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Still Saving the Princess

Game On: "The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass", DS Nintendo, $34.99. E for everyone

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If Mario's not careful, he's going to lose his job.

Long Nintendo's heroic mascot, the smiling erstwhile plumber faces stiff competition for his role from a kid in an elf suit with a sword and a boomerang.

Link always receives second billing, while actually starring in the "Legend of Zelda" games. But for a growing number of Nintendo fans, his games, not Mario's, are the ones that generate the most excitement. With the release of "The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass," it's not hard to see why. A skillful update and continuation of Link's endless saga to save the hapless Princess Zelda, this new DS title tips its hat to the many conventions that made the series famous, while providing yet another massive update in terms of gameplay.

Featuring treasure chests scattered throughout countless dungeons, with boomerangs and the smiling merchant Beedle, this game borrows heavily from previous "Zelda" games, most notably "The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker." The cutesy anime graphics and big-eyed, baby-faced Link annoyed fans when "Wind Waker" first took the franchise in a new direction. Long-standing players saw the game's approach as kid stuff, when they were eager for their favorite hero to grow up. But this particular installment of the "Zelda" series was a needed change, and eventually it was viewed as a positive turn for the series.

"PH" would have sold just fine if it merely brought classic "Zelda" adventuring to the DS. Gamers happily would have played through a slightly revamped version of the timeless "Zelda" classic "A Link to the Past." What they got instead is a game that looks like the same old thing, even though it throws in enough new things to keep the most jaded "Zelda" aficionado entertained.

For the first time in the series, the player interacts with everything in the world without buttons. Navigation, combat and other tasks require the stylus and the DS touch screen. Reduced to pocket size, the "Wind Waker"-styled graphics seem less silly and more artful. And where classic settings and items appear, they sport a re-design that makes the same old thing feel fresh. Take, for example, Link's boomerang. Long a practical tool for light combat, in "PH" it turns into something else. When you draw a line on-screen, Link launches his boomerang, which careens through a physically improbable, but quite satisfying, trajectory. This device is the basis for all kinds of interesting puzzles, and during real-time battles, it quickly turns sketching lines into a dramatic combat ballet.

As with an old pair of boots, you can comfortably slip into Link's latest quest on the way to exciting new adventures ahead.

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