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Old Disappointments Revisited: JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Volume 1 (SNES)

Over the past decade or so, I’ve tried to play every SNES RPG I can find, even if I don’t beat them all. I played most of them at some point via rentals, and I have fond memories of many of them (even Lagoon). Over the years, I have built my collection to include as many as I can reasonably justify (ex: I might pick up Brain Lord, but I’m probably not getting Dragon View). Even the most mediocre of these games has had some redeeming quality, but I’m here today to tell you about one that really doesn’t. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Volume 1, which should probably have been named “Volume 1 of 1” in retrospect, really doesn’t have that much going for it.

The good news is that it looks good enough. The bad news is that half the environment is half as navigable as it appears, and the other half is half riddled with boring fetch quests.

I’ll start off with the one thing that could be considered uniquely appealing but is actually terrible. LOTR Volume 1 is one of the few SNES action RPGs that has multiplayer support – supposedly out to 5 players. That sounds great! The difficulty lies in how the multiplayer is implemented. Each character is tied to a specific controller, and the easiest character to recruit (Pippin) – 5 minutes away from the start – isn’t even tied to the 2nd controller. Instead, you have to complete a lengthy fetch quest – one that effectively requires a map, and even then would take 30 minutes – to recruit Samwise and play 2-player without a multitap. If a character dies – perhaps because they start with 8 HP and no armor – they are permanently dead and that player can’t switch to a living character. The screen is small enough, and enemies infrequent enough, that unlike actually good games like Secret of Mana, there is very little room for more than two players to maneuver – which even got annoying with a party of four hobbits. The screen scrolls only with the first player, and there are frequent obstacles to navigate around with poorly designed hitboxes, making things even more frustrating for other players. The AI itself frequently fails to navigate the maps, so uncontrolled player characters will often be off-screen with the only feedback that they’re still alive being occasional battle noises.

Another reason mega-multiplayer is not a great fit for the game is that its story (and game flow) largely consists of recruiting all these characters. It would be one thing if there were an introductory half-hour where you pick up the hobbits and Aragorn, and then more content was added before getting the full Fellowship at Rivendell, but after playing for three hours I still had yet to recruit a non-hobbit – and that’s using maps to navigate. Thanks to www.mikesrpgcenter.com, for keeping the home fires burning like other quality gaming sites that launched over a decade ago. Wish you had turned up in my initial frantic google-searching to figure out Lord of the Rings SNES multiplayer.

This IS based on Lord of the Rings, so you’ll be expecting to read long passages that don’t say much. There you will not be disappointed.

It’s hard to justify “let’s play this cool old game together” when half the players have to wait hours to even join in. Contrast to, say, Gauntlet IV on Genesis, which supports 4 players immediately out the gate in Adventure mode. Gauntlet also has separate passwords per player, so you can drop in or out at any time. It even has a more robust leveling and equipment system! Go pick up Gauntlet IV, people, and just pretend to be Aragorn, Eowyn, Gandalf, and Legolas.

Even in single player, which the game seems better balanced for, the game is not particularly satisfying to play. Much like Secret of Mana, the hitboxes for enemies seem very vaguely defined and frequent misses occur – but unlike Secret of Mana, there is little variety to combat so it’s harder to ignore. There is a block button, but very little reason to use it, and all characters play the same (as far as I could tell, since Gandalf and Gimli require exploits to play). Much of combat revolves around moving to a position where you can be reasonably confident you’ll hit the enemy first – not that getting hit yourself is particularly dangerous, as healing items are plentiful even if you can only carry one of each. Once newly recruited characters level a few times, they’re in little danger since all healing items heal the entire party. This makes LOTR feel like the stakes are low, but it still isn’t particularly fun.

One of the more baffling things about Lord of the Rings SNES is that it does not even have a save system – it still used passwords in 1994, which is surprising for an RPG that is definitely longer than 5 hours. This does work in its favor in some ways. The passwords are relatively simple, so it’s easy to bring back dead characters, get characters early, or even avoid grinding by modifying a password slightly to level up a character. Password entry is actually much simplified compared to most games because you can fast-forward letters using the A button (it’s actually pretty slick, but please don’t buy this game for the password system).

If you can get past all of the problems so far, you might consider playing this thinking that, predating the Lord of the Rings movies, it might do its own thing a bit and have a more original (or more book-accurate) storyline. Unfortunately, JTLOTRV1 SNES bends and twists things to streamline in several places, while bloating the storyline in others to justify more play-time. For example, minor character Farmer Maggot, who helps Frodo evade capture while escaping the Shire, is in the game. You rescue him from orcs (who aren’t there in the novel), and he gives you a note that gets you a ferry ride. The ferryman, however, is missing his oar and Farmer Maggot will only lend you his if you return a jar of honey that another hobbit hid from him. The jar of honey, meanwhile, is right outside the farm but will only appear if you fetch this other hobbit some “Shire Juice” and bring it to him elsewhere. If this example sounds bad, it gets even worse – there are six lost elven amulets that Elrond requires you to find to “prove yourself worthy of bearing the ring”, and five magical gems needed to enter the final dungeon – two of which are hidden in the very first dungeon, and would be easy to miss.

Whoops, where did this image of an actually good cooperative Lord of the Rings game come from?

Another possible source of appeal is this game’s (relatively) unique place in the Middle-Earth game landscape. While it’s not the only game that was released prior to Peter Jackson’s LOTR movies, it’s one of only a few based partly on the 1970 Bakshi film. The bad news is that the other adaptation series – with the same name, also by Interplay, for PC, actually sounds much better and more accurate to the book (presumably, Samwise’s dad didn’t lose his glasses in orc-infested tunnels adjacent to the Shire, so Sam puts up less of a fight to join).

I guess the music’s okay, and I’ll take some solace in that.

Taking a step back from the game itself – buying, and playing this game, did get me some small bit of closure on a game that, in retrospect, I thought I had played but probably did not. It also helped me remember that even though many SNES games are good, or even okay, not all of them were. And now I’m a proud owner of yet another weird game. It won’t be the only bad game in my collection, and that’s okay – I now have good memories of playing a bad game to associate with it.

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