RIDERS OF ROHAN / Konami / PC
Riders of Rohan is a game I've wanted to play for almost two decades now, ever since I first happened across a review of it in Computer Gaming World or one of those other PC review rags of my youth. Published by Konami, it is a mix of overhead-view military strategy with action sequences for combat that involves the major characters of the Lord of the Rings series. I don't recall the game getting stellar reviews when it came out, but with all those factors in play, how could it possibly *not* be killer?
Well, I'll tell you how to pull that off - first make the strategy portion of the game horribly slow and random, and make the interface confusing. then, make the arcade sequences a relative rarity, and when you do encounter them, they are shoddily programmed and either too hard or too easy.
The game starts in Isen, as you try to rally the Riders of Rohan to march south through Gondor and eventually against Sauron. The game allows you to mess with the canon of the books a bit as you can save characters that die there, and also get characters killed off that were supposed to live, but as long as you eventually beat Sauron down all is well. You don't really do anything with the hobbits as far as I can see, this is all about the big army campaigns that were going on in the background of Sam and Frodo's quest.
You have a bunch of relatively weak units, and the first goal is to send them kind of randomly wandering the land to get into encounters and drum up troops. The game doesn't bother telling you this, though, nor does it bother to mention that in order to actually move troops you have to speed the time up to "very fast", leading to at least five minutes of consternation at the beginning as you try to figure out how the hell to play the game.
You don't actually see Sauron's units moving about the map, it's more like random encounters in an RPG, which kind of deflates the whole strategy element. Battles between units are like a primitive version of Warcraft taking place on one screen. The interface is a little more tolerable here but everything moves so slow it takes a year to conclude all but the most lopsided battles.
I have to admit I never got far enough to use the "special characters" in battle, but based on the Practice mode that is probably for the better. Legolas has an archery mini-game where he is hiding behind a log or castle wall or something, and a swarm of spear-throwing orcs charge his position (think the shuriken-throwing bonus game in Shinobi, except slower and you aim with the mouse). This game is way harder than it looks like it should be - arrows that look like they flew right into an orc often don't kill them, and even when you do hit them, they have Delayed Reaction Syndrome and don't actually stop moving until a couple of seconds later. Every orc who gets near your position lobs a spear and then runs away, and the spears always track right to Legolas, it just seems to be random chance whether they hit him or not. Legolas can only take one spear, if he gets hit it pierces him through the heart in surprisingly graphic style while he lets out an agonized digitized scream. That by itself was pretty entertaining, but if I was actually relying on him to win a battle I'd be scared. The fighting characters like Aragorn and Gimli have a clunky one-on-one duel mode that would do a Sierra game proud. You click with the mouse to either defend or swing high, low or medium. The collision detection is all sketchy and the best strategy is to really just chop away at the enemy midsection over and over, otherwise you usually wind up with some orc posing over your dead body with your blood smeared all over his axe. The final game involves Gandalf as he blows a Nazgul or whatever out of the sky with lightning. This game is the most ridiculously easy, you basically just click on the Nazgul a few times and he dies without resistance. So Gandalf wins easily, Aragorn and Gimli have a 50/50 shot at survival, and Legolas is completely done for in battle.
My whole expectation for this one hinged on the fact that this was Konami, and in a time period where they were releasing some of their greatest games, so I figured the arcade sequences *had* to be decent at least. Turns out, however, the game was developed by Mirrorsoft, and Konami just snapped up the rights to publish it and slap their logo on it. So we wind up with typical early '90s PC arcade sequence quality. The game is still tolerable if you have a whole lot of patience, but my hopes for it were pretty much dashed.
* Legolas got owned, who fights next?