Games 4/25: Pokémon Diamond/Pearl, Guitar Hero II (360), ProStroke Golf World Tour 2007, Singstar Pop

Pokémon: Diamond
Pokémon: Pearl
For: Nintendo DS
From: Game Freak/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Go ahead and egg it on, but Game Freak isn’t rocking the boat. The arrivals of “Pokémon: Diamond” and “Pokémon: Pearl” mark the series’ long-overdue debut on the Nintendo DS, but anyone expecting a revolution should probably just stop waiting. Game Freak’s baby hasn’t changed much since it debuted nine years ago, and the series’ incredible enduring popularity merely validates the developer’s refusal to break what isn’t broken.

The game remains the same: You’re a rookie Pokémon trainer with big dreams of winning the Pokémon League Championship. To do so, you collect and train Pokémon, which you then employ in turn-based battles against other trainers, your archrival and some bad guys who want more than a trophy cup.

Sound familiar? It should. Nevertheless, the transition to the DS is a fruitful one. If you can imagine the general ways “Diamond” and “Pearl” would employ a second screen, Game Freak probably did the same. Stylus-friendly menus and status screens on the bottom screen save time and help to de-clutter the action on the top screen. The second screen also houses a number of PDA-style gadgets, including a calendar, pedometer and berry finder.

The DS features come in addition to a number of small tweaks that casual players may never notice but devoted fans eventually will spot — most particularly, refinements in Pokémon ecology that lead to more balance in the game’s many battles.

Naturally, there are more than 100 new breeds to discover, pushing the critter tally past 500. (Veterans can import captured Pokémon from their Game Boy Advance games to quickly pad their collections.) Per usual, “Diamond” and “Pearl” feature the same content, but vary in terms of how often certain Pokémon appear.

That’s not to say there isn’t any huge news, though. The DS marks Nintendo’s first voyage into online waters, and “Diamond” and “Pearl” signify the same for “Pokémon.” Trading for and battling against other players’ Pokémon has long been a huge series draw, but the DS’ wireless and Wi-Fi technology make it measurably more convenient than the Game Boy’s sloppy multiplayer technology ever could.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that you now can take on Pokémon trainers worldwide. Throw in another Nintendo first, voice chat, and the joy of shaming another person’s Pokémon can be enjoyed from anywhere at any time. Nintendo’s senselessly clumsy friend code system rears its head once again, but it’s a small trade-off for this massive step forward.


Guitar Hero II
For: Xbox 360
From: Harmonix/RedOctane/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (lyrics)

Lawyers and politicians stand breathlessly ready to blame video gaming for unleashing a cult of bloodthirsty, anti-social freaks who apparently did not exist prior to 1985. But if they’re right, how do they explain “Guitar Hero II?” It’s a highly social experience. The only havoc you wreak is on your knees if you attempt a knee slide. And the list of games hotter than this one right now is extremely short (and doesn’t include “Counter-Strike”).

For the uninitiated, “GH2” is a rhythmic music game. But rather than play with a standard controller, you conduct business with a giant plastic guitar instead. Five buttons and a strum bar represent the chords you play in time (ideally) with the music, and a whammy bar and tilt sensor allow you to change the pitch and generally just show off, respectively. Music instrument peripherals are nothing new, but “GH2’s” controller is the king of the castle, and it’s perfectly matched with an engine that’s propped up several terrific rhythm games since Harmonix released “Frequency” in 2001.

“GH2” originally surfaced on the PS2 last November, and its trip to the Xbox 360 brings mostly good news. The game is as fun as ever, and Harmonix took the time to refine the difficulty curve by shuffling songs from the easy to hard realms and back. Mastering “GH2” remains a special feat — perhaps more so than ever because of the 360’s achievements system — but the extra attention to accessibility is much appreciated.

While “GH2” doesn’t look a great deal better on the 360 than it did on the PS2, it certainly sounds better. A batch of new licensed songs pushes the out-of-box total past 70, and more are available for download over Xbox Live. Downloadable songs are pricey — 500 MS points ($6) for a pack of three — but that’s the reality when licensing costs and the developer’s own hard work are thrown into the mix.

