The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Criminey, Atari should have made Gauntlet LOTR characters to begin with--the cast is perfect for it (warriors, magicians, even a dreamboat elf-boy, Legolas). And I almost thought I had the remake I wanted in GBA's King, but this year's token Tolkien spin-off actually goes a lot deeper than that. The combat, based heftily on last year's handheld Two Towers title, is mostly raw and unappealing. But the Diablo (PC)-inspired RPG qualities and diverse mini-quests make monotonous fights worth enduring. I saw satisfying changes in my characters' abilities just by tweaking their weapons and accessories, the best of which were usually found rather than purchased. The frail Frodo himself was soon cracking Ore skull with relative ease, even taking on four Ores at once in a frenzy of murderous Hobbit rage. I was eventually content, however, just to let computer-appointed allies like Sam Gamgee kick all the ass while I hunted for cooler, more "precious" items. Yeah, we'd all be screwed if I had the One Ring.
Playing Return of the King was a roller coaster of conflicting emotions for me--first boredom as I hacked and slashed through endless hordes of Goblins, then addiction as I built up Aragorn and Legolas into level-22 demigods, and finally profound emptiness when I realized your only reward for all this is a couple of still pictures from the film. It's a decent dungeon hack, but "decent" is where it stops cold. And if you played Two Towers on GBA last year, then consider a King purchase very carefully--it's more of an expansion than a sequel.
Fans of dungeon crawlers like Diablo and Gauntlet will feel right at home with Return of the King. The core game-play is essentially the same as last year's Two Towers, though the graphics have been given a minor facelift and the stages are a bit more varied. Despite the marginal improvements, King is still a bit too repetitive for my tastes. The non-stop button mashing that's required to perservere gets old fast, but the fantastic LOTR universe that the game is based in definitely helps ease the pain.