We look through some of the iconic releases and moments in the LOTR gaming franchise
The Lord of the Rings franchise has spawned many games. So many in fact, that to find the first ever, we have to look to The Hobbit, which launched in 1982 for home computers including ZX Spectrum, BBC and Commodore 64.
Of course, purists will say this entry doesn’t count as it’s The Hobbit and not based on the seminal trilogy by Tolkien. But if we say that the first Middle-earth game was The Hobbit, then gamers have been experiencing an interactive version of the fantasy world for almost 40 years!
Across those decades players have seen vast technological shifts, moving from text-based titles, through to 2D graphics and into the realms of 3D. Then, of course, came the record-breaking movies from Peter Jackson, which gave games developers yet another facet of Middle-earth to play with.
And we’re not even done! Soon we’ll be controlling Gollum in a game from Daedalic, and we wouldn’t be surprised if more games are shown after the debut of Amazon’s LotR TV show.
Some may say that The Lord of the Rings hype never truly dies down, but we’d like to stoke the hype train for Gollum by looking back at the storied history of these games.
The 2D era
It all started much like the novels, with words. In the early and mid-1980s games rarely used much in the way of imagery - even when they did, they often appeared in few colours and built from large pixels. This forced developers to construct games as text-based adventures.
These games would give the player a narrative prompt, describing a room or landscape, sometimes a stand-off between characters. Players would then need to type what they wanted to do using a list of words.
For example, ‘Search Chest’ or ‘Look’ would make the character take this action and the game narrates the outcome. This is how players experienced ‘Lord of the Rings: Game One’ in 1985.
In this era of games, there were a couple of Lord of the Rings text-based games for home computers. But, as we all know, technology moves fast and in 1988 ‘War in Middle-earth’ was released for home computers and switched from text to a fully realised graphical real-time-strategy game.
Players could command units inspired by the humans, dwarves, and elves in Tolkien’s world through battle. At the dawn of the 1990s, home gaming stepped up yet again and gamers weren’t going to be happy with basic graphics and a shallow version of Middle-earth.
It was at this point when Interplay launched a Role-Playing Game (RPG), where players would explore in a top-down view, meeting the well-loved cast of the books. Interplay was looking at the gaming sphere as a whole to bring the world ‘J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Vol. I’; pulling from other popular RPGs, ‘Vol. 1’ used turn-based battles for the epic fights.
The graphics became more detailed; the action felt closer to our imaginations, and, at the time, nobody could imagine Middle-earth coming to life better than it was shown on home computers.
Towards the middle of the 90s the rights to creating videogames based on Tolkien’s property expired and languished for eight years. In that time, gaming jumped several generations and from two dimensions to three.
The shift to 3D
As the millennium turned, several companies battled over those rights. However, they were looking at two separate properties: the rights to the novels, and the rights to the upcoming film trilogy by Peter Jackson.
This would eventually mean that many games would come out with very similar names, and even genres. So, in 2002, the rights to The Lord of the Rings novels found themselves at Sierra games, who began making both strategy games and also 3D action adventures. ‘Lord of the Rings: War of the Ring’ was a deep RTS in the vein of Warcraft.
Critics and players were generally impressed; the game allowed for a deep dive into the source material, with a heavy focus on the large-scale battles and wars between good and evil.
‘Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings’ which released the previous year was a very different beast and one we’d be more familiar with nowadays; a third-person action game of swinging swords and besting beasts. However, it was a messy and convoluted release.
Not only did the game miss the mark, compared to other 3D actions games, but it muddied the waters of adaptations and confused consumers. This game was based on the first of Tolkien’s novels, but in the same year EA launched ‘The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers’ fully adorned with Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom, ushering in a series of games based directly on Peter Jackson’s trilogy. Phew!
It’s still pretty confusing now, looking back. The intellectual rights opened a can of worms. On one hand we had PC strategy games drawing from the novels, on the other we had hack-and-slash cinematic adventures trying to match the box office juggernaut.
And then suddenly swerving from left-field came a developer called Turbine, who, using the big money of Warner Bros, Codemasters and Midway, released an MMO - Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar, in 2007.
