Friday, March 22, 2019

Lord of the Rings, Vol. II: The Two Towers: Summary and Rating

             
Lord of the Rings, Vol. II: The Two Towers
United States
Interplay (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS, 1993 for FM Towns and PC-98
Date Started: 5 February 2019
Date Ended: 15 March 2019
Total Hours: 18
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 34
Ranking at time of posting: 223/327 (68%)

Summary:

A shallower, smaller, shorter sequel to a superior predecessor, The Two Towers tells the second of Tolkien's three books from the perspective of three adventuring parties. While the top-down perspective and interface (recalling Ultima VI but with a bigger window) are both adequate, and the game follows its predecessor in offering a number of non-canonical NPCs and side-quests, it remains under-developed in RPG mechanics like combat, character development, and equipment. The switching between parties, over which the player has no control, is jarring, and by the end it feels like no party ever got any serious screen time.

*****

I'm not sure that it's possible to make a truly excellent RPG based on an existing plot with existing characters, particularly ones who live as largely in the imagination as the canonical members of the Fellowship of the Ring. This is different, you understand, than setting a new adventure in a familiar universe. If I had made a Lord of the Rings game, I would have told a story of a group of rangers, or Rohirrim, or even a motley group like the Fellowship, engaged in a struggle ancillary to the main plot, perhaps featuring Frodo, Aragorn, et. al. as NPCs. Games based on Dungeons & Dragons' Forgotten Realms largely seem to take this approach, although with much less well-known source material.
           
Offering an option to execute Gollum took some guts.
        
The problem with using existing plots is that either the player is on a railroad towards a predetermined destination, or he's jarred by the detours. Perhaps the only way to do it well is to allow such detours (as Interplay did here) and then give it to a player who doesn't care much about the original (e.g., me). In that sense, the game world worked out very well. Before we get into a litany of complaints, we have to at least admire the flexibility of the plot, plus the game's ability to introduce side quests that work thematically with the main plot points. It was a strength of Vol. I as well.

The game fails, on the other hand, in just about every possible way as an RPG. There is no experience or leveling. Character development occurs through the occasional increase in attributes and the occasional acquisition of skills as a reward for exploration or quest-solving. None of these improvements mean anything because, first, combat is so easy that your characters don't need to improve to beat the game, and second, every party starts with all the skills they need spread out among the characters. Inventory upgrades are scarce and essentially unnecessary for the same reasons. Combat couldn't be more boring, and there's essentially no magic system: "spells" are keywords that solve puzzles, more like inventory items.
             
Very late in the game, Aragorn can learn skills he won't need for the rest of the game.
          
Even worse is the way that it undercuts nonlinear exploration and optional encounters, essentially its only strength. While many of the side-quests and chance encounters are interesting, hardly any of them offer anything material to the characters. In fact, every time you stop to check out an unexplored area or building, you run the risk of some extra combats that leave the party weakened for the required encounters. This is related to the game's absurd healing system, by which characters are only fully healed at a few plot intervals, with meals and Athelas curing just a few hit points in between.

Now, it turns out that I missed a lot of side quests, mostly towards the end. The open world is nice, but the game only gives you any directions along the main quest path. I never returned to Dunland, and thus missed the side adventures there. Ithilien had at least three side quests that Frodo and his party didn't do, including a crypt, a Haradrim deserter who will join the party, and recovering the eye of the statue. If I'd gone another way in the Morgul Vale, I would have met Radagast. Aragorn missed the entire "Glittering Caves" sub-area, which culminated in a fight with a dragon and would have given him some powerful gloves. I still don't know what I did wrong here. I did find the way to the Glittering Caves, but I somehow missed the transition to the multiple levels that the hint guide says exist. I guess I was supposed to return after the Battle of Helm's Deep, but that would have meant embarking on a lengthy side-quest while on the threshold of victory for the game at large.
             
I'm not sure how I was supposed to get past this.
            
It's also possible that I missed some of these side quests because of another problem: the interface. There are parts that aren't so bad. The top-down perspective, the commands, and the auto-map all basically work, and I like the way you can make the interface go away and use the full screen for just exploration. What sucks is the approach to triggering encounters. You don't see an NPC or group of enemies in the corner of your exploration window. No, they just suddenly pop up because you've happened to walk on the right set of pixels or brushed up against the right object. There's very little correspondence between visual cues on screen and the appearance of encounter options. Sometimes, you see chests but walking up to them and bumping into them does nothing. Other times, you're in a blank room, and you're told about items and people that aren't on the screen at all.
            
