The earliest one I encountered was “War in Middle-earth”, which I played on my ancient IBM 8088 PC with a CGA monitor (colors!). The game basically follows the events of Lord of the Rings, and does so fairly faithfully. You start off in the Shire with Frodo, Sam, and Pippin; you then walk down to Brandywine and pick up Merry, then it’s off to Bree to join Aragorn and so on. Along the way you occasionally bump into friendly people for a chat, who will sometimes share rumors with you; other times you’ll run into a group of hostile enemies, who you must fight or flee to proceed.
It was a surprisingly idyllic game, and my strongest memories of it are just watching those cute, chubby little hobbits gradually walking through screen after screen of background scenery. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of choice, and things would sometimes go horribly if, for instance, I ran into one or more Ringwraiths.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized there was an entirely different mode to the game: you could switch from the side view to a top-down strategic map, which displayed all of Middle-earth including the major fortresses and armies. At this point, it started to feel much more like a game to me. By default, the game will have your characters follow the path laid out by Tolkien in the books: however, you can issue your own orders, which can drastically change how events play out. For example, rather than traveling south to meet Merry, you can have your hobbits start out directly east to beeline towards Bree; this is risky, since there are ringwraiths on the road, but you can spot them and move off the path when necessary.
As I played the game over and over again, I gradually came to discover more of its mechanics. As the game continues, more and more units will activate: either due to you reaching a certain location, or performing a certain act, or after a certain time is reached, or after other events have transpired. Again, by default, events will play out fairly similarly to those of the books. The armies of Rohan will begin to stir after Saruman reveals his hostility. Gondor will react after Sauron’s host begins to march. Sending Merry and/or Pippin into Fangorn may awaken the Ents and Huorns; they aren’t under your control, but will fight on your side, crushing Saruman’s forces at Isengard.
I gradually came to discover, though, that the game was filled with things that weren’t part of the original series. Many of those cryptic statements you heard from people like Radagast and Galadriel were hints about where to find certain items of power. Some obvious ones are useful weapons or armor for your characters, like coats of mithril mail or elven blades. More interesting, though, were artifacts like the Sceptre of Arnor, abandoned in Annuminas, or one of the Dwarven Rings of Power, hidden south of Dol Guldur. If you find one of these items, and return them to their associated faction, then they will activate and join your side, regardless of what’s happening in the timeline. In this way, it’s possible to actually take the initiative: instead of waiting for the forces of darkness to strike, and then scrambling a defense of the free lands, you can organize a more comprehensive strategy.
The goal of “War in Middle-earth” is to destroy the One Ring, which you must do by taking it to Mount Doom; however, you can’t ignore the higher-level strategic picture either, as the game will immediately end if you lose ownership of two of the five major strategic points (which I want to say are Helm’s Deep, Edoras, Minas Tirith, Rivendell, and… maybe Erebor?). So, in the conventional strategy, you will send a small but well-prepared group of individuals into Mordor, while marshaling as many forces as possible and deploying them effectively to hold off destruction until your ring-bearers complete their quest.
Once you get the mechanics down, this isn’t terribly difficult. So, I decided to set a more ambitious task for myself. Would it be possible to actually defeat Sauron militarily? On the surface, this seemed like an absurd goal, as the forces of the enemy vastly outnumber your own. But still, it was something I had to try.
In addition to the hobbits, you also start out the game in control of Faramir and Eomer. There’s a gap of several months after the Council of Elrond during which you can’t issue new orders, but any existing orders will continue to be carried out during this time. So, after a lot of planning and scheming, I worked out an optimal process for recruiting all the Free Folks as soon as possible. I forget all the details, but I think it started by splitting my party and sending Pippin off to Annuminas; Eomer’s swift cavalry raced to Mirkwood, while Faramir went searching for some other artifact (perhaps a palantir?). I made sure they all had the items in their hands and were on their way to their final destinations by the time Frodo arrived in Rivendell. And so, I could immediately start raising the Elves and Dwarves in the North, as well as the Men in the South.
The enemy always follows the same sequence of moves, regardless of what you do, and so I could confidently dispatch my forces. Rivendell is a safe city, and needed only a token guard to stand against the few orc skirmishers sent against it. Erebor needed a slightly stronger defense against the group of Easterlings sent against it, but it could spare a large portion of its levies. And so, I was delighted to create a true Last Alliance, not just of Elves and Men but also of Dwarves, which hasn’t been seen on a large scale since the War of Power.
