Lord of the Rings: Journey to Rivendell

Introduction

Lord of the Rings: Journey to Rivendell (LOTR) is an Action Adventure game along the lines of Adventure, E.T., and Sword of Saros. It was never released commercially, however, and was long thought to have been lost prior to it’s rediscovery by AtariAge early this millennium.

The player character (presumably Frodo) wanders across varying terrain including forest, villages, grasslands and a more easily traversed path area. The objective is to get from the starting village (in the far south of the playfield) to the northern-most village.

The player has three lives with which to negotiate the route, and several different characters from the book will help Frodo on his way. There is an elementary day / night system in place and the journey has to be completed within a set time.

The game is completed after Frodo crosses one of the two bridges in the north of the playfield, and sets foot in the final village.

The Playfield

There are in excess of 400 screens between your starting point and end goal, and with a sole enemy needing to be avoided through the whole game you would be forgiven for thinking this prototype was further from completion than reports suggest.

The mysterious nemesis in question is lifted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s book (the Ring Wraith), and can not be attacked or damaged in any way. Just before he appears, suspenseful sound effects alert you to his proximity, and a black bird appears over head to give away your location. These are sure signs that an encounter is imminent.

These atmospheric episodes are surprisingly well executed, and might be compared to elements of Atari’s Haunted House; which is in turn accredited as being a forerunner to the survival horror genre.

Whatever the lineage of the occasion the only real option is to out-run the foe by hiding in a forest or village, or pressing along the path with added diligence.

Though these options may seem informed enough; successfully escaping has more to do with luck than judgement. The number of screens in the playfield is vast, and there are perhaps only six different graphical interpretations of the entire world.

Identifying one’s location is virtually impossible in open play, and the chances of finding shelter in an appropriate terrain are limited – there are almost no distinguishing landmarks.

To add to the misery: the enemy’s speed increases as you progress, and the encounter rate escalates exponentially at night and in the final quarter of the playfield.

The map can only be viewed from within the relatively safe harbour of villages and forests by pressing the button. Frustratingly; this action does not bring up the map in the rest of the playfield (when it is needed to plan a getaway) and instead makes Frodo flash grey for a few seconds.

There is no known advantage to pressing the button in open play – championing the view that the game may be incomplete.

Even when the map can be called up, it is too lacking in detail for the player to identify an individual screen’s terrain type. The overall stealth aspect of the game is virtually non-existent as a result of these issues.

Day & Night

The day / night mechanic mentioned earlier is reasonably well presented. The hills at the top of the screen become duller and the skyline darken as dusk approaches. Unfortunately the aesthetic appeal soon wanes as the player is exposed to the perpetual assault of the Ring Wraith.

The difficulty is increased by such a margin at night, that the player might consider ‘laying low’ in a village until the new day. The villages are so sporadically placed, however, that this tactic cannot be employed beyond the first third of the playfield.

Similarly - the forest terrain cannot be occupied long enough to sit out the event, as the game rather clumsily wounds the player after a short period of time (with limited visual and auditory feedback). No warning is given. While this odd phenomenon does have the effect of making the player risk the neighbouring open planes from time to time, it seems rather hastily conceived (if not a little desperate) by the programmer.

The game also has a time limit which makes slow, steady progress through the world quite difficult. If the player does not arrive at the goal within seven days (about twenty minutes real-time) the game ends.

It seems there is little option other than to brave the world – night or day – and hope for a good ‘rub of the green’ with regard to the encounter rate.

Artefacts

Frodo’s limited abilities can increase as his adventure progresses. Uncovering fellow characters from the book at different points in the game adds to the player’s deftness at traversing slower terrain (such as forests), and increase his durability.

Though these entities might be mistaken for early console examples of non-player characters (NPCs), they are in effect little more than artefacts. As they are collected; they line up along the inventory part of the screen quite unexceptionally (as seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Riddle of the Sphinx), slightly empowering your character.

Most disappointingly; there is little more thought put into two of the characters’ placement than to ensure they are located quite far apart from each other. There is no intuition leading up to their discovery: you will either stumble across them through blind luck, or get their locations from a walkthrough.

The only reason the other characters are uncovered more easily, is because two reside in villages (amongst the game’s few unmissable landmarks), while the other is found on the back of directions you get from another character.

It is not difficult to imagine how disparaging it is to rely on pot-luck in a game as vast as this, and one so fervently based in the adventure game genre.

Falling Short

LOTR might have been one of the more innovative titles for the Atari 2600 had it met its scheduled 1983 release.

The atmospheric prelude to the Ring Wraith’s appearances would have been particularly well received, and the game’s author should be commended for utilizing the 2600’s limited resources to achieve the subtle effects that he has.

The absence of player induced offensive engagement will strike some as a less acceptable omission. It should be remembered, however, that LOTR shares good company in adopting this approach; with both Haunted House and Sword of Saros featuring no combative interaction, and instead focused on eluding the enemy.

It is the difficulty in identifying one’s location at any given time – thus preventing the formulation of an escape plan – that can make the enemy encounters intolerable, rather than anything inherent to Frodo’s attacking inability.

The nature of encounters; the effects of different terrains; the discovery of new characters; and the day / night system all evidence a game brimming with innovation and confident craftsmanship.

But LOTR is simply too expansive for these features to augment the average playfield screen – of which there are at least a hundred too many – and the resulting inability to confidently place one’s self in the world proves the biggest cross bearer of all.