Note that there are no orcs anywhere on this screen.
          
Finally, we have the matter of pacing. It's like the game itself has no idea what's going to come next. The battle of Helm's Deep involves six combats in a row, in two sets of three, with only a little bit of healing offered between the sets. After this epic battle, the party can rest and get fully healed, then (apparently) go off and find some magic gauntlets, when there's only one more (easy) combat remaining in the game. On Frodo and Sam's side, late in the game they have to figure out how to cut through Shelob's web. The option I chose (use the Star Ruby) causes the hobbits to get burned a little bit, which would suck--except that the endgame happens five seconds later. Why bother to attach a penalty to the choice?

And while we're talking about pacing, it's important to remember how all the erratic cutting between parties makes it hard to keep track of what any one party is doing. I completely missed an opportunity to recover Anduril because the game lurched to a different party when I was on that quest, and by the time it took me back to Aragorn, it was shouting that Helm's Deep was nigh.
           
Making the least-optimal choice hardly matters when the game is over at the next intersection.
        
Lord of the Rings, Vol. I had a lot of these problems (except the last one), and it ended up with a relatively-high 49 on the GIMLET. Before we rate this one, it's worth thinking about some of the differences. One is size. Vol. I is quite a bit bigger. Although Vol. II is good in this regard, Vol. I offered more opportunities for side quests, inventory acquisition, character development, healing, and general exploration. Pacing issues were caused as much by the player as by the plot.

Vol. I gave you a lot less direction on what to do next. There was a general sense that you had to keep moving east, but you weren't constantly getting title cards explicitly explaining the next step of the quest. For that reason, NPCs and the dialogue system took on a much greater importance. Here, although you can feed NPCs a variety of keywords, they mostly just tell you what the game has already told you in long paragraphs. You never really need them for any clues.

NPCs themselves were more memorable. They had personalities, agendas, side quests, and even a couple of betrayals. Vol. II only marginally developed any of that. There was a poor economy in Vol. I, but Vol. II had no place to spend money at all despite showing that the characters had it. Also keenly felt is the loss of nice graphical (or animated, in the remake) cut scenes between major areas.

Both games do reasonably well in the area of encounters. I've always liked the way Interplay games (including Wasteland and Dragon Wars) require you to read clues and then figure out the right skills to directly employ. Sometimes, items can substitute for skills. But Vol. I's encounters of this nature were less obvious and a little less generous in the variety of things that would work. You couldn't ignore options to improve skills or acquire quest objects. In Vol. II, you can pretty much just walk from beginning to end, knowing that your starting characters have whatever they need.

The rest might just be a matter of bad memory. Recalling the first game, I feel like the graphics offered a little more detail, that encounters didn't depend on hitting quite such a small set of pixels, that there was a little more character development, a slightly better inventory system, and so forth.
            
The game tries to evoke the majesty of Middle Earth without showing much.
         
Let's see how they compare:

1. Game world. The Two Towers definitely makes good use of the Middle Earth setting. The backstory and lore section of the manual are thorough and interesting. It wasn't until I read it that I finally understood some allusions from the films and the previous game, such as what "Numenor" refers to and what Gandalf actually is. While the game doesn't do a lot to build on this setting, it certainly is in keeping with it. Score: 6.

2. Character creation and development. There's no creation at all and only the slightest, near-invisible development. You mostly forget that the attributes even exist. Aragorn started with 70 dexterity, 28 strength, 33 endurance 75 luck, and 75 willpower, and he ended with 74, 28, 38, 79, and 77. Clearly, some development occurred, but never was I notified of any of these increases, and I really have no idea what caused them. The skills system would get more points if the game was a bit more balanced in how you acquire and use them. Score: 2.

3. NPC interaction. I always enjoy keyword-based dialogue systems, but here it's mostly purposeless. When a title card has just told you that "Orcs have ravaged this village and its people are forlorn," you don't need six different NPCs saying, "Orcs destroyed us!" and "We have lost hope!" I did like the few NPCs who could join the parties. Without them, the game would have been forced to either avoid combat with the hobbit parties or make the hobbits uncharacteristically effective. Score: 5.
          
I'm sorry we didn't see more of Eowen.
        