The Ents and Huorns will single-mindedly crush Saruman’s defenses at Isengard, but even after this he will still send out his new armies of Uruk-hai. So, I assembled a ridiculously huge force and had it camp in Helm’s Deep. You get a significant combat bonus when defending a fortress like this, and so wave after wave of uruk-hai dashed themselves against our wall while inflicting virtually no casualties. We stood against successive waves until Saruman was spent, then sent them racing along the Great West Road to Minas Tirith.
This is, by far, the biggest flash-point in the game. The armies of Mordor are HUGE, and that isn’t even counting all the corsairs, easterlings, and Haradim joining in the fight. That fight was more challenging, even with Minas Tirith’s defenses, but after a seemingly endless series of assaults we emerged, blinking, into the daylight. That was it. We were diminished, but had defeated all of Sauron’s armies!
I was delighted, and stunned. What to do next? The game was still going, but for the first time I wasn’t reacting to anything. The enemy is entirely scripted, and Sauron wasn’t breeding any more orcs for me to fight. I came up with the idea of wiping all the forces of evil off the map: while the mobile armies had been defeated, there were still groups of goblins in Goblin Town, orcs in Moria, and a few other strongholds. So, I took my super-ultra-mega-force on a tour, walking around the entire map and wiping out all the foes. Now I had to fave enemies on their own turf, and so they managed to inflict a good amount of damage, but my own numbers were so overwhelming that I was able to prevail. And then, all that remained was Mordor!
I crashed through Minas Ithil, then marched up to Barad-dur! This is an incredibly difficult fight: not only are a ton of enemies there, but so is Sauron himself; he’s a single unit, but incredibly powerful. Even after all of the other enemies were killed, he still managed to slay thousands of my soldiers before succumbing. And succumb he did, and then… I lost!
Eventually, I realized that I had inadvertently triggered part of the game’s logic. When an enemy kills the Ringbearer, if you win the fight, one of the survivors will pick up the Ring and continue the quest. If you are wiped out or flee, then the enemy will take the Ring, but the game doesn’t instantly end. Instead, they will immediately head out towards Barad-dur. If you have swift units to pursue them, or have forces in the way that can intercept them, then you can defeat them, retake the Ring and continue your quest. If you fail, then the game ends when the Ring reaches Barad-dur.
And so, I realized, since I had added Frodo and Aragorn and all the rest to my Stack of Doom, I was accidentally returning the Ring to the one place it wasn’t supposed to do. I didn’t want to do that, and also didn’t want to attack Mount Doom, since presumably that would end the game in the way I didn’t want. So, instead, I sent Frodo and an honor guard back to Gondor, then had my megaforce wipe out Mount Doom before finally assaulting Barad-dur for a second time. We were once again victorious. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect; maybe nothing. But I was delighted to actually win the game through my military victory! While highly improbable, our tale-twisting exploits had accomplished what had seemed utterly impossible within the books: we had stood united against Sauron, and managed to defeat his mighty host, tear down the Dark Tower and free Middle-earth of his evil influence. All without doing something so trite as tossing a ring into a volcano.
So, yeah. I have very fond memories of the game, although in all honesty I can’t strongly recommend playing it, especially not now. There’s really no AI to speak of, and the combat system is rather frustrating, particularly at the micro level of individual characters: you can’t order your entire party to flee a hopeless fight, and so must always sacrifice a character when you bump into, say, a Ringwraith or a Balrog. That said, I really like what the game manages to pull off in terms of authentically portraying the background of the novels while allowing you to change the story in some very creative and original ways.
The next big Middle-earth game I remember playing is “Lord of the Rings”, an old Interplay RPG. This played much more like, well, an RPG than the more strategic “War in Middle-earth”. As with WiMe, it covers the same timeline as the books, although it has a bit more in the way of invention. The overall plot arc is the same: you must escape the Shire, evade the Riders, meet with Aragorn in Bree, reach Rivendell, and by the end of the game make your way through Moria. Along the way, though, there some new quests to do, as well as a few new characters.