Harder to swallow is the omission of multiplayer over Xbox Live. “GH2” is rich with multiplayer options and deliriously fun with two players simultaneously shredding either cooperatively or competitively. But not everyone can pony up the roughly $150 needed for the game and two guitar peripherals. The leaderboard support is great, but even a tacked-on version of the game’s multiplayer component would’ve been nice for those who otherwise cannot experience it.


ProStroke Golf World Tour 2007
For: PSP
From: Gusto Games/Oxygen Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Sometimes, good games have trouble looking good. This is the case with “ProStroke Golf,” which suffers from a crippling lack of exterior personality when stacked against its rivals in the golf game racket. The roster of licensed golfers and courses pales next to “Tiger Woods,” and “Hot Shots Golf” runs circles around it in terms of character and self-expression. The game’s graphics are merely serviceable, the commentary falls flat, and the name screams “budget title.”

Yet, fundamentally, “PSG” is a good game. The golf-swing mechanics — a timing-based system that’s a proper evolution of the classic three-click method — provide a rewarding, skill-based learning curve the classic approach can’t really offer. Same goes for the putting system, though the camera occasionally makes planning your putt more difficult than it should be. The 18 included courses — two real, 16 fantasy — aren’t jump-off-the-page exciting, but they’re generally designed well and worth mastering.

That last point may not even matter to you, though, once you discover “PSG’s” real selling point. Neither “Tiger” nor “Hot Shots” boast any kind of robust course designer, but “PSG” delivers in a big way, offering an impressive degree of control over everything from the dimensions of the green to the slope of the terrain and placement of trees, sand traps and other obstacles. The lack of any kind of component for sharing courses online is a real shame — being able to download new courses on a whim would’ve done wonders for replayability — but “PSG” otherwise nails this feature.

Beyond the course designer, “PSG’s” feature set is more solid than spectacular. A serviceable career mode offers a nice range of challenges and event types, and a training mode lets you warm up to the swing system at your own pace. The game supports multiplayer match (two players) and stroke (four) play modes using a single game disc, but the exclusion of online play smarts in light of “Woods” pulling it off last fall. Gusto has a solid gameplay system nailed down, and the course editor practically sells the game by itself for some, but it’ll need to work on the aforementioned features and refinements if it ever wants “PSG” to make the same first impression its competitors already make.


Singstar Pop
For: Playstation 2
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (alcohol reference, mild lyrics, mild violence, suggestive themes)

Did you like “Singstar Rocks?” If so, half the battle is won here, because “Singstar Pop” is “Singstar Rocks” with a new soundtrack. If the tardy “Rocks” — released in America two years after it debuted in Europe — was Sony’s way of gauging stateside interest in its karaoke franchise, “Pop” provides some filler on the road to the series’ Playstation 3 debut this fall.

Like the more-famous “Karaoke Revolution,” “Singstar” turns your PS2 into a karaoke machine. But while “Revolution” places a serious emphasis on scoring and achievement, “Singstar” unlocks everything from the start and delivers an interface that’s more receptive to groups of friends who want to unleash their inner fools than players looking for a new game to master. The stylish interface, inclusion of music videos where possible and terrific EyeToy support go a long way toward doing that. Like “Rocks” before it, “Pop” doesn’t offer much for players who go it alone. “Revolution,” with its wealth of single-player features and larger soundtrack, remains the clear choice in that regard.

Further igniting the multiplayer flame is “Pop’s” price — $50 for the game and two good-quality USB mics bundled in. A standalone, $30 copy of “Pop” also is available in case you’re already set in the mic department. (In a nice touch, the game allows you to eject the disc and drop in “Rocks” if you prefer a go-around with that game’s soundtrack. That’s how similar the two titles are.)

What it comes down to, then, is whether or not the soundtrack appeals to you. “Pop’s” 30 tracks aren’t quite as diverse as its predecessor’s selections, and doing your best Clash, Raconteurs or Bono impersonation means enduring the likes of Ashlee Simpson, Jesse McCartney and that overplayed “Bad Day” song as well. Fortunately, “Pop” lays bare its soundtrack on the back of the box, so you’re free to decide without any fear of feeling hoodwinked once the shrinkwrap is off.