4. Encounters and foes. Despite Tolkien featuring a large bestiary, you only really ever fight orcs and men in this game (aside from a few one-off battles). The only points I give here are for the non-combat encounters, which are frequent, require some puzzle-solving skill, and offer some role-playing opportunities. As mentioned, I don't like the way that they appear, but that's more of an interface issue. Score: 5.

5. Magic and combat. Combat features no tactics, no magic, no items to use. Just "attack" and select your preferred foe from a menu. The "magic system," as such, is just the acquisition of some spell keywords that occasionally solve puzzles, but I only had to use one of these words once. (This is in contrast to the first game, where they were constantly required.) Score: 1.
           
The easy, boring combat system.
         
6. Equipment. I found a few upgrades throughout the game: leather to chain, chain to magic armor, sword to magic sword, and so forth. It just didn't feel like any of it did anything. Most of the items that burdened my inventory were quest items, and I found no use for a lot of them. Score: 2.

7. Economy. In contrast to the first game, there is none. The game keeps track of a "silver" statistic for each character for no reason. Score: 0.

8. Quests. Perhaps the strongest point. Each party has a clear set of main quests, an equal number of side quests, and even a few options about how to complete them. I enjoyed the side quests most because with them, I was exploring Middle Earth rather than just hitting a series of determined locations and plot points in a row. Score: 5.
          
9. Graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics aren't objectively bad, but I do think they fail to live up to the player's imagination of storied places like Helm's Deep and Minas Morgul. The failure to show so many things that the game tells you is also pretty stark. Sounds are mostly beeps and the occasional "oof" in combat.
             
The staircase to Cirith Ungol hardly seems hidden, tight, steep, or foreboding, especially with the silly "mountains" on either side.
           
There are aspects of the interface that work well. The size of the game window seems practically luxurious, and you have to wonder if Ultima VII took a lesson from this game or its precursor. The automap works pretty well. There are some nice touches like the star that appears next to the most recently-saved game when you go to load a game. I definitely appreciated the use of keyboard commands for most major actions, in addition to the buttons. Overall, the game would earn a high score in this category except for the encounter-triggering issue, which is both a graphical problem and an interface problem, and comes close to ruining the game on its own. Score: 4.

10. Gameplay. Vol. II is a bit more linear than Vol. I, but not compared to other games. I suspect that Frodo and Sam could have turned around in the last chapter, left the Morgul Vale, and walked all the way back to the Dead Marshes, cleaning up side quests along the way. The nonlinearity coupled with the side quests lend a certain replayability--in fact, I think the game would probably improve on a replay, with a better understanding of the pacing and terrain.
        
I found it far easier than its predecessor, as exemplified by the battle in which Frodo killed the vampire. I was supposed to solve that with a quest item. The game should have made combats harder and the healing system less erratic. Finally, it's also a bit too short, particularly with the action split among three parties. I suspect you could win in a speed run of just an hour or so. Maybe I'll try when I get some more free time. Score: 4.
        
That gives us a final score of 34, as I suspected quite a bit below Vol. I and even below my "recommended" threshold, though just barely. The engine was a bit better than the game itself, and was used in a superior way in the first title. This one seemed a bit rushed and perfunctory.
              
I did like some of the "instant deaths."
               
Computer Gaming World disagreed with me on the first game by largely hating it: reviewer Charles Ardai obsessed about divergences from the books and didn't even seem to notice the more revolutionary elements of the interface. He dismissed it as "not special enough to carry the Tolkien name." But in the October 1992 issue, reviewer Allen Greenberg gave a much more positive review of the sequel. In particular, he addressed the carping of people like Ardai by pointing out that Middle Earth had taken on a certain life of its own, and if we can forgive Tolkien himself for his many appendices and allusions, why complain about a few side-quests and side-characters in a game that's otherwise relatively faithful to the material?
        
Greenberg also offers a relatively nuanced discussion of the party-switching system, pointing out (correctly) that the very approach is revolutionary, and while Interplay might have refined the approach ("Interplay may wish to consider allowing the player at least a vote in the decision making process as to whether it is time to switch locations"), the innovative system offered a "depth of narrative which would not otherwise have been possible." Greenberg's comments led me to avoid subtracting points for this element despite complaining about it several times.

