The Week in Games: April 21, 2008

News from the virtual world:

— GAMERS SAVE AMERICA: With fears of a recession growing, many Americans are cutting back on recreation — planning shorter vacations, eating out less often, staying home instead of going to the movies.

But they haven't stopped buying video games: Sales jumped 57 percent in March compared with the same month last year.

"You'd never know that the U.S. economy was under distress by looking at the video games industry sales figures," said analyst Anita Frazier of the NPD Group, the research firm that compiles those numbers.

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Nintendo once again led the way, selling 2.7 million copies of "Super Smash Bros. Brawl." And sales of Nintendo's Wii jumped, as the company finally seemed able to get an adequate supply of the once elusive console into stores.

With Nintendo's "Mario Kart Wii" and Rockstar Games' "Grand Theft Auto IV" still coming in April, analysts expect players to keep spending. And if consumer spending is the engine that drives the economy, gamers may be the engineers who keep the whole thing from derailing.

— ATTENTION SHOPPERS: Sony has revamped its online PlayStation Store and, after some opening-day jitters, it seems to be running pretty smoothly.

It's a big improvement over the old store, which, with its tiny buttons and even tinier type, always felt like something to be operated with a mouse and keyboard.

The new store is easier to navigate with the PlayStation controller, and the simplified menus and redesigned software (which now resides on your PlayStation 3, rather than on the Web) make searching for content much faster.

The update coincided with the release of "Gran Turismo 5 Prologue," which you can download in its entirety through the PlayStation Store.

The service still doesn't have the breadth — not just of games, but of movies and TV shows — of Microsoft's Xbox Live, but Sony is promising more to come, including a video service and more ways for PS3 owners to connect with each other.

If you haven't been to the PlayStation Store in a while (because it was so aggravating), now's a good time to give it another chance. And you may not be able to avoid it once big, download-only titles like "Echochrome" and "Wipeout HD" arrive.

— THE ALBUM LIVES: When "Rock Band" was announced last year, developer Harmonix and publisher MTV Games promised we'd be able to download complete albums to play within the game.

The first such collection is finally coming out this week, and it's something of a surprise: Judas Priest's 1982 headbanger "Screaming for Vengeance." Wouldn't have been my first choice, but I'll be there jamming to "You Got Another Thing Comin'" and "Electric Eye" with the rest of you.

I'm more psyched for the next two albums promised: The Cars' 1978 debut and The Pixies' 1989 alt-rock classic "Doolittle."

Much as I love the latter, I'm having trouble imagining how some of its weirder tracks are going to work in "Rock Band." But I can't wait to find out.

— GEEK LOVE: No "Bejeweled" player expects to be rewarded with real jewelry. But when Tammy Li of Jersey City, N.J., reached a certain score in her favorite game, it displayed a ring and a marriage proposal from her boyfriend, Bernie Peng. Li accepted.

"I thought it was pretty cool, in a nerdy way," Peng, who spent a month reprogramming the game, told The Star-Ledger of Newark.

"Bejeweled" publisher Popcap Games didn't have a problem with Peng's tinkering; the company is flying the couple to Seattle as part of their honeymoon, and providing copies of "Bejeweled" for their wedding guests.

"As a bunch of geeks we have to say, 'Bernie, hats off to you,'" Popcap spokesman Garth Chouteau said.

— NEW IN STORES: Before "Mario Kart Wii" starts its engines next weekend, Nintendo warms up with "Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness" and "Explorers of Time" for the DS. ... Square Enix brings its role-playing expertise to modern times in "The World Ends with You," for the DS. ... THQ climbs aboard the rhythm-game bandwagon with "Battle of the Bands," for the Wii. ... Midway celebrates playoff season with "NBA Ballers: Chosen One" (Xbox 360, PS3).