Games 4/18: Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales, Wii Charge Station, Wii Wireless Sensor Bar, Wii HD-Link Component Cable, Meet the Robinsons, Prince of Persia: Rival Swords

Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales
For: Nintendo DS
From: Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, fantasy violence)

There are two types of gamers, and their division is assured during the “Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales” title sequence — an adorable, hand-drawn animated sequence that either will charm the your pants off or send your lunch right back out your mouth. “Tales” never hedges its artistic bets, and the cuteness persists throughout, so plan accordingly depending on what side of that fence you sit.

Should all this terrible happiness not be a deterrent, a pretty unique genre hybrid awaits. The bulk of “Tales” is comprised of various mini-games, which, upon completion, unlock new areas and advance the central storyline. Meanwhile, a second barrage of optional mini-games pop up everywhere, rewarding you with special cards that can be used during boss battles, which play out in your standard card-battle fashion.

Give credit to the mini-games for holding their own in the project. The DS is no stranger to mini-games, but the crop in “Tales” is rich with selections that are both clever and surprisingly challenging at their highest difficulty levels. The quest-driving mini-games also come in multiple flavors, and all support wireless multiplayer. (Square-Enix included support for online card battles, but the mini-games are wireless only.) Last but not least, these games look outstanding, unfolding like an animated pop-up book and incorporating the “Final Fantasy” universe in all manner of clever and funny ways. (All together now: Awwww!)

“Tales'” card battle system is in no way as intricate as what you’ll find in a dedicated card battler, but it’s ideal for someone who may either be new to the genre or not all that crazy about it in the first place. Collecting cards and assembling your dream deck is pretty fun, and the battles grow increasingly deep once the system’s intricacies reveal themselves. If you’re still not jazzed by the prospect of card battles, take heart: The mini-games are both more frequent and (eventually) playable outside of the adventure.

The juxtaposition of card battler, adventure game and mini-game compilation is an odd one, but the different elements gel together with surprisingly good results. “Tales” pays equal respect to each genre, and it respects players similarly by not dumbing anything down. The wealth of content and multiplayer support seals the deal. Self-conscious gamers probably won’t be caught dead anywhere near this, but guess what? Their problem, their loss.


Wii Charge Station
Wii Wireless Sensor Bar
Wii HD-Link Component Cable
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nyko
Prices: $30 (Charge Station), $20 (Wireless Sensor Bar), $20 (HD-Link)

Nintendo got a lot of things right with the Wii, which is why it remains as hard to find today as it was five months ago. But “a lot” is not and never will be synonymous with “everything,” and some third-party solutions have begun trickling in to plug the holes Nintendo left unfilled.

Of its three major product offerings, Nyko’s Charge Station is bound to turn the most heads. Nintendo shipped the Wii controller without any sort of integrated renewable energy solution, and anyone lacking a set of rechargeable AAs had a potentially expensive problem.

The Charge Station changes that, and Nyko deserves extra credit for not only selling a docking station that can charge two Wiimotes simultaneously, but for including two battery packs as well. Social gamers get an efficient solution in one box, while soloists with two Wiimotes handy always have a spare pack ready to go. The Charge station also ships with two rubberized battery covers (also sold separately, $5.99 for a pair) that make accidentally launching the Wiimote at your TV (hopefully) a thing of the past.

By requiring four AA batteries to function, Nyko’s Wireless Sensor Bar undoes some of the good done by its Charge Station. But for Wii owners who want to take greater advantage of a large room, wall-mounted television set or projector, it’s a godsend.

The Wireless Sensor Bar’s infrared signal casts a huge net, and it recognizes the Wiimote from a noticeably greater distance than what the Wii’s pack-in sensor bar can accomplish. Playing the Wii on a projector or wall-mounted television was possible before, but it involved all manner of creative and clumsy wiring that Nyko’s solution happily eliminates. Battery usage is an issue if you haven’t upgraded to rechargeables, but the LED light and an option to set an auto-off timer ensure you won’t forgetfully leave it on after use.

The arrival of Nyko’s HD-Link isn’t quite as exciting: Vendors flooded the market with component cables after demand for Nintendo’s cable outstripped supply. Still, if you’ve been waiting for a moderately-priced solution from a reputable third party, this is it. Nyko’s cable offers quality on par with Nintendo’s offering, and you actually can find it in stores, which is a great touch.