As with WiMe, things get more interesting the more you deviant from the canonical plot. In one sequence, you are set upon by Ringwraiths; a ranger (not Aragorn) shouts at you to flee, and then sacrifices himself to buy you time to escape. But! As I discovered on a later play-through, you can actually charge back in and save him. Using one of your “Elbereth!” words of power will dispose of the ringwraith; at this point, the ranger will join your party, giving you a crucial human ally who helps you with other obstacles as you make your way towards Bree, and afterwards, you can end up with two Rangers in your party. I seem to vaguely remember there also being some sort of, hm, witch or wise-woman or something who could also join you.
Magic was kind of strange in the game. Middle-earth is a very low-magic world, and they did a good job at representing this: only a few characters like Gandalf are capable of casting spells. Mechanically, though, it was a bit strange, since casting spells will decrease a character’s health rather than a separate “mana” pool. Since healing is pretty rare in this game, you were incentivized to avoid casting spells except in dire circumstances, even when your party members had it available to them.
As a side note, while the game invented a lot of stuff, I was generally happy at its humble attitude towards the source material. I even remember the well-written manual, in which the creators admitted that, if Tolkien were still alive, he probably wouldn’t have approved of the game. Tolkien was notoriously skeptical of technology, and the combination of an adaptation of his beloved work and a diabolical instrument like the computer would have likely dismayed him. Nonetheless, even knowing this, they did what they could to honor his story and his setting.
Sometimes I feel like the major driving force in my life has been a desire to explore Middle-earth. It was such a powerful, formative draw for me in my youth, and a big part of the reason why I started programming computers was a desire to do a similar sort of world-building. Any time I play a new fantasy game, I’m indulging in that ancient compulsion to thoroughly explore, to get to know a place, to immerse myself in the imagined land. Usually the new land (Thedas or the Sword Coast or Nirn or Britannia or whatever) is just a proxy for my first love, but on a few rare and precious occasions I’ve felt like I’m actually in the primary world, getting to know more of Middle-earth.
That’s the sensation that, at its best, the 1990 Lord of the Rings game evoked. You have to go into Moria, because of COURSE you have to go into Moria, because that’s a crucial part of the game. You can stick close to the script, and move through it and get out of that dangerous place as quickly as possible. But, if you’re driven to learn more, you can get off the script. You can, as the dwarves infamously did, dig too deeply. You can haul a pickaxe down into the depths of the mine, and actually mine your own mithril. Foolhardy? Undoubtedly. Non-canonical? Unquestionably! Exhilarating? Certainly. Ever wanted to find Durin’s axe? Well, it’s a video game. It doesn’t have to follow the plot of the game. You can find that axe, and give it to Gimli, and it made me feel so very happy to do so.
And, more recently, I’ve gushed here about Sil, an absolutely fantastic roguelike that evokes the Lay of Beren and Luthien. Tasked with cutting a Silmaril from Morgoth’s iron crown, you venture deep into the fortress of Angband, encountering and outwitting or outmatching a huge host of First Age foes. Again, this isn’t canonical - only Beren was able to reclaim a single Silmaril - but it’s so steeped in the lore, and, more importantly, so respectful to the spirit of Tolkien that it stands out to me as the best video game ever created based on Tolkien’s works.
So, to close the loop back to Shadow of Mordor, I think that’s the aspect of it which distresses me the most. Not creating new creatures, or changing the timelines, or even necessarily messing with the Halls of Mandos. It’s just that, for all the nifty snippets of accurate lore about Numenor and the Blue Wizards and Feanor, it seems set in a moral universe that’s completely alien to every primary work Tolkien wrote. There’s no hint of The Song, no idea that Eru Iluvatar is watching over events. It’s the same crappy world of The Dark Knight and 24 and Hitman and God of War and Mafia and Max Payne. There’s no shortage of franchises out there that want to tell the story about A Badly Damaged Man Must Do Dark Things In Order To Exact Revenge Upon Those Who Have Wronged Him. There’s an alarming lack of franchises built around concepts of grace, of enduring rather than returning oppression, of melancholic nostalgia rather than gloomy angst. I wish they had taken advantage of Tolkien’s unique style and perspective rather than painting it with the same ugly brush of sadism that covers so many game franchises.