The year is 2003. We've got three hours and twenty minutes to spare, a regrettably gigantic cinema Pepsi, and an appetite for a fantasy epic. Of course, there's only one thing that'll do...
It's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King! But wait: this doesn't look like the multi-Oscar-winning film, and it doesn't quite look like the multi-7/10-winning licensed GBA game either?
If you've been around here a while, you may already recognise this: it's the English version of Vast Fame's Mo Jie Qi Bing! That's right, the TRUE king has returned!
Yes!! It's not a Sintax game! It's a good game! A real game! A game that's not just a graphic swap of another game! A game with original music and graphics that's coherent and makes sense and isn't broken! This is SUCH a breath of fresh air.
From the title, we can probably assume this was released after the official Two Towers GBA game, but before the official Return of the King game, giving it a release window of somewhere between late 2002 and late 2003. Sadly, this meant it had a pretty short shelf life, and makes it super hard to find today, since it has the same title as the much more widespread (and widely-pirated) official game. The giveaway is that the cartridge and box use the Lord of the Rings logo from the earlier, book-licensed Fellowship of the Ring GBA game, coupled with imagery from The Two Towers posters.
It almost feels unfair to hold this up against Sintax's GBA games, because the difference is SO vast. But I'm gonna do it anyway. This is a game with five playable characters, each with unique upgradeable attacks and special moves, 8 distinct levels, most with two sub-levels, 8 unique bosses each with dialogue, a mini-boss, a raft stage, weather effects, cutscenes, tons of great music tracks... and most importantly, it's actually fun, and well made, and doesn't have any showstopping bugs. It's just on a completely different level.
All the playable characters have modified names from their LOTR equivalents - this is the same in the Chinese version and was deliberate, they didn't just mistranslate them. This seems slightly redundant if intended as a legal dodge, since the English version just straight up uses the "Lord of the Rings" title, and both versions are stuffed full of movie stills and promo shots. If it wasn't for that, it honestly could've passed as a separate (very loose) adaptation from the books, since the hand-drawn character illustrations and sprites don't much resemble their film counterparts either.
Now, I have to mention one thing here: they didn't build this game completely from scratch. The engine actually comes from the GBA game Kiki Kaikai Advance (aka Pocky & Rocky with Becky), and was apparently obtained legitimately by Vast Fame. But this is no simple reskin - almost everything has been completely redone and expanded. I would say it even looks better than the original, with more detailed, colourful graphics. Is it a bit jankier in places? I mean, yeah! But, you know, the pressures of this kind of under-the-table development inevitably means some corners have to be cut. They really didn't cut many corners at all, though, and even... added corners of their own, in places. Like the raft stage, which, interestingly, resembles something that existed in the SNES Pocky & Rocky, but never made it into the GBA sequel. So, it seems Vast Fame even paid a little homage to previous entries in the series that gave them their engine.
That's really the kind of care and attention that set them apart from their contemporaries. They were making, essentially, a black market product, destined to be sold cheaply and anonymously - they could easily have just phoned it in, jacked some sprites from the previous LOTR games, dropped them into Pocky & Rocky and sold it like that. No doubt they would've been paid the same. But they didn't! They made something which can more than hold its own against the GBA's licensed library. That's pretty remarkable.
As per all copy protected Vast Fame games, this will only work in mGBA, specifically v0.7.0 or later. Enjoy a decent game for once!