Rap star Nelly is one of several celebrities who show up on the courts of "NBA Street Vol. 2."
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Computer games with pop music have come a long way since “Journey Escape” for the Atari 2600. In that game, players had to guide five musicians past pixilated mullet-wearing groupies. Winners were “awarded” with an original power ballad from the 1970’s super group.

POP MUSIC and games intertwine in a more sophisticated fashion today. Gaming giants such as Sony Entertainment and Electronic Arts have become major pop music players. When not signing up well-known musicians, they have been known to send talent scouts out to club land in the quest for the next great game soundtrack.

And musicians are willing to talk business. In this time of diminishing record sales, the prospect of getting a single on a best-selling computer game is enticing.

The deal works both ways. In the overcrowded field of computer gaming, where exceptional game play and graphics are already the norm, a deciding selling point often is: Does the game have attitude?

Nothing projects attitude more than music and no music genre does so more than hip hop. Beat for beat, hip hop provides the ultimate soundtrack for any game, be it street ball or wrestling. Fortunately for game makers, it’s a mutual admiration society.

Def Jam Records president Kevin Liles recently told Reuters, “Ninety percent of the artists, athletes and entertainers are gamers. I can’t tell you how many deals were done over PlayStation 2.”

For more anecdotal evidence, just watch “Cribs,” the MTV series that takes viewers on home tours of the stars. Tours of rapper McMansions inevitably wind up in the entertainment room where the same scene plays out every time: The giant-screen TV, a couple large members of the posse in various states of repose; and, of course, several game consoles.

Game references are all over rap lyrics. From rapper Redman: “My dress code is all black when I’m makin’ the moves. Similar to the new Playstation 2.” And DJ Quick: “While I’m with you on the Playstation showin’ you codes. Hit the X button stupid, forward, left right, X ...”

Two recent releases by Electronic Arts, “NBA Street Vol. 2” and “Def Jam Vendetta,” one up the attitude. Not only is hip-hop music featured prominently throughout, but several recording stars make guest appearances. After a couple hours with these games, even an Amish elder would be “feeling it.” (Provided, of course, he had access to an Xbox — and electricity.)

NBA STREET VOL. 2“NBA Street Vol. 1” held a special place in my heart for its inclusion of my local, Manhattan’s West 3rd Playground, also known as “The Cage.” “Vol. 2” includes “The Cage” plus an additional 10 real-world courts.

The object of the game remains the same: Create a three-man team and wage street-ballin’ war against NBA greats, both old school and present day. As players advance they can lay claim to new home courts and the skills of NBA players.

True to its street vibe, “Vol. 2” comes with a hip-hop soundtrack. Artists featured include Talib Kweli, Black Sheep and Pete Rock. Background beats are strong and change as the tempo of your game changes. One hip-hop artist, Nelly, appears on court as a challenger.

Because the model is playground basketball and not “Hoosiers”-style playing, “Vol. 2” rewards displays of a certain street finesse. Players have the option of executing a variety of over-the-top dunks and ball-handling skills. Execute enough of these and a team enters the “Gamebreaker” mode where the next dunk triggers some fancy camerawork: The player ascends, “Matrix”-like, above the fray, the rim explodes, the music pumps, etc.

“Vol. 2” also features several new moves including “Off the Heezay” where the player can bounce the ball off of an opponent’s head.

“NBA Street Vol. 2” is still basically a sports game. Gamers who treasure story, puzzles and otherworldly wonder are not going to find it here. But even gamers with a fondness for elf warrior princes owe “Vol. 2” props for keeping it real.

DEF JAM VENDETTAIt was perhaps preordained that the rap record label Def Jam Records and gaming giant Electronic Arts would one day conjoin their marketing talents. But “Def Jam Vendetta?