MobyGames catalog of reviews for the game has them averaging in the high 50s, which is pretty miserable. On the other hand, the lack of any seriously rabid fan base must have softened the blow when Vol. III was never released. A couple of years ago, Jimmy Maher published an excellent entry on what was happening with Interplay during this period. The summary is that the company was struggling as a developer/publisher, with Dragon Wars not having sold well in a crowded RPG market. Founder Brian Fargo managed to secure the rights the trilogy from Tolkien Enterprises, figuring that the Lord of the Rings name would make the games stand out among their competitors. 

Interplay was already in the midst of a new RPG called Secrets of the Magi that would feature a free-scrolling interface. Fargo pulled the team off that project and put them to work on Lord of the Rings. By the time the game was released, the company had been badly hurt by the collapse of Mediagenic, publisher of Interplay's Nintendo titles. Interplay rushed production to make the Christmas 1990 buying season. They ended up releasing the game with a lot of bugs and cut features (including an automap), missed the Christmas season anyway, and got lukewarm reviews.

The company was saved by the unexpected success of a strategy game called Castles. Now understanding that the Tolkien name alone didn't ensure success in sales, Vol. II was produced with a smaller staff. When it, too, got poor reviews, and when repackaging Vol. I on CD-ROM also failed to generate significant sales, there was no impetus to move on to Vol. III. Some sites claim that before it gave up on III, there had been plays to turn it into more of a strategy game. 

". . . no one."
        
Maher memorably concludes:
         
Unlike Dragon Wars, which despite its initial disappointing commercial performance has gone on to attain a cult-classic status among hardcore CRPG fans, the reputations of the two Interplay Lord of the Rings games have never been rehabilitated. Indeed, to a large extent the games have simply been forgotten, bizarre though that situation reads given their lineage in terms of both license and developer. Being neither truly, comprehensively bad games nor truly good ones, they fall into a middle ground of unmemorable mediocrity. In response to their poor reception by a changing marketplace, Interplay would all but abandon CRPGs for the next several years.
             
Indeed, the next RPG we'll see from Interplay isn't until 1995 (Stonekeep), followed by two in 1997: Fallout and Descent to Undermountain. It's hard not to see a little of the Lord of the Rings interface in Fallout's: axonometric graphics, continuous movement, a large main game window, and commands hosted in a set of unobtrusive icons with keyboard backup. (Vol. II and Fallout even share at least one designer, Scott Bennie.) Fallout shares these characteristics with the Infinity Engine, which was developed by Bioware but with a close relationship with (and financing from) Interplay. I'm probably grasping at straws, but I look forward to exploring the engines' history more when we get to those games.

The Two Towers was the last attempt to make an official Middle Earth game until after the Peter Jackson film series, which spawned a host of new games that, like the films themselves, are controversial among fans. (We won't see another one until 2002's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.) The 1990s were the only era in which Tolkien fans were likely to get an RPG that was technologically and graphically advanced enough to be fun, but not yet influenced ("tainted," as I'm sure some would have it) by the films. While the two Interplay titles have some promise and fun moments, it's too bad that they were the only attempts.

****

While we're wrapping things up, I think I might be ready to throw in the towel on The Seventh Link. I hate to do it, particularly when I know the developer is reading, but I can't seem to force myself to map and explore all the large dungeon levels. I'll chew on it for another couple days while I get started with Star Control II.



38 comments:

  1. I played that 2002 Fellowship of the Ring game for the first time fairly recently (the PS2 version mind, though I imagine the PC version was identical). Had no idea going in that it was based on the book rather than the films - the publisher Vivendi only had the book licensing rights and decided to cash in before the real movie game adaptations arrived. What's weird is that FOTR plays almost exactly like the EA games, the first of which (The Two Towers) was released less than a month later.

    I guess what I'm suggesting is that the amount of desperation and corner-cutting with these Interplay adaptations might not be an isolated situation for RPGs set in Middle-earth.

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    1. Until I read your comment here, I had no idea it had no relation to the films. I just assumed based on the timing.

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  2. What kind of super nerd would think the movies tainted the source material to an extent worth getting mad about?

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    1. This isn't my fight so I'm only making this argument based on what I've heard other people say. But the point is that the films are now so inextricably associated with the title that they influence all major games, art, and other ancillary products. So you know that Amazon's forthcoming show, for instance, will be truer to the films than to the source. If you had an alternate vision of how the characters and setting should be portrayed, it probably boils your blood that everything Tolkien-related for the rest of your lifetime is going to be influenced by Jackson.

