When legendary writer J.R.R. Tolkien created his fantasy opus The Lord of the Rings, he had no idea just how influential his work would be. The epic scope of his Middle-earth saga obviously inspired generations of writers to follow in his footsteps, but it also had a profound influence on a medium that didn't even exist during Tolkien's life time: video games!
Readers have been exploring the land of Middle-earth in their imaginations since the 1950s. The creation of the iconic tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (which was certainly influenced by Tolkien's work) stoked those imaginations further, but with the advent of video games, fantasy fans were finally able to see these fantastic worlds with their own eyes.
Game developers crafted new virtual worlds for gamers to explore, and Tolkien's work was perfectly suited for such adaptation. Gamers have been able to explore Middle-earth in a number of different games and genres, from the simplistic efforts of the 80s through to the big budget 3D adventure, action and role playing games more familiar to modern gamers. From the launch of text adventure The Hobbit in 1982 to the upcoming sequel Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Tolkien's world has never been far from the gaming spotlight.
These are The Lord of the Rings Video Games: From Worst to Best. We're focusing on console, PC and portable games, so recent browser-based games and phone/tablet apps didn't make the cut.
23 The Lord Of The Rings Volume 1 - 1994 (Super NES)
First (and worst) on our list is this Interplay effort for the Super Nintendo. Players control Frodo Baggins and the rest of the Fellowship from a top-down perspective in this RPG. Released in 1994, it tells just a small slice of the Rings story, culminating with the Fellowship's escape from the Balrog in the Mines of Moria.
The game received a frosty reception from reviewers upon release, and not just for its abbreviated adaptation of Tolkien's beloved story. The graphics and gameplay were also maligned by the gaming press, and the game sold poorly, resulting in the cancellation of the planned sequel that would have continued the story. It did have some unique elements, though, including four-player multiplayer thanks to the Super Multitap, as well as permadeath for members of the Fellowship who fell in battle.
22 Lord Of The Rings Game 1 And 2 - 1985/1987 (PC)
These two text adventures weren't the first game adaptation of Tolkien's work (that honor belongs to 1982's The Hobbit), but they were the first to adapt the sweeping Lord of the Rings story.
The appeal of text adventures may be difficult to understand for modern gamers raised on 3D graphics. In these early days, gamers were happy to lend their imagination to the task at hand as they keyed in various commands ("Frodo picks up the ring", "Aragorn attacks the troll", etc.)
These games were playable on a number of different computer systems, from the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum to the IBM PC. They received fairly positive reviews, though The Hobbit is remembered as the better game.
21 War In Middle-Earth - 1988 (PC)
The Lord of the Rings saga is ideally suited for a number of different game genres. So far we've had RPGs and text adventures, but with this 1988 entry we enter the realm of real-time strategy games.
There will be more such games on this list, but this entry was the first Tolkien-inspired take on the strategy genre. It's a surprisingly robust game given its age, offering gamers the option of viewing battles on both large and small scales. On the smaller scale, players are given an impressive (for the time) view of the battlefield and the characters who populate it. Aside from the rank and file soldiers, you'll also see plenty of notable Middle-earth residents like Gandalf, Radagast the Brown and Tom Bombadil.
20 J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings Volume 1 And 2 - 1990/1992 (PC)
We started our list with Interplay's maligned SNES offering, but the publisher first entered Middle-earth with these two RPGs for the PC.
Like Interplay's later effort, these two games feature a top-down perspective, but that's where the similarities end. They utilize a "point and click" interface as the gamer explores the land, gathering the Fellowship and completing quests. The story follows that of the book for the most part, though there are some deviations, like a side quest to find the shards of Narsil.
The games were ahead of their time in some ways, most notably with a day/night cycle and enemies that adapted to the time of day. But just as with their SNES game, Interplay failed to finish the story, cancelling the third and final game in the series.
19 Riders Of Rohan - 1991 (PC)
This strategy game built on the success of War in Middle-Earth. Released three years later, this game focused on the plight of Rohan and the events of the second and third books in the trilogy. Players are tasked with protecting the land of Rohan from the forces of the evil Saruman, while also playing a role in the wider War of the Ring. Unlike most early games, this one actually followed the story though to its end and the destruction of Sauron.
