A mediocre port of a good game is like a bad cover version of a great song. A listener who's not acquainted with the original may think it's groovy as all get-out, but if you love the original, you wince every time the remake comes on the radio. Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is a wonderfully entertaining game that doesn't quite -- for no viable reason but apathy or incompetence -- live up to the technical quality of the PS2 original or its Xbox incarnation.

If you're unfamiliar with the game, it's a shoot-off of the mega-popular Baldur's Gate RPG series on the PC. As a console gamer I'm only barely cognizant of those games, since PC-style RPGs send me into paroxysms of despair and glazed-eye reveries of boredom whenever I get near them. To put it mildly, I was more than a little suspicious of this game, but fortunately, BG:DA is not of that ilk; it's a highly-polished hack-and-slash dungeon-crawl RPG for one or two players. With a rather tenuous and dull scenario based on the Forgotten Realms offshoot of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons mythos, BG:DA talks the most generic fantasy twaddle you'll ever encounter; but if the idea of wandering through dungeons and hacking your way through enemies with sword and spell appeals, it's one of the best experiences the genre has offered in years.

There's no obvious reason, other than sheer, ineffable quality that makes BG:DA so good. On the face of it, it sounds awfully generic and perhaps even dull: you choose between a human archer, elven sorceress or dwarven fighter and are led, by an overly-animated and elven barmaid to explore a cellar and exterminate rats. Your first inkling of the games quality will come in this drab basement turns out its not so drab at all with carefully arranged piles of barrels crates and boxes which look markedly superior to the barrels crates and boxes in your average fantasy cellar thanks to minute touches of detail and careful arrangement. Every level has details like this the game is built of repetitive building blocks but theyve been highly polished and carefully arranged to delight with variety around every bend. Then there are the games water effects they arent quite as sexy as when the game debuted on PS2 a year ago but its still a sight to behold when youre fighting ratties in a subterranean pool.

All is not bliss in the kingdom of ... uh, whatever the kingdom in Forgotten Realms is -- I've forgotten. The GameCube version of the game has the same carefully crafted levels and engaging beastie-slaying and level-building gameplay that its predecessors had, but the graphics have taken a subtle but damaging hit. The aforementioned water doesn't look as good as its PS2 and Xbox brothers, because of shimmering mists of low-color textures that look like blocky DVD artifacting ruining the effect. Darkened corridors are even worse -- blotchy and messy. Worse yet is the game's framerate, which is passable if slightly sluggish most of the time, but chunks up quite perceptibly when you rotate the dungeon with the C-Stick, something you'll be doing an awful lot of -- seeing as the game's camera control is 100% manual.

Dark Alliance is still just about as engaging as ever, these blemishes notwithstanding. You'll still crawl through the dungeons with the same aplomb, raise levels, learn skills and "feats" with alacrity, and generally have a good old time more or less ignoring the paper-thin yawner of a fantasy story in favor of the entrancing and smooth fantasy gameplay. Still, for a gamer with a choice between platforms, the GameCube version is the one to avoid. As ever, the game's multiplayer mode is an entertaining bonus, though -- you can traverse the dungeons with another player, as long as he or she is present at your home. This is a nice mode for a game that treads the thin line between being a full-fledged adventure and a Gauntlet-style hack 'n' slash.

Of course -- another consideration that's unique to the GameCube edition is the similar but superior game on the system: Phantasy Star Online. If you've got to pick between them -- even if you don't plan to go online -- PSO is probably your best bet. It has a lot more depth, especially in terms of character building, and its sci-fi milieu is much less hackneyed than the D&D; fluff that makes up BG:DA's world. If you do feel confident enough to take the online plunge, there's absolutely no contest -- the network fairy forgot to wave her wand, failing to miraculously add online gameplay to this belated edition, as welcome as it would have been.

Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is still a recommended title, despite the port's faint flaws and its patina of age. There are very few games in the genre that approach its quality, and if you have enjoyed a Gauntlet in the past, this will be an appreciable step up in just about every regard. It's a game that you'll be tempted to replay not only to unlock characters, but simply because it's just plain fun. The difficulty level is nothing short of perfect -- balanced right on the cusp of "too hard" but never quite touching it. In short, this is an excellent choice for someone who enjoys the genre. If only High Voltage and Interplay had paid due respect to the source material.