GAMES: Programs! Baseball programs here!

Associated Press Writer

What do Mets shortstop Jose Reyes and Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard have in common? Both were key players in the Mets' notorious meltdown last season: Reyes couldn't buy a hit in September, while Howard led the Phils past the Mets and into the playoffs.

And each has landed a sweet side gig as cover model for a video game. The presence of Reyes and Howard on, respectively, "Major League Baseball 2K8" and "MLB 08: The Show" is like a knife in the gut for Mets fans who are still bitter over last season's implosion.

But, hey, it's opening week, time to let go of the past and look forward to this year's pennant races. I've already simulated the 2008 campaign twice - and while it looks like things will end better for the Mets, it's the Boston Red Sox who can look forward to collecting another World Series trophy.

-"MLB 08: The Show" (Sony, PlayStation 3, $59.99; PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable, $49.99): Appropriately enough, the game featuring the Phillie has a slight edge on the one with the Met. And it's all thanks to "Road to the Show," a sort of role-playing challenge in which you create a character from scratch and try to build him up, from class A ball to the major leagues.

Sony introduced this feature last season, but it has really ironed out the kinks and turned it into the most addictive career mode in any sports game. You simulate only the parts of the game that involve your guy, like his at-bats or defensive plays where the ball comes his way. Success earns points that you can spend to improve your player's skills with the bat or glove. Every step up the ladder feels completely earned, and it's immensely gratifying when you're finally welcomed to The Show.

Of course, "MLB 08" offers the more traditional gameplay model where you control every man on the field. The basics of the game - hitting, fielding, throwing - haven't changed much since last year, but they generally feel tighter and more realistic. The players look more like their real-life counterparts, and overall graphics are solid if not particularly flashy. If you have a Sony console, "MLB 08" is your best bet for this season. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.

-"Major League Baseball 2K8" (2K Sports, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99; Wii, $49.99; PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable, $29.99): If you're an Xbox or Wii gamer, alas, you're pretty much stuck with 2K's take on the national pastime. It's not a bad deal, particularly if you want a game that looks awfully close to what you would see on a network broadcast.

This year's edition introduces "total pitch control," in which you have to trace a pattern with the right analog stick (on the Xbox and PlayStation versions) to choose a pitch. You also use the analog sticks to control batting and fielding, and while all three skills take practice, they feel more natural once you get used to them. Base-running also benefits from more intuitive controls, but if you want to play the old-fashioned way - by pressing buttons - you have that option too.

Players look more like their real-life counterparts, with more individualized animations for most of the pros. Unfortunately, the game's performance doesn't always live up to its ambitions: The graphics sometimes stutter or temporarily freeze in the midst of the action. Overall, though, "2K8" will please baseball geeks with its solid action and wealth of stats. Three stars.

-"Backyard Baseball '09" (Atari, Nintendo DS, $29.99): Atari has scored the cover coup of the season, landing the Red Sox' David Ortiz - an actual World Series hero! - for its baseball game. Big Papi leads a troupe of kid-sized all-stars, like Vladimir Guerrero and Alex Rodriguez, as well as a nicely integrated gang of neighborhood Little Leaguers, male and female, for this lively recreation of sandlot ball.

"Backyard" is easy enough for younger players - it's really hard to strike out - and moves along zippily enough for those with short attention spans. And it throws a bunch of wacky power-ups, like a superfast "meteor ball" and an uncatchable "slime ball," into the action. It certainly doesn't have the depth of the more grownup offerings, but will entertain any kid who's ever dreamed about playing alongside Ichiro Suzuki. Two-and-a-half stars.