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.

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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.

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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.

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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.