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    2. I know how I'd feel if one of the more idiotic portrayals of King Arthur over the last 30 years--Guy Ritchie's, say--had become so popular that it was going to dominate how everyone saw the genre for the rest of my lifetime. I already suspect I probably won't get a good film or TV version of the Round Table in my lifetime. If the rest of the world enthusiastically associated King Arthur with Clive Owen, I'd be certain of it.

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    3. It's hard to think of it now, but the Jackson films were considered a major risk. I saw one article before FOTR came out that discussed how they were throwing 180 million down the drain. They ended costing quite a bit more, but are pushing 3 billion at the box office. For those who didn't like the films, we are probably aren't going see another version for a long time!

      The history of Tolkien adaptations and derivatives is a landscape of failed projects and stubs never finished. Multiple film projects were planned but never made. Heck, even the cartoon adaptation never received a sequel.

      I think Jimmy covered some of this over at Digital Antiquarian a few years back for those interested too. He's also discussed this general phenomenon with Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur - well known and loved settings that have produced many highly variable projects from a quality standpoint.

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    4. Super nerd here. Who else were you expecting on a site like this?

      The movies created the idea that there is one way to view Middle-Earth, and not a whole bunch of them. Before the movie, my Helm's Deep was different from your Helm's Deep was different from Tolkien's Helm's Deep was different from Rankin-Bass' Helm's Deep. Now, there is only one Helm's Deep, and it is famous as being the place where the elves stood with the Rohirrim. I shall always shout the twin mottos: Erkenbrand was robbed! Haldir lives!

      Sure, the movie got a lot right. Most importantly, the themes. But even with a substantially above average Hollywood film, it still sets the idea in a lot of people's minds - most of whom will never read the books - that there is one and only one canonical way to look at Middle-Earth. I remember my first encounter with movie-only fans and it was jarring. It's like that scene in Clerks 2 when Randall ridicules the nerd for being a Lord of the Rings fan, and then the nerd makes the connection with the customer fan, and they both ridicule Randall for being an old-fashioned Star Wars fan. Only the book fans are Randall, but it's the same unsettling feeling of those kids today not giving a shit about the original gangstas.

      Yeah, it's all the ancilliary material from here on will flow from the flawed movie version, rather than the superior original recipe. It's like when Colonel Sanders sold Kentucky Fried Chicken and the new owners changed his gravy from ambrosia to wallpaper paste. That's the only gravy any of us will ever have.

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    5. The LOTR was written by a Zen Master of Thoroughness, whom you would call a "super nerd". No surprise that people who like the books tend to be similar.

      Personally, I've only seen the first movie, didn't like it, and avoided seeing the other two. The movie didn't have the qualities I liked in the book: A powerful, enchanting, detailed imagination. A world with both dark and strikingly beautiful realms. Solemn characters who need to gather all their courage and resolve to struggle against overwhelming odds. A certain sense of sorrow about peoples and customs that are no more.

      What I found in the movie, IMO, was a very bland Frodo (with the same facial expression for large parts of the movie IIRC), several intentionally distorted characters (Pippin and Gimli were used as laughingstocks, Boromir was portrayed as unlikable from the start), a somewhat lacking visual imagination, and generally a lack of solemnness.

      It was probably pretty good considering that it was directed by a dyed-in-the-wool schlockmeister whose first film is appropriately called "Bad Taste". Unfortunately he later turned The Hobbit into a real schlock movie trilogy from what I've read.

      Like the CRPG Addict and Harland said, it's regrettable that the movies' imagery now is ever-present in LOTR adaptations. When the copyright for the novels expires, then we might see more and different adaptations, maybe made outside of huge Hollywood productions, some of which might keep the magic of the books intact.

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    6. Hello all! Here to defend the films. Seeing the films inspired me to read the books. I grew up aware and interested in the books, and had read and loved The Hobbit, but the films gave me the courage to push through what was a famously boring series, and I loved it, and love the books more than the movies. I think what irks me the most about the movies, which has been mentioned already, is the over the top action sequences that ruin all the elegance of the storytelling. Also, some of the plot alterations that seem unnecessary.

      But overall the films are an amazing achievement. "Before the movie, my Helm's Deep was different from your Helm's Deep... Now, there is only one Helm's Deep." I appreciate the anxiety here, but it's an unfounded fear. As someone who saw the films first, I can attest that my Helm's Deep is different than how the film depicted it. The novels will always be there and the films don't change that. What is sad is that because of the nature of the material, there are so few adaptations. But in the future, possibly near, the difficulties in creating fantastic cinematic worlds will become lesser and lesser with new technologies, and more adaptations will emerge. The films are Jackson's vision of the series, and he has the right to that vision, and the right to express it. We all have a right to our visions, and his doesn't take away from ours.