Throughout the game, players manage the armies of Rohan in battles with both Saruman and Sauron, while playing as characters like Legolas, Aragorn, Eomer and Gandalf in more action-oriented segments.
18 The Lord Of The Rings: Aragorn's Quest - 2010 (PS3, Wii)
Leaping forward in time, we come to this kid-friendly action game released for Sony's PlayStation consoles as well as the Nintendo Wii. It features a unique premise, as it's set years after the events of the books. With Frodo Baggins having departed to the Undying Lands, Samwise Gamgee (voiced by film actor Sean Astin) gathers his little children around him for a story about the War of the Ring.
It's an adaptation of the Peter Jackson movies, so it follows that story and utilizes a lot of dialogue from them. Since it's framed as a story being told to children, it deviates from the films in certain places (with Sam taking some artistic license, hence the vibrant colors and lighter atmosphere).
Aside from playing as Aragorn, gamers also control Sam's son Frodo as he helps his father prepare for the King of Gondor's arrival in the Shire.
17 Fellowship Of The Ring - 2002 (PS2, Xbox)
With the release of the first entry in Peter Jackson's Rings trilogy in 2001, interest in Tolkien's world surged to new heights. EA was ready with a slate of games based on Jackson's take on the story, but other developers were free to produce games based on Tolkien's literary work.
This action-adventure game was one such effort. It's based on the first book in the Rings trilogy, and gamers can play as Frodo, Aragorn and Gandalf on their journey. Gameplay changes depending on which hero the gamer is controlling, with Frodo adept at stealth, Aragorn an accomplished warrior and Gandalf, of course, a peerless wizard.
The game received mixed reviews and its sales paled in comparison to games based on the film property. Two more games were planned to finish the trilogy, and the second one was almost complete when it was cancelled.
16 The Hobbit - 2003 (PS2, Xbox)
Another game based on Tolkien's written work, this adaptation of The Hobbit was released right in the middle of the Rings film trilogy (and years before The Hobbit movies). It's a colorful take on Bilbo's story filled with platforming, simplistic combat and some puzzles.
The game follows Bilbo's famous quest closely, and the player traverses a number of iconic Middle-earth locations, from the Shire and Mirkwood Forest to Lake-town and Smaug's lair within the Lonely Mountain.
The game arrived amid of a flood of Tolkien-themed games, given the continuing success of the film adaptations. It received mixed reviews, however, and there wasn't anything special about its gameplay to make it stand out from the pack.
15 The Hobbit - 1982 (PC)
Here we have the very first Tolkien-related video game that was ever released. Most of those older games are grouped near the bottom of the list due to their primitive nature, but this one lands a bit higher for being as celebrated as it is.
As a text adventure it's not much to look at, but it did include illustrations to help the player imagine the settings they were traveling through. The game system made many breakthroughs for its time, giving the player new ways to interact with the different characters and the world itself.
It received rewards and great reviews upon release, and became one of the bestselling text adventure games of all time, rivaling Zork.
14 Conquest - 2009 (PS3, Xbox 360)
In the mid-2000s, developer Pandemic Studios had great success with the Star Wars: Battlefront games, bringing all the intense action of that timeless saga's battle scenes to game consoles. Taking that formula and applying it to the Lord of the Rings seemed like a no-brainer, and so Conquest was born.
The game builds off the Jackson films, and allows the player to fight on both sides of the War of the Ring. There are two different campaigns, one which follows the path of the movies and books and sees the Free Peoples of Middle-earth triumph over evil. The other, darker path has players pushing Sauron's forces to victory and domination of the world.
Unlike the Battlefront games, though, Conquest received mixed reviews, and didn't quite live up to its massive potential.
13 Lego The Hobbit - 2014 (PS3, Xbox 360)
Traveller's Tales Lego series has no shortage of fans, and it has successfully adapted a number of beloved properties, from Star Wars to Harry Potter. Lego The Hobbit was the second Tolkien vehicle for the series, and while it packed in a lot of that classic Lego fun, it also left a lot to be desired.
If you've played a Lego game, you know exactly what to expect from them, and this one is no different. Cute Lego versions of Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin's Company smash and build their way through a charming version of Middle-earth.