Meet the Robinsons
For: Wii, Xbox 360, PS2, PSP, Gamecube and PC (alternate versions available for Nintendo DS and Game Boy Advance)
From: Avalanche Software/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, cartoon violence)

Given that “Meet the Robinsons” involves not just robots, not just robots and gadgets, but robots, gadgets and a time machine, it’s easy to hope against hope that it rises above the scrap heap of mediocrity most movie-tie-in games call home. The brief opening sequence, set in the throes of a crumbling prehistoric palace, don’t exactly dampen these hopes.

Unfortunately, “Robinsons” follows this opener by unleashing a fetch-quest pile-on that quickly, albeit somewhat enjoyably, brings those big dreams back to earth. (Considering how brilliant these Robinsons are, you wouldn’t believe what it takes to get the code to open the garage door.) The errand bonanza provides a good introduction to a handful of mini-games and key gadgets, and it’s never mundane enough to make turning off the system a tempting alternative. Several parts are even fun, albeit in a “I’ve done this a million times before” sort of way.

Still, once it ends and the adventuring resumes, it’s clear where “Robinsons'” strengths and weaknesses lie. It’s a good, mechanically sound game that respectably cops from several revered games (“Legend of Zelda,” “Ratchet and Clank,” “Tomb Raider,” even a little “Super Monkey Ball”), but it never quite plays in the same league as those classics.

On the other hand, “Robinsons” also pays great respect to the film by not only providing unfettered access to its cast and major environments, but also by telling the story from an angle not even seen in the movie. That alone often is enough to get fans to play through a lousy licensed game, so it’s nice to see it take place in a game that’s actually enjoyable. It also makes the game’s clumsy approach to adventure progression (see “garage door,” above) much easier than usual to forgive.

“Robinsons” stays true to itself, for better or worse, no matter which console you own. The Wii version doesn’t take particularly special advantage of the motion controls despite some clear opportunities for it (and a heftier price tag than the Gamecube edition). Similarly, the Xbox 360 and PC versions are no more graphically spectacular than the others, which all look nice but rarely ever dazzle. The 360 edition wins the feature war, thanks to a bonus mini-game and the 1,000 unlockable achievement points hidden within, but no version is markedly worse off than the others.


Prince of Persia: Rival Swords
For: Wii and PSP
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, violence)

Very sneaky, that Ubisoft, stamping a game from 2005 with a brand-new name that screams, “I’m a sequel!” before later proclaiming, “You got hosed!” after you excitedly purchase it under false assumptions. Some semi-fine print on the back of the box makes it clear “Prince of Persia: Rival Swords” is based on “Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones,” but what it doesn’t make clear is that it IS “The Two Thrones,” albeit with some new tricks here and there.

On the Wii side, the big news is the controls, which have changed to accommodate the Wiimote’s special capabilities. Instead of pressing a button to perform a certain attack, for instance, you perform a gesture that mimics the attack. As with every game built for another system and then ported to the Wii, the new controls aren’t as cohesive as they would be for a game built for the system from the ground up. In the case of “Swords,” some gestures greatly add to the experience, while others clumsily take you out of it.

A bigger problem — though never a crippling one — is the issue of camera control. Easily the Wii’s biggest control handicap is its lack of dual analog joysticks, and the run-and-jump-heavy “Swords” is merely the latest game to demonstrate why. You can control the camera like always, and you still can enable the wide camera during trickier platforming situations. But camera control via the Wiimote is nowhere near as intuitive as the traditional method. Considering “Thrones” is already available for the Wii via Gamecube backward compatibility (for $30 less, to boot), this aggravation is a potential deal-killer.

With a drunk camera and a crop of aesthetic issues popping up regularly, the PSP version of “Swords” approaches can’t quite match the quality of its console forbearers. To compensate, the game ships with exclusive content, including new story sequences, chariot races and entire levels.

The headliner, though, is the introduction of multiplayer, which materializes as a race through an area against a friend. “Swords'” platform-heavy levels make these races both daringly fun and conducive to strategy, and the ability to set traps and ensnare your rival is just plain genius. It’s too bad “Swords” supports wireless but not online play, but that’s pretty much par for the course on the PSP these days.

