justice. While the bigger versions of The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring on Xbox, Playstation 2, and PC took the conventional action-adventure route, some serious adaptation was required to fit the Game Boy Advance’s significantly reduced hardware capabilities. Vivendi needed a smaller style of game to fit Tolkien’s massive world, and — with developer Pocket Studios at the helm — settled on an RPG with turn-based battles.
There is no doubt that with the dominance of action gaming at the time, the team would not have hesitated to make a 'Lord of the Rings: Legolas' Archery Battle' FPS if they had the means. However, considering the prominence of role-playing and D&D in the fantasy landscape, and the success that the GBA would go on to have with titles such as Fire Emblem, Sword of Mana and (later) Final Fantasy VI Advance, the decision to go RPG for the portable game seems obvious today. A cast of nine heroes sent on a journey through a huge world rich with lore and battles? Of course, an RPG is the way to go! Turn-based combat could only serve to benefit this system further, showing off the unique skills and potential of each character. The heroes near enough present us with a skill card at various moments during the films for crying out loud: ‘We dwarves are dangerous over a short distance!’
And yet, looking back over the franchise’s console games on the 20th anniversary of Vivendi’s Fellowship of the Ring (the GBA and Xbox versions), we can’t help but ask, where are all the LOTR RPGs?
Perhaps the GBA game Vivendi ended up releasing soured developers of console titles on the idea. The RPG may seem to be the perfect format for the series on paper, but – as this writer found when attempting to personalise his GBA with biro in the early 2000s – a Game Boy is not paper.
Leaning (through necessity) into the source material, GBA's Fellowship of the Ring was supposed to provide a Tolkien fan’s interpretation which many felt the films did not capture. On this count, it failed. Full of bugs and with a combat system in which the player had to watch each of their party make the slow journey from starting position, to enemy, and back again before getting to make their next move, the game was, in simple Took terms, broken. (Check out the end of the video above to see what we mean).
But this is not to say that there weren’t plenty of good ideas in the GBA title. The turn-based combat is perfectly suited to a party of nine clearly defined heroes and the ability to upgrade characters’ stats is straight out of Tolkien’s fantasy wheelhouse – Mithril anyone?
Looking back 20 years, perhaps navigating the landscape of Lord of the Rings to create a great RPG on Game Boy Advance was going to be as difficult as a Hobbit’s trek through the snowy peaks of Caradhras. EA had the rights to the film-to-video game adaptations and it was taking a very different approach, with hack-and-slash style gameplay. A more accessible playstyle and explicit links to the big screen stories — not to mention a far better quality product across the board — meant EA’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (released the same year) and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King were far better critically and commercially received on both GBA and GameCube, promoting that real-time action-focused gameplay as the way to approach Middle Earth in video games.
The stickiness of this approach can still be felt today on consoles, with 2014's Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor and 2017's Shadow of War continuing EA’s sword-swinging into Tolkien's world, with the innovative and intricate Nemesis system helping to set those games apart from more typical action-slashers. Heck, there’s even an argument to be made that the likes of Skyrim and Elden Ring continue this exploration-based model of fantasy gameplay, wearing their Middle Earth connections proudly on their chainmail-covered sleeves.
However, even considering its mainstream success with more action-focused games, EA itself couldn't resist the pull of the turn-based format, and released Lord of the Rings: The Third Age on GBA and GameCube in 2004, and the very similar Lord of the Rings: Tactics on PSP in 2005. As tactical RPGs, EA's two post-film releases substituted the exploration value for a more strategic model (see the video above). This meant that while the games may not have been completely tied to the film's narratives (you can play as the Witch King of Angmar in Helm's Deep, for example), it proved that the battles of Middle Earth are a dream coupling with the (S)RPG's penchant for planning, experimentation, and pummelling grotesque creatures.
EA's RPG efforts were better received than Vivendi's Fellowship, and capitalised on something which seemed obvious: Middle Earth is ripe with turn-based potential, tactical or otherwise.
Cast your elf eyes over the state of LOTR console gaming today and the post-Shadow of Mordor RPG drought is plain to see, though the time for one to be made has never been better. The genre has never been more popular, Lord of the Rings continues to be huge – thanks, Bezos – and turn-based combat has evolved well beyond the pitfalls of attack, *extended animation*, receive, *extended animation*, repeat. Fellowship's devs might have looked to Dragon Quest, or Final Fantasy, or EarthBound, or any number of classic '90s RPGs for pointers, but then we don't imagine Pocket Studios had much time or a Bezos-sized budget to work with.
Perhaps now that Embracer Group owns the rights to Lord of the Rings in its entirety *shivers* change could be on the horizon. It's true, seeing a huge IP such as Middle Earth being subsumed by a conglomeration structure isn't necessarily pleasant, and yet, as Gandalf so keenly notes, "It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not." Perhaps opening up the rights of Middle Earth to Embracer's 127 games companies (according to Wikipedia's last count) will encourage the tides to change and shift away from EA's more risk-averse approach.
The model is already there if you look into the wider gaming world. Since the release of Pocket Studio's Fellowship, tactical gameplay has been applied to Middle Earth by the Cave Troll-carried bucketload, though they have steered away from consoles like a Nazgûl to water. Lord of the Rings: War, Journeys in Middle Earth and countless others have each continued The Third Age's tactical approach to the franchise on mobile, and Lord of the Rings: Online brings the open world aspect to PC in a full-on MMORPG.
Looking at the shards of Narsil, it is clear that there is a great sword in there somewhere, though in its current state you wouldn’t want to take it into battle. So, too, might we look on these other non-console titles alongside Vivendi’s old GBA Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring – all the pieces are there to make a fantastic Middle Earth RPG, all that is required is the skilled hand of an elven swordsmith (or game developer, whoever has the earliest availability) to reforge it into something new. And, preferably, available on Switch.
Just like Gandalf, peering over his scrolls in wizard-y ring revision, we could look to something like Live A Live as a prime example of what a Fellowship-inspired Middle Earth game could be in 2022. Those turn-based battles, using Live A Live's hybrid grid system, would be astonishing with members of the Fellowship. Wielding a sword and torch while fighting Nazgûl on Weathertop? Yes, please! And the HD-2D style could be the perfect way to reference the original game whilst getting rid of all of its flaws — if you were desperate to polish up an unloved game from 20 years ago, that is. Hey, remakes are all the rage, right?
But why not push this idea further? Frodo didn’t make it to the fires of Mount Doom by dreaming small, oh no, let’s think about the bigger picture here. What about a push into SRPG territory in which you play as King Theoden and control the field at the battle of Helm’s Deep? With the boom in mainstream tactical RPG production following the rejuvenating success of Fire Emblem: Awakening in the West, you would think that a Lord of the Rings tactics game would be a dead cert by now.
Alas, on consoles, they are few and far between. Be it down to Fellowship's failures or (more likely) Shadow of Mordor's success, the genre to which LOTR should be married has long been left on the bottom of a Middle Earth riverbed, waiting for an inquisitive hand to brush across it.
But what do you make of all this? Is Lord of the Rings in desperate need of an RPG makeover on console? Or would it make even more marvellous musou material? Need more LEGO LOTR?
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