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By Lou Kesten

The Associated Press

Nintendo's "The Legend of Zelda" is one of the most beloved series in the history of video games, but few competitors have tried to duplicate its winning formula. Blending epic drama, fast-paced action, devious puzzles and basic role-playing, the "Zelda" franchise is really a genre of its own, with each new episode deftly mixing familiar and fresh features.

If you've never owned a Nintendo console, you've missed out on an essential gaming experience. This year, however, other publishers have tried to capture some of the "Zelda" magic. The trend started in January with THQ's "Darksiders," which excelled by blending the devious dungeons and demanding boss battles of "Zelda" with the splashy gore of "God of War."

"3D Dot Game Heroes" (Atlus, for the PlayStation 3, $39.99) is a far more blatant imitation of "Zelda," particularly the 1987 classic that launched the series. It takes place in a land called Dotnia, modeled on Nintendo's Hyrule. The king has grown weary of a mere two dimensions, however, so Dotnia's flat landscape and architecture have been translated into a heavily pixilated 3-D, so everything looks like it was made out of Lego blocks.

Of course, an evil genius is on the loose. So the hero has to fight monsters, explore temples and unearth artifacts that will help restore peace. You begin with a simple sword, and along the way you collect weapons and devices straight out of the "Zelda" arsenal: bombs, arrows, a boomerang and the ever reliable grappling hook.

The developer, Japan's From Software, has made only the slightest effort to disguise its inspirations. Your health, for example, is represented by apples rather than the hearts found in "Zelda." But the wit on display, with frequent references to games dating back to the 1970s, turns "3D Dot" from a slavish rip-off to a knowing homage.

It does venture further afield than the games of the 8-bit era, with side quests and minigames to distract from the main mission. On the other hand, that looseness makes it easy to miss vital areas or get lost entirely. "3D Dot" isn't as satisfying as the best "Zelda" adventures, but it's as close as you'll get on the PS3. Three stars out of four.

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