by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

Rated Everyone; Nintendo DS & r & & r &

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & was blissfully sailing the ocean, churning up a frothy wake behind my ship, as I scavenged for sunken treasure. The clouds were pixel-flocked, and a mesh of sunlight lay on the waves. Then the pirate Jolene started chasing us. My ship's captain, a frock-coated dilettante sailor named Linebeck, proved incapable of outsailing her. And so after her ship rammed into ours, I found myself in the cabin below deck facing a swarthy woman who was carrying a jewel-hilted saber.

Like the first The Legend of Zelda, no matter where I walk, run or roll, I view the action from above. But where I've always had a series of buttons to push in past Zelda games, I now parry and thrust at my enemies with the Nintendo DS's stylus, slashing it across the touch screen where I want my blade to cut, poking at enemies where I want them impaled and swirling it around in a circle when I want to carve an arc.

The Nintendo DS liberates Link, the game's hero, in much the same way that Ocarina of Time freed him to swing his sword in three dimensions. In Phantom Hourglass, my stylus sends me running toward any spot I touch. My fingers trace curlicues and swipe lines across the screen as I dash and battle in 360 degrees without the up-down-left-right tyranny of the four-direction D-pad.

Gone is the one-hack-kills-all approach to battle. The familiar monsters in Phantom Hourglass are vulnerable only to specific attacks. Birds must be swatted down before they peck the rupees from my pocket. Blobs must be slashed apart or they'll continue sliding towards me undamaged. And Jolene -- well, she can only be attacked from behind. And so I maneuver gracefully around her, foiling her with my agility as much as with my sword.

THE GOOD: Phantom Hourglass features the best use of the Nintendo DS to date. Even the microphone and the system's clamshell fold are given minor -- albeit slightly gimmicky -- parts to play as I yell at big-eared monsters and fold the machine to transfer markings from one screen to another. The maps I find -- for dungeons and oceans alike -- must be marked up with my own handwritten notes about where treasures lie, in what order switches must be flipped to traverse dungeons safely, and where hidden paths are concealed.

THE BAD: Past Zelda games have kept me on a relatively narrow path as I adventure through the game's story. But Phantom Hourglass quickly sets me afloat on an ocean to explore, with oddball characters to be discovered on hidden islands, magical frogs to pursue, crumbling temples and gray dungeons to delve, and letters to be delivered. All of this can be a distraction from Phantom Hourglass's core mission of "Rescue the Princess," and I often have to track down the game's mystic fortuneteller just to remind myself where I need to go next.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Phantom Hourglass has the fastest, most furious combat the Zelda series has sported in years, and enough charming swashbuckling to make hours disappear every time the DS is turned on.

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