      Also, Bmp, I think your assessment of Fellowship is a bit off. If Fellowship didn't capture the magic for you, you might actually enjoy The Hobbit films, which dial everything up to 11 from the beginning, and continue to dial it up to 13 and from what I hear (I skipped 3) finally to 15. What results is absolutely bonkers ridiculous. Fellowship begins by easing the audience into a world similar to ours with some fantastic elements, which is essential for cinematic pacing, before going deeper into the more magical sequels. It's easy to patly say it lacks visual imagination, but the amount of work it takes to bring a fantasy world to reality on the level of Fellowship is insane. And Jackson isn't a great director in my opinion, but he's generally very good and definitely not a schlockmeister.

      As a fellow nerd, I encourage you all to avoid impulses towards elitism, and warm yourself to the idea that everyone has the right to enjoy the things you enjoy, even if they enjoy it differently, or for different reasons- it doesn't mean they don't get it, or that they're stupid or that they've ruined it.

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    7. guy ritchie´s king arthur 10/10.. nothing more to say

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    8. If we're talking King Arthur adaptations... nothing will ever beat Excalibur, the movie from the 80s,with its Wagnerian atmosphere for me. That movie is just amazing.

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    9. I agree that Excalibur is probably the best extant Arthurian adaptation, but I don't think that nothing will ever beat it. Some of the acting is horrible, and there are times that the limited budget is all-too-clear. I also think Boorman made some questionable choices in the conflation of certain characters and events. I particularly don't like how the move portrayed Gawain, who has a long and noble history in the literature and deserved a more nuanced treatment.

      But I can almost forgive all its flaws for that one scene when Arthur kneels before Uriens (his enemy) in the heat of battle and demands that Uriens knight him. That was entirely invented by the screenwriter and ought to be a lasting part of Arthurian canon.

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    10. In the name of God, St. Micheal, and St. George, I give you the right to bear arms, the power to mete justice.

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    11. Interesting thing about that movie. (I wrote a whole thesis on this in school.) Nowhere is Arthur said to be the king of "England" or "Britain." No specific geography ever appears except that the Duke whose wife Uther steals is called "Cornwall," but even that seems to be his name rather than his land's name. When Arthur's knights come back from years of war, they also completely avoid proper names: "How did you fare in the North?"; "The East is ours again!" "The West is free and with us!" I'm not entirely sure why Boorman avoided explicitly placing his version of the tale in Britain.

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    12. @Joet88:
      "As a fellow nerd, I encourage you all to avoid impulses towards elitism, and warm yourself to the idea that everyone has the right to enjoy the things you enjoy, even if they enjoy it differently, or for different reasons- it doesn't mean they don't get it, or that they're stupid or that they've ruined it."

      Sure, I'm not claiming otherwise, and I didn't mean to disparage fans of the movies. Did you write this because of my polemic "schlockmeister" comment? Somebody who directed movies like Bad Taste and Braindead really can't complain about that epithet. :) This doesn't mean that he's _only_ this and not a good director otherwise. But his predilections do seem to make themselves visible in those over-the-top scenes you speak of.


      "It's easy to patly say it lacks visual imagination, but the amount of work it takes to bring a fantasy world to reality on the level of Fellowship is insane."

      I agree, it's very hard. Several illustrators have adapted the LOTR to excellent paintings, such as Angus McBride (for example, https://www.les-ailes-immortelles.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=10205), and John Howe and Alan Lee who worked on the films. But despite the nearly unlimited technological possibilities afforded by computer-generated imagery, I think it's still very difficult to turn these into movie scenes of a similar quality.


      @CRPG Addict:
      Have you seen Tolkien's interpretations of Arthurian legends, the books "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo" and "The Fall of Arthur" (unfinished)?

      I first read about King Arthur in the Prince Valiant comic, where Camelot is a recurring backdrop for Val's adventures. It contains allusions to some tragic end for the Round Table and a few incipient conflicts between Arthur, Mordred, Guinevere, Gawain and Lancelot that hint at the larger story. (Actually I just realized that the character Geoffrey in the comic is probably supposed to be Geoffrey of Monmouth, chronicler of the Arthurian legend.) (If anyone is interested, Prince Valiant is being reprinted in an excellent edition by Fantagraphics Books since 2009.)