Games 4/11: Super Paper Mario, Tetris Evolution, Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords

Super Paper Mario
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)

If you liked “Paper Mario’s” brilliantly original art direction and laugh-a-minute storytelling more than you enjoyed actually playing it, good news: “Super Paper Mario” brings back the former with more panache than ever while more or less scrapping the latter.

Role-playing elements — hit points, experience, magic — still run wild, but “SPM” has much more in common with Mario games of old than its predecessors. Imagine playing “Super Mario World” with a chatty storyline and Colorform graphics, and you have some idea, old-fashioned control scheme and all, how “SPM” works.

To have a complete idea, you’ll need to see the game in motion for yourself. “SPM” introduces the concept of dimensional flipping, which allows you to transform the environment from two dimensions to three and back at any point in the adventure. Flat objects suddenly sprout a z axis after a dimensional flip, which rotates the vantage point and reveals secrets and shortcuts behind, around and through objects that previously were flat and impassable.

Describing dimensional flipping on paper is tricky because it’s (a) probably unlike anything you’ve ever seen before and (b) something only a game with “SPM’s” visual style could credibly execute. Fortunately, Intelligent Systems does not waste the opportunity, utilizing a would-be gimmick in a multitude of clever — and more importantly, seamless — ways. Purely from a gameplay standpoint, “SPM” is an ingenious and often wild marriage between classic and contemporary. With respect to those who miss the turn-based combat, this is an inspired step forward into new territory.

Be warned, though: Getting to that gameplay can sometimes take a while. “SPM” slathers on a funny, ridiculously out-there storyline that will whisk you to such exotic locales as a hell dimension, space, a nerd’s hideout, numerous throwback levels and even a women’s restroom. Occasionally, though, it lays it on a bit thick — as in “20 minute-long stretch of reading, fetch questing and backtracking before you can get back to the real action” thick.

These interruptions, along with levels that vary wildly in terms of length and puzzle-versus-action quotient, sometimes make “SPM” a tough game to play with the “jump in, play a level and jump out” frame of mind. Fortunately, save points are rather frequent, so you always can leave business unfinished for later.


Tetris Evolution
For: Xbox 360
From: Mass Media/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It might seem a bit odd paying $30 for a boxed copy of “Tetris Evolution” with so many downloadable puzzle games available for less on Xbox Live Arcade. Perhaps you can’t fathom the idea of paying for a game that, high-definition graphics or not, doesn’t look all that different than it ever has.

Here’s what “Evolution” offers that those other games cannot: 1,000 achievement points, which equate to a brand-new challenge for players as sweet on Microsoft’s innovative Gamerscore system as they are “Tetris.” Mass Media has created an extensive to-do list for “Tetris” vets to complete, ranging from on-the-spot wizardry (consecutive tetrises, high-speed line clearing) to more time-intensive feats (cracking the half-million mark in Marathon mode, for instance). These challenges, along with four-player Live/offline support and a few new modes, should keep the diehards playing long after they’ve gotten their $30’s worth.

If THQ’s first “Tetris” effort five years ago proved it’s possible to break “Tetris,” “Evolution” makes the case for second chances. The mind-bogging omission of scoring has been rectified. Meanwhile, options that dumbed things down for longtime players — most notably ghost pieces and infinite spin — are back but completely user-configurable in all modes. “Evolution” even includes an extended spin option, a nice compromise between being able to spin a piece infinitely (i.e., cheat) or not at all (classic, but perhaps too demanding given the rapid speed progression between levels).

Likewise, while “Evolution” doesn’t come out with barrels blazing in the personality department, it clobbers its anemic predecessor with some funky background videos and custom soundtrack support. (The default music wears quickly, so have some music ready.) The game’s personality quotient still isn’t in the same ballpark as Nintendo’s recent “Tetris DS,” nor are the alternate modes as wild as what Nintendo devised. “Evolution” offers 11 (eight single-player, three multiplayer) modes of play, but they’re variations on the rules more than anything else.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing — at all, in fact. Traditionalists who continue to love the game after all these years will appreciate the new challenges each mode brings, and “Evolution” offers a nice selection of achievements to unlock (as well as online competition and leaderboards to conquer) for most. Little ground is broken, but the ingredients for keeping this disc in heavy rotation on your 360 are everywhere.


Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords
For: Nintendo DS (also available for PSP)
From: D3Publisher
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (suggestive themes)

“Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords ” is a gentle reminder that sometimes, no matter how much you might love something, it just doesn’t love you back. D3Publisher took a role-playing game and a puzzle game, threw them into a blender and fashioned a clever and surprisingly seamless hybrid of two very different genres. It also unleashed the most “bleep!”-inducing game in the DS’ library.

“Quest” structures itself like a typical role-playing game: You select a hero class, advance through the storyline, engage in battles and build up your statistics by collecting experience. But instead of the usual battle sequences, “Quest” has you challenge your enemies to a series of puzzle-offs.

If you’ve ever played “Bejeweled” or “Zoo Keeper,” these throwdowns immediately feel familiar. The fundamentals are identical: Flip two adjacent gems to form rows of three, four or five and clear them from the eight-by-eight grid. Gems sitting above the cleared gems trickle down, and new gems fill in the empty spots.

But “Quest” changes the game considerably by having both combatants take turns on the same grid. Different gems have different meanings — some inflict immediate damage, while others contain magic, gold and experience points — and you need to be sharp in order to not only clear the gems you need most, but do so while not setting up your opponent to benefit similarly. “Quest” also places increased importance on clearing four or five gems at once by rewarding such efforts with a crucial bonus turn.

If you’re waiting for “It’s not as tricky as it sounds,” keep waiting. “Quest” is fiendishly difficult right from the start; even the training opponent plays like a virtuoso. It doesn’t help matters that, in a puzzle formula that’s modestly but unavoidably dependent on luck, your A.I. opponents always seem to have it on their side. The game also occasionally misreads your stylus input, which can lead to serious penalty.

No fight is wasted; the experience and gold you accumulate are yours to keep even in defeat. But get used to losing. “Quest” is deep and rewarding once you overcome the learning curve, but you’ll need lots of patience to reach that summit. If that isn’t possible, or if you simply want a good, straightforward “Bejeweled” clone on the DS, “Zoo Keeper” remains a better option.

Games 4/4: Kororinpa: Marble Mania, The Godfather: The Don's Edition, The Godfather: Blackhand Edition, Konami Classics Series: Arcade Hits

Kororinpa: Marble Mania
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Hudson/Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Anyone still aching for a sequel to the Game Boy’s brilliant “Kirby Tilt ‘n’ Tumble” can put away the ice pack, at least for a while. “Kororinpa: Marble Mania’s” arcade-like levels set it apart from “Tumble’s” adventure-game stylings, but the fundamental resemblance is otherwise unmistakable.

The object of “Mania” is to guide a marble around a game board, collect a handful of gems, and reach the goal as quickly as possible without falling off the board and into marble oblivion. If that sounds exactly like “Super Monkey Ball,” here’s the difference: You control the board rather than the marble, tilting it any number of 360 degrees in any direction to roll the marble toward the goal. You can make the marble “jump” with a quick wrist flick, but that’s it.

“Tumble” did this with an embedded motion sensor attachment, but “Mania” merely requires the Wiimote. Hold it level, and the board stays put. Tilt forward, and the board nudges forward. And so on. Happily, precision never is an issue: The game registers everything from twitches to flips with remarkable accuracy.

But while “Tumble’s” technology severely limited your tilting power, “Mania” lets you go nuts and flip the entire board over if it befits you. Some optional but rewarding secondary gems crop up throughout the game, and you have to perform some fancy axis acrobatics to collect them. It’s never required, nor is achieving a gold-medal time a requisite for advancing to the next level. But the pursuit of such achievements, and what those achievements unlock, is what makes “Mania” such a fun game to play and replay. (If you disagree, you have a problem; “Mania” will end in a few hours for you.)

“Mania’s” themed areas are rich with personality and pretty pleasing to the eye, and the levels are smartly designed so as to engage players of different pedigrees. (Yes, two-player split-screen is available.) But the game’s most inspired feature may be its selection of unlockable marbles, which vary in theme (traditional, animal faces, sports and more) and attributes. The pig marble, for instance, is noisy but ideal for unsteady hands, while the basketball is faster but perilously bouncy. The football-shaped marble, meanwhile, speaks more to Hudson’s sense of humor than anything else.


