Journey to Rivendell

The Lord of the Rings: Journey to Rivendell
Atari 2600
Parker Brothers
Unreleased (Was announced in 1983)
Prototype discovered 2001-2003

This unreleased Atari 2600 game covers one of my favourite parts of the Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s journey from Hobbiton to Rivendell, during which he gets chased down by Ringwraiths (overkill much, Sauron?), meets several strange men (they spend two whole nights at Tom Bombadils… aren’t they supposed to be in a hurry?), and generally walks around a bit until he gets stabbed on Weathertop. That is the case in the book at least. This game is of course a little simplified, but it actually gets the basics of that story covered.

I should say before going into it, this game was never released. It was developed by Parker Brothers (to completion, or at least it appears so). The reason for the game’s lack of release is supposedly due to licensing issues. You see, there are two major licensing companies, Tolkien Enterprises (Middle Earth Enterprises since 2010), which is owned by Saul Zaentz, who bough the full merchandising rights for specifically the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit from Tolkien himself in the 1970s. The other company is the Tolkien Estate, owned by the Tolkien family, who set up the company after J.R.R.’s death. They hold the print rights to all of the written work of J.R.R. Tolkien, and the right to hold and withhold licensing rights to everything written by Tolkien except for LotR and the Hobbit. Needless to say, theres not a fantastic relationship between the two groups, and at the time, when video games were still a relatively new phenomenon it wasn’t quite clear whether they counted as “merchandising” of The Lord of the Rings or a whole new medium whose release rights belonged to the estate. Either way, Parker Brothers was only able to get the license from one group, and for whatever reason the game never saw release.

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You begin the game in Hobbiton, which appears pretty much the same as the other settled areas in the game do, with some alternating brown and green houses. Oddly, your character seems to travel underneath the structures in the towns, so maybe to stay incognito Frodo and his friends travel underground in these towns so as not to raise suspicions. Or its a technical glitch, either is equally valid. But yes I did indeed mention friends! In several areas of the game, Frodo can pick up several other characters from the book each of whom has a special ability. In Hobbiton you start off with Sam Gamgee, who is the red character (literally the only discernible feature of each character is their colour, they all generally resemble men wearing pointy hats). Sam prevents you from getting wounded if you’re attacked by a Ringwraith. When first playing this I assumed Sam died, because he disappears after the attack, but I’ve discovered he just runs away, and you can reacquire him by doubling back seven screens.

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After leaving Hobbiton traveling upwards, the player sees what appears to be Frodo (though I honestly can’t tell if he’s supposed to be on a pony or not) in a green screen with several brown formations that I’d guess are hills. This is the one of the several screen types you’ll encounter in the game. The game world is made up of a couple of hundred ‘screens’ that are connected at the edges. Between Hobbiton and Rivendell there are fields like this one, and forests(where the scale strangely changes, and Frodo is simply represented as a dot, like in the town screen) Above the main screen is a simple panorama image of the landscape, there to warn you of the time of day, for as nightfall comes, if the player is in a field screen, the Nazgul attack.

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As your character comes close to one of the Ringwraiths, a crow will fly over you, and then the game will start beeping at you. This beep is louder the closer the Nazgul is to you, and as well as beeping, the game’s palette gets darker as well, going from green to dark green. This is when the Dark Rider will enter your screen, and is actually terrifying, beginning a long tradition of being scared shitless trying to escape from Nazgul in Fellowship of the Ring games. The Rider’s hooves can be heard from the game as you futilely direct Frodo from screen to screen, sometimes travelling north-south, sometimes east-west. Eventually, they’ll catch you, and you get wounded, if you don’t have your trusty gardener to…run away for you. If you get three wounds, you lose the game.

Once you make it to Bree, you get a new companion, the (even more) useless Strider. When he appears an arrow appears next to him, pointing you in a specfic direction. I thought it was some kind of safe route to avoid Black Riders, but in actual fact he leads you to Gandalf, in the most direct route possible, ignoring and thus leading us straight into any Nazgul between us and the Grey Wizard. Gandalf on the otherhand, is friggen awesome. He’s essentially a super mode for you, making you immune to any wraith attacks. Sadly he doesnt last very long, so the smartest thing to do is use him to go as far east(up) as you can.

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Eventually you’ll hit a river, I’m assuming the River Bruinen as it’s what you need to cross to get to Rivendell. Here is also where my fury at the mapview came into play. See, you can only enter the map if you are in the forest or a town, when Frodo is represented as a dot. On the map it shows where the main road is, and where the road intersects with the river is where the crossing is. Now, if you don’t know where the road is in realation to you when you get to the river, you’d want touse the map to findout right? Wrong, because the river screens are the same as fields, where Frodo is that weird sprite, and the map mode is inaccesible. The only way to know is to either doubleback (not smart,as you’re likely already being chased by riders at this point) or to pick a direction right or left, and go indefinitely into that direction until you either find the the crossing, reach the end of the world (represented by an inverted color scheme when you try to cross the boundary), or (most likely) are attacked and killed by a black rider. This is infuriating, and was the cause of so many failures in my attempt to finish the game.

All in all, I think the game is fairly fun, for an Atari 2600 game. That said, I’ve never had an Atari 2600, and was born after the system was in anyway popular. Journey to Rivendell is, overall, a good test, showing how a graphical Lord of the Rings game would work. After this game, a good chunk of gaming in Middle Earth will take place in the wonderful world of text adventures!

If you’d like to try the game out, it’s playable and available at the Internet Archive.