If there was ever a genre of gaming which would be a perfect fit for the sprawling fantasy of Middle-earth, surely it was the MMORPG. LotR: Online was a series of firsts; it was the first foray into the Massively Multiplayer world; it was the first game to truly immerse the player within Middle-earth across eight expansions (right up to 2021!) and it was the first property which explored what was happening outside of the fellowship.
LotR: Online was set ‘during the years of the trilogy’ rather than during the events with the characters we already knew. Across the fourteen years in which the game has been online players were tasked with creating their own personal character who would interact in quests around the large events of the books and films.
Of course, this couldn’t last forever. There's only so much material from the trilogy in which players could orbit. Sauron and his cadre of nasties had to, as the source material dictates, fall to the fellowship.
So, what would the players in this online realm do next?
In 2019, the expansion, Minas Morgal, was released and fans got to step outside of the most famous events and into the age after the defeat of Sauron. The MMO had left behind years of quests tied to what readers and cinema goers had seen countless times before and a new age had dawned.
Players and critics were enthralled with this new material, and it breathed new life into not only the game, but also the world of Middle-earth.
The Peter Jackson effect
The MMO was strictly a PC affair, and it became so large that few other games were released within the Lord of the Rings franchise. Over on console, things took a bit of a different turn.
Known for their expertise in action games, EA were pumping out titles almost yearly, and all of them were set within a new version of the famed books, a cinematic universe. The Peter Jackson movies are not only brilliant, but for many, they were the first foray into Middle-earth.
EA leapt onto this with gusto and over a span of seven years they pumped out a game per year. All set within the ‘Peter Jackson universe’, which meant likenesses of the actors and actresses who graced the silver screen.
There were all-out action games such as ‘The Two Towers’ and ‘The Return of the King’; plus strategy games adapted for controller play, with ‘The Third Age’ and ‘The Battle for Middle-earth’ (and its sequel).
The reign of EA ended in 2009 with their final game, ‘Lord of the Rings: Conquest’ which gave players a chance to go to war in a similar style to the successful Star Wars game, Battlefront. Interestingly, this game allowed Sauron to ‘win’ and stop Frodo from destroying the ring, which allowed him to hold onto his power.
Not sure what Tolkien would think of that one!
More and more hack-and-slash games came out after EA handed over control to Warner Bros. Most were received with middling praise, and it felt as if players were getting a little bored of the franchise. Which is hardly surprising given that by 2012 over 30 games had been delivered to the public. It was going to take some outside thinking and a little ingenuity in order to recapture the audience.
The modern era
Enter two games - polar opposites to one another - which revitalised the franchise. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and LEGO Lord of the Rings.
These games couldn’t be more different. One is a cute and often funny approach by the plastic brick monolith and the other is a gritty brawler known for its deep and original systems.
Now, we hear those purists again… technically Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and Middle-earth: Shadow of War aren’t Lord of the Rings property – it’s not based on any story Tolkien told. But perhaps that’s what made it so popular.
It was a huge departure for the franchise and one that was universally praised and respected. This was in part down to the Nemesis system, which used AI to remember player actions towards characters and hostiles, which delivered a more immersive experience.
But it was also just a great action game telling a compelling narrative. Over at Traveller’s Tales the LEGO came was being pieced together, pulling from both books and films. And as has now become tradition, these plastic versions of the cast never spoke a word and often ended up in rather hilarious slapstick situations.
One could argue that Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War were aimed at mature gamers, while LEGO Lord of the Rings played up to the younger gamer. Though we’d argues that everyone can enjoy the LEGO game – there’s a reason LEGO is rated for ages 4-99.
Which almost of brings us to the end of the epic story. Almost.
2022 will see the latest tech construct ‘Lord of the Rings: Gollum’ and take players on a familiar journey from a whole new viewpoint. Early trailers are already wowing audiences worldwide, after an initial lukewarm reaction.
This new stealthy approach will not only give people the chance to control a fan favourite, but it will hopefully revitalise the franchise yet another time!
It’s been quite a journey. Over almost 40 years the gaming industry has mined the works of Tolkien and even constructed new stories based within his famed Middle-earth. We’ve looked at the most popular and largest releases, but there were also 19 mobile games we skipped over, and who knows what else the future holds.
As Amazon Prime is drip feeding fans with screenshots, we wouldn’t be surprised if we explore Middle-earth again very soon.
Article by Daniel Lipscombe