Unfortunately, the developers decided to release the game in the middle of the Hobbit film trilogy, so it only included the events of the first two films. An adaptation of the final film was supposed to be added later as DLC, but that plan was ultimately nixed, leaving this game frustratingly incomplete.
12 Tactics - 2005 (PSP)
Proving once again that Tolkien's story can fit into any genre, Tactics brings Lord of the Rings into the realm of the tactical RPG. This portable game places all of Middle-earth's most famous denizens on the game board in a turn-based battle for supremacy.
Characters move along a grid (almost like a chess game), attempting to outflank their opponents before ultimately vanquishing them in combat. As in Conquest, the gamer can choose which side of the War of the Ring they want to fight on, and the campaign follows the story. Based on the Jackson films, it naturally includes lots of music and dialog from them, as well as clips of the cinematic action during story cutscenes.
11 War In The North - 2011 (PS3, Xbox 360)
War in the North is something of a rarity when it comes to Rings games, as it tells a wholly original story set in the world of Middle-earth. Where most games follow the Fellowship (and their allies and enemies) through the events of the classic story, this game introduces a trio of new characters on an entirely different journey.
An action RPG, War in the North offers players their choice of a human, dwarf or elf and sends them on a quest in support of the Fellowship. While Frodo, Aragorn and the rest head towards Mordor, North's protagonists battle the forces of the villain Agandaûr, a powerful servant of Sauron.
The new characters aren't all that special (they could probably be called not-Aragorn, not-Gimli and not-Arwen), but it's still an entertaining romp through some seldom seen regions of Middle-earth.
10 Guardians Of Middle-Earth - 2012 (PS3, Xbox 360)
Few game genres are as popular today as the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA for short). Thanks to games like League of Legends and Dota 2, MOBAs are all the rage, so it wasn't surprising to see the Rings license utilized for such a game.
Unlike most MOBAs, though, this was launched on home consoles instead of the PC (though it did ultimately make its way to the computer as well). It features Middle-earth's most famous warriors (or, well, Guardians) facing off against each other for battlefield supremacy. Characters like Gandalf, Legolas, Gollum and Sauron himself form teams and battle until only one is left standing.
Guardians of Middle-earth was a reasonably successful installment in the genre, but it never came close to challenging League or Dota 2.
9 War Of The Ring - 2003 (PC)
Like Fellowship of the Ring and The Hobbit, War of the Ring was based on the Tolkien books and not the popular films. Of course, all three games were released while that trilogy was dominating the box office and Rings interest was at its peak.
A strategy game in the style of classics of the genre like Warcraft and Command & Conquer, War lived up to its name by pitting the Free Peoples of Middle-earth against Sauron's forces. Humans, Elves, Dwarves and even the shape-shifting Beornings fight for the freedom of the world while monsters like Orcs, Uruk-hai, Trolls and Spiders fill out Sauron's army.
The game received fairly mixed reviews, but better LOTR strategy games were coming.
8 The Third Age - 2004 (PS2, Xbox)
Like War in the North, this game builds off the story of the Fellowship by telling its own original story with a new group of characters (albeit not very memorable ones). Unlike that game though, The Third Age is a turn-based RPG in the grand tradition of Final Fantasy. After so many action-adventure based Rings games, it was a refreshing change.
The heroes of this game follow in the footsteps of the Fellowship of the Ring to an almost comical effect. Your characters are always just behind their more famous counterparts: in one humorous example, you're down in the depths of Moria when the Fellowship is battling goblins in Balin's Tomb (the bucket Pippin sends tumbling down the well lands right next to you!).
The story and characters may lack originality, but the gameplay is solid and it's a fun jaunt through the Middle-earth of the movies.
7 The Two Towers - 2002 (PS2, Xbox)
The Rings movies are packed with great action sequences, from Legolas slicing his way through Orcs in Balin's Tomb and Boromir's last stand on Amon Hen to the Battle of Helm's Deep and the final march on the Black Gate. Living those moments at home became a must for the gamers in the audience.
EA grabbed the license to produce games based on the films, and they wasted little time in helping gamers bring their Middle-earth fantasies to life. Their first release, The Two Towers, combined all the best action sequences from the first two films in the trilogy. Gamers could play as Aragorn, Legolas or Gimli as they hacked and slashed through scores of Sauron's minions.