      This made me look for more Arthurian works, and after reading The Once and Future King and unsucessfully trying to read some centuries-old original source a couple years ago, I think I'll try The Crystal Cave, which you recommend in this post: http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2014/01/game-137-spirit-of-excalibur-1990.html

      If there are other books that adapt the whole legend (or a large part of it) that you can recommend, I'd like to hear it! The Once and Future King is a great but also quirky adaptation I think, and The Crystal Cave also seems to emphasize its own angle, going by the description. Is there any somewhat "canonical" and complete adaptation in order to get a better understanding of the legend, aside from centuries-old hard-to-read original sources?

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    13. I think that with Tolkien in particular, fans can be defensive because Tolkien himself was. He wrote a withering letter to a proposed film treatment of LotR where he ripped apart the writer's story, criticizing not only large-scale things but minor nitpicky things as well.

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    14. I second the praise of the Boorman Arthur film, "Excalibur". If anyone asks me to recommend a good fantasy film, it is my first mention. The next mention is the Rankin and Bass version of "The Hobbit".

      Since my early days of paper role playing games, I never met players who relished playing in a scripted fantasy world. I saw many attempts to roleplay "Dune" or "Middle Earth". They did not work out. Either they knew the stories too well and did not want to defile the source, or they never read the stories and so found gaming in such places to be too forbidding. The genius of Dungeons and Dragons was to create generic high fantasy settings, such as "Greyhawk" and "Forgotten Realms", with no central narrative.

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    15. Bmp, Bad Taste and Braindead are brilliant films! The former was made on a budget of more or less nothing, which makes it even more impressive. I don't think Jackson has made anything quite as good since.

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    16. I probably did take it more personally than I realized :) Of course I respect y'all's opinion, I think I was frustrated in a general sense, less towards anyone in particular- I think it's good to put work into trying to get into the spirit of someone else's vision, rather than dismiss something when it doesn't match our expectations.

      The thing about schlockmeister... is that film history is very much cemented in "low" material, and much of the classic building blocks of the medium come out of what could be described as trash. Cinema was born from children's toys and carnival sideshows (zoetropes and nickelodeons.) Filmmakers who know their history are more willing to delve into that territory and still take their work seriously.

      And finally... I think the goofy action sequences had less to do with Jackson and more to do with The Matrix and Star Wars (and more indirectly, Crouching Tiger)- in other words, a consequence of the expectations of the time for highly choreographed, Hong Kong inspired action set pieces.

      I never saw Bad Taste or Braindead, but I did see Heavenly Creatures, which is a very serious movie that uses imaginative fantasy visuals in service to a dark, psychological drama.

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  3. The news for me here is that Charles Ardai, the mystery novelist and publisher, used to review computer games.

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    1. I wasn't aware of him until your comment. I looked up his Wikipedia profile. I am aware of his work, particularly the Hard Case Crime series. That's pretty cool. I wonder how many other now-famous names we'd find if we combed niche publications from 30 years ago. Probably a lot.

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    2. Slightly different, since it was his day job, but a few years ago I came across a bit in a site report for the temple of Nodens written by one JRR Tolkien, examining the linguistics of the deity's name. That was pretty cool, but I was also tickled that HP Lovecraft used Nodens as one of his less-horrific gods (he was probably attracted/repulsed by an amazing fishy mosaic there). That's a lot of old school nerd-lit credit in that report.

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    3. Writing job is a writing job...

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    4. That's what the author of the Book of Job said.

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    5. @CRPG Addict - Charlie Brooker, creator and writer of Black Mirror, used to write for PC Zone in the mid 90s. But i guess that's general knowledge now.

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    6. For a more gritty, closer to the original myth Arthur, you could try the Bernard Cornwell book series on Arthur. I enjoyed them even if they give a different interpretation to the Romantic version in Excalibur, which I also love.

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  4. I somehow like the idea of playing the second fiddle, and while the Chosen One saves the world, you set up how the world is afterwards.

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  5. "The Two Towers was the last attempt to make an official Middle Earth game until after the Peter Jackson film series"

    This is true only for PC games. Interplay actually made an altogether different version of Vol.I for SNES in the 1994.
    https://www.mobygames.com/game/jrr-tolkiens-lord-of-the-rings-volume-one

    This one was made as Action-RPG, inspired by Zelda series. But it flopped too, more or less.

