"The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass" is an artful blend of deep gameplay and accessible controls that stands among the best "Zelda" games ever and, "Halo 3" hype aside, should see boffo sales throughout the holiday season.

It’s ironic that the return of a 20-year-old franchise is the first game for Nintendo’s DS that should satisfy everyone who owns the handheld console, from the most intense gamer to the most casual . “The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass” is an artful blend of deep gameplay and accessible controls that stands among the best “Zelda” games ever and, “Halo 3″ hype aside, should see boffo sales throughout the holiday season.

“Phantom Hourglass” is the first “Zelda” game made for the hugely popular DS, which is in the hands of more than 50 million people worldwide. Not surprisingly given the broad diversity of people who own the handheld game system, it’s a sequel to 2003’s “The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker,” which had a somewhat lighthearted story and cartoonish art style, rather than 2006’s much darker “Twilight Princess.”

Story picks up where “Wind Waker” left off, finding the young elfin hero Link unconscious on the shore of a mysterious island. Gamers work to solve the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Link’s pirate pal Tetra, with Link sailing from island to island and delving into eight of the “Zelda” franchise’s signature dungeons.

Game immediately creates a pervasive sense of mystery that propels it all the way along. The plot, while not exactly titillating, is enough to make players want to keep finding out what happens next. It’s the huge number of engrossing puzzles in “Phantom Hourglass,” however, that truly drive the mystery.

In some cases, gamers are asked to unearth buried treasures by plotting intersections on a map. In others, the game relies on more devious brain twisters, one of which even involves hidden numbers and the use of cryptology. There’s occasional repetition in the dungeons and at least two cases in which the puzzles are so complex that finding their answers seems more about luck than honest intellect. But overall, this “Zelda” game succeeds by keeping players’ mind fully engaged.

“Phantom Hourglass” also brings online mulitiplayer capability to the “Zelda” mix for the first time, though some form of cooperative play would have been a wiser choice than the weak competitive mode it delivers.

Game’s greatest achievement, however, is the excellent use of the DS’s touchscreen controls. Moving Link is a simple matter of touching the screen in the direction players want him to go. Attacking involves tapping a target or drawing a quick circle around Link. And all of his weapons and tools, from shovel to boomerang and bow and arrow, make use of the touch controls as well. Veteran gamers will love the innovation, while rookies intimidated by the huge number of buttons on console controllers will find “Phantom Hourglass” a welcoming first step into the world of “Zelda.”

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

Rated E. $34.99

Production

A Nintendo presentation of a game developed by Nintendo for the DS.
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