The game received great reviews and sold through the roof, setting the stage for an even better followup.
6 The Battle For Middle-earth - 2004 (PC)
Fantasy worlds lend themselves well to strategy games, so it's no surprise that the Lord of the Rings property has been utilized for a number of them. With Battle for Middle-earth, EA attempted to perfect the formula that other developers had been experimenting with since 1988.
The first of two Battle games, this 2004 release was playable only on PCs. Like other games on this list, it made full use of the movie license with music, dialog and character design all lifted from the hit trilogy.
The premise is similar to past games like War of the Ring, with gamers able to play as both heroic and evil characters. It was a strong start for EA, and one they would build on with the sequel.
5 The Battle For Middle-Earth 2 - 2006 (PC, Xbox 360)
Two years after the first game, EA released this sequel. Battle for Middle-earth 2 was another PC release, but this time it was also ported to the Xbox 360, allowing console gamers to get a taste of strategy gameplay in the Rings universe.
Since the first game focused on the familiar story told in the books and movies, the sequel shifted its focus to events in the northern reaches of Middle-earth (like the later War in the North). As Tolkien only briefly described those events, both games needed to use some artistic license to flesh out the story.
The gameplay of the first installment was further refined for this entry, which received rave reviews from fans and critics alike.
4 Lego The Lord Of The Rings - 2012 (PS3, Xbox 360)
Lego The Hobbit was a little disappointing (mostly on account of its unfinished state) but this earlier game had no such issues. Lego Lord of the Rings takes everything you loved about the film trilogy and distills it down into that instantly recognizable (and adorable) mini-brick form.
If you're not a fan of Lego games in general, this won't change your mind. But if you're a Rings fan who enjoys what Traveller's Tales does, this is heaven. Naturally, the game follows the path of the film's stories, and sets you loose to roam around in a lovingly crafted and hilariously small version of Middle-earth. No, Edoras isn't just around the corner from Helm's Deep, but it's still fun (and convenient) to make the trip in less than a minute!
3 Return Of The King - 2003 (PS2, Xbox)
EA was very successful in creating an action oriented Rings experience with 2002's The Two Towers, and a year later they improved on their work with this sequel. Of course, this game expands on (and completes) the story, following all of the characters through the events of the final film. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are all playable once again, with new additions to the roster including Gandalf, Frodo and Sam (and more you can unlock).
As in the previous game, Return of the King utilizes extensive material from the films, with movie clips merging seamlessly (by 2003 standards) with gameplay. The already solid gameplay was improved upon, and the extra year of development time allowed for better graphics and busier levels. Like its predecessor, Return of the King was a hit.
2 The Lord Of The Rings Online - 2007 (PC)
If ever there was a world that's suited for an MMO, it's Middle-earth. The most successful MMOs of all time (EverQuest, World of Warcraft, etc.) have featured fantasy worlds that owe obvious debts of inspiration to Tolkien's work. With that in mind, what could be better than actually exploring Tolkien's world?
That idea gave rise to the game that would eventually become The Lord of the Rings Online. Launched in 2007, LOTRO was competitive in a crowded MMO marketplace, but it wasn't able to unseat the heavyweights of the genre. But ten years later the game is still filled with players, and the developers have steadily added to their digital Middle-earth, most recently adding Mordor itself. Any Tolkien fan who has ever daydreamed about life in the Shire needs to check out this one.
1 Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor - 2014 (PS4, Xbox 1)
It's safe to say that Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor took everyone by surprise when it was released in 2014. Early indications were that it was a fairly standard action game that took its cues from popular titles like Assassin's Creed and Arkham Asylum. Fans were also intrigued by the original story, though it might have chafed Tolkien purists. Shadow is set in the decades between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and features an undead Ranger named Talion, who merges with the spirit of the ancient Elf Lord Celebrimbor to become a vengeful wraith.
What really made the game stand out, however, was the Nemesis System that governed enemy AI. The many orcs of Mordor aren't just faceless enemies standing in Talion's way: they're rivals who remember their encounters with the wraith and react accordingly. An Orc will grow in power if he eliminates Talion, who can in turn shatter Mordor's war machine with a few well chosen executions.
That's our list: The Lord of the Rings Video Games: From Worst to Best. What do you think?