In a telephone hot-line room in Redmond, Wash., operators sit at the ready, sporting headphones, clutching joysticks and gazing at cartoon images on 13-inch TVs. Overhead, a digital monitor displays the number of calls on hold and how long the first in line has been waiting. There are about 7,000 calls each day, many of them desperate.

"Help! I'm stuck in Dragon Warrior, and I need to get Erdrick's armor."

"Well, have you been down to the dead town of Hauksness?"

"Yeah, and I find the big blue knight there, and he always destroys me...."

Not to worry. Here to help overcome such woes is the Nintendo Hotline, a service provided for the nearly 20 million American households that now own video games manufactured by Japan's Nintendo corporation. About 100 "counselors" man the phones each week, offering hints to players faced with evil knights, bottomless pits and other video difficulties. "My parents still don't believe this is what I do," says Blaine Phelps, 24, a Seattle University graduate. "My friends, on the other hand, want my job. When people ask what I do, I say, 'You know the movie Big? That's my job.' "

Tom McConville, a father of five and Nintendo's oldest hot-line hint giver, quit his job as a Hummel porcelain salesman, taking a cut in pay to become a counselor more than a year ago. "I like the people who call in," says McConville, 52, noting that Nintendo players who have run into a wall (or a dragon) "absolutely love the counselors." "We say we talk to kids," says Jack McLain, 25, a Washington State University graduate. "But it's not just kids. I've talked to lawyers, CEOs."

Of course, not everyone is pleased with the hot line. Callers do have to pay phone charges to the Seattle number. And there was that elderly lady who was playing the video game with a gentleman back at the nursing home. He called the next day, says Phelps." 'Why are you giving tips to Gertie?' he complained. 'She's already better than me.' "