The Godfather: The Don’s Edition
For: Playstation 3
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)

The Godfather: Blackhand Edition
For: Nintendo Wii
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)

With “The Godfather: The Don’s Edition” and “The Godfather: Blackhand Edition,” EA has now farmed out its “Godfather” game to seven systems over the last year.

But who can complain, as long as a once-surprisingly good game keeps improving?

Content-wise, “The Don’s Edition” stands as the definitive version. The graphical improvements and feature additions found in last fall’s Xbox 360 edition make the move to the PS3, and “TDE” slathers on some gravy in the form of more rival families, more contract hits and the ability to take over rail yards and shipyards. The streets are noticeably livelier (and smarter, and more violent), and some subtle but welcome tweaks are evident in how the game thinks and controls.

“Blackhand” doesn’t boast quite the same feature set as “TDE”, and it’s distinctly (though not massively) less easy on the eyes. But playing “The Godfather” with Wii controls — the Wiimote as your right hand, the Nunchuk attachment as your left — reinvents all that racketeering and revenge as a cardiovascular good time.

“Blackhand” isn’t spot-on precise: It occasionally registers one motion as two punches, and it sometimes confuses jabs with hooks and vice versa. But these issues are more annoying than truly problematic, and they take little away from the joy of wailing away by actually wailing away. As compensation for its imperfections, the control scheme offers some inspired little touches. Swing both controllers simultaneously while your character holds a bat or similar object, for instance, and he’ll (usually) perform a two-handed swing in kind.

The Wii touch extends down the line, from execution maneuvers (hold A, follow the onscreen prompt) to grappling to firearms (with both lock-on and free-aim controls available on the fly). Everything takes more practice than any other “Godfather” game required, but it’s hard to argue with the results. Between “The Legend of Zelda” and now this, it’s clear the Wii is plenty capable of hosting — and arguably improving on — the kind of traditional games once feared impossible to enjoy with such a unusual controller setup.


Konami Classics Series: Arcade Hits
For: Nintendo DS
From: Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild violence)

Briefly sidestep the issue of game selection, and you’re looking at one of the slickest retro compilations ever made. “Konami Classics Series: Arcade Hits” delivers arcade-perfect emulations of all 15 games in its library, features multiple aspect ratios when applicable, and compliments each game with everything from cabinet artwork to jukeboxes to biographical history and tips. Support for wireless multiplayer and game sharing is everywhere, and you even can record and view replays of your gaming exploits (or watch successful walkthroughs Konami prepared in advance).

But wait, that’s not all! “Hits” goes so far as to craft a virtual, stylus-controlled replica of each game’s dip switch board, which you can fiddle with to adjust difficulty, number of lives/continues and other factors. It’s nothing a menu can’t accomplish, and Konami offers a simplified alternative for that reason. But the virtual dip switch is a brilliant collision of old and new technology that perfectly embodies the kind of geeky good time “Hits” is meant to inspire.

That said, a retro gaming collection lives or dies by the games it honors, and this is where “Hits” runs into trouble. Some games (“Contra,” “Gradius”) truly are classics, and others (“Track and Field”, “Circus Charlie”) hold up better than expected. There’s also a pair of unsung surprises in “Shao-Lin’s Road” (a cross between “Double Dragon” and “Mario Bros.” if ever there was one) and “Basketball,” which is strangely addicting despite its failure to even emulate a complete game of basketball.

The other nine selections? They range from games that haven’t aged well (“Time Pilot,” “Rush’n Attack”) to curiosities with little staying power (“Road Fighter,” “Pooyan”) to near-unplayable filler (“Yie Ar Kung-Fu,” “Horror Maze”). $30 gets you 15 games, but don’t expect to be playing all 15 for very long.

That’s true of most emulation collections; even Capcom’s sterling sets aren’t dud-proof. Konami has more than enough gems in the canon for a few more editions, and you’d best believe it’s spreading them out and filling in the blanks with whatever’s available.

Still, thanks to all the tinkering and bonus content “Hits” throws in, digging through those third-tier games is significantly more fun than usual. As long as future volumes follow suit, taking the good with the bad isn’t nearly the problem it otherwise would be.