Video games have been adapting J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings for a little over thirty years. But not all of those games saw the light of day.
Frank Cifaldi — developer, archivist and gaming historian — shared the following scans with Polygon depicting two The Lord of the Rings games that were briefly shown to the public and then never heard from again. The scans come from Cifaldi's extensive personal library of games media. Cifaldi works to establish reference collections dedicated to these materials, and has jumpstarted one for the public within the Library of Congress and at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.
The first set of screens comes from an NES Interplay game simple titled The Lord of the Rings, first shown at the summer Consumer Electronics Show in June 1991. The game was built as a role-playing version of the Interplay text adventures of the same name, according to Games That Weren't. These scans come from issues of GamePro and EGM covering the expo and coverage of the game, according to Cifaldi, appeared nowhere else.
"This was never spoken of again," he told Polygon. "What I do know: Those are photographs off of a screen at the show, so they displayed something. What I don't know, if it was a playable game or just a non-interactive demo on a screen."
These scans could be a proof of concept or the beginnings of a full game. What we do know is that it the game appears to have no relation to Interplay's previous The Lord of the Rings computer games and subsequent SNES versions.
The gallery below includes screenshots from another NES game called War in Middle Earth, based loosely on (but not the same as) the Melbourne House computer game of the same name from 1988. The game's Commodore 64 counterpart also seems to have been referred to, in some cases, as Lord of the Rings 3, which Games That Weren't suggests could mean it was meant to cover battles in the final book of the trilogy, The Return of the King. This game was in development with Arcadia Systems, a studio dedicated to arcade games made with technology similar to the Commodore Amiga computer system. The studio was later acquired by Virgin Games USA and assisted on an NES version of the 7-Up soda promotional game 7-Up Spot.
These scans come from a brochure, courtesy of the The International Center for the History of Electronic Games, handed out during CES in January 1990. Cifaldi said there is no evidence that War in Middle Earth was ever playable to the public.
"It's really hard to say with games of this vintage whether they were completely done and sat on, or barely started when they were announced," he said. "It was a different time. Remember, the function of these shows was to get buyers for stores excited and get them to make orders in advance. So often, you might have a concept that was barely started, not get any orders, and just cancel it."
The latest Lord of the Rings game adaptation, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, launches on Sept. 30. For more details on similar games, check out our in-depth feature chronicling the rocky history of Tolkien's properties in video games.
Note: All above screenshots are for NES titles. The War in Middle Earth shown here — not the computer version that released in 1988 — is different than the Commodore 64 version, which Games That Weren't notes was sometimes referred to as Lord of the Rings 3. We've added this information above.