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  6. That's one thing I've seen the Addict do: go through the game once, make consequential decisions, and play through regardless. The decisions are often role-playing ones rather than sound tactical RPG player ones, i.e. the way the game is hinting is the "correct" way. Unless it dead-ends the game, he bulls through. That's neither good nor bad, but I have noticed it.

    "The option I chose (use the Star Ruby) causes the hobbits to get burned a little bit, which would suck--except that the endgame happens five seconds later. Why bother to attach a penalty to the choice?"

    Versimmlitude. Because that's what would happen. Moreover they weren't aware back then on this meta-level where you watch yourself play a CRPG.

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    1. That's what I love about reading this blog. Chet always goes along with things if they're not game breaking. Rather than reload to get the optimal result, he just rolls with it and sees what happens. If a game has multiple paths he will try those on a second playthrough, if it's feasible, such as in the Quest for Glory games.

      Makes for a fun reading experience.

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  7. So a story-driven RPG that fails at telling a story - regrettable, but at least more interesting than Ultima Clone no. 265.

    Hope you have fun with Star Control II. Great game. You would probably have to reject it as a CRPG. But then, it does link Starflight to Mass Effect - and it's just such an idiosyncratic cult hit, that it should be covered somewhere.

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  8. What about the fake journal entries? I always love that kinda stuff.

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  9. Re: "embarking on a lengthy side-quest while on the threshold of victory for the game at large".

    While certainly not an uncommon trope in Western RPGs, it's something you'd be practically drowning in if you were also playing (primarily-console-released) JRPGs through this period. "You're totally ready to kill the main boss, but how about grinding for another 20 hours to kill an optional boss in a side area that you wouldn't even know existed without consulting a hint book?" is so expected it's noteworthy when it's not there.

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  10. A good summary of the game and its chief flaws. I especially strongly agree with this part of final paragraph:

    "The 1990s were the only era in which Tolkien fans were likely to get an RPG that was technologically and graphically advanced enough to be fun, but not yet influenced ("tainted," as I'm sure some would have it) by the films. While the two Interplay titles have some promise and fun moments, it's too bad that they were the only attempts."

    Exactly.

    With regards to the movie "taint", while I do happen to be in the "movies were controversial at best" camp, I think even people who utterly loved the movies in every way should agree that their tremendous success is also a curse, as it blocks virtually all other possibilities. There are books - I'm thinking mainly the British and their Jane Austen adaptations - out there that get a new adaptation almost every decade, and while some of those adaptations are inevitably bad, it's just fantastic that you keep getting different takes and interpretations on the same story.

    The Lord of the Rings movies got many things wrong, plot-wise, but the worst thing about them is that they got so much right in terms of visual interpretation, that they will be, for a long time, considered to be the definitive version, and no one will see any point in "challenging" them with an alternative take. This is not good for anyone. I'd be very happy if we saw half a dozen terrible LotR adaptations being made, if in return, we got another one or two excellent ones. Instead, we're going to be stuck with one "almost great" adaptation for a long time...

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    1. There is a lord of the rings tv-series in the making from amazon but most that is known is just speculations

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    2. Yes, there is. Initially, I assumed it would be a remake (which pleased and surprised me), but now I hear that it's actually going to be based on other Tolkien materials, because the Tolkien Estate has, for the first time, given permission to license the Silmarillion. But yeah, it's still all speculation.

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    3. Well, I'm not a Tolkien nerd, although it was the Hobbit that really got me into reading fantasy when I was a middle-schooler. I don't mind how the LoTR movies came out, and I thought they were enjoyable particularly the extended cuts (little more character development). However, I thought "The Hobbit" was too over the top and all just a money grab from Tolkien/LOTR movie fans. I did not like how they changed the story even though they claimed they were pulling from Tolkien's notes on how he would like to have redone the Hobbit in light of how he wrote LoTR.

      Speaking of adaptations of Jane Austen, I still like the old A&E adaptation of Pride and Prejudice quite a bit.

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    4. Oh, god, that frigging thing. I think I've told this story before, but Irene tried to make me watch it and after like six scenes in a row of attractive wealthy people saying extremely reserved things to each other in sitting rooms, I said, "No time or place in the history of the world has been more in need of an alien invasion." I was so excited when Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out. That managed to tell the story in in one-third the time as the A&E series AND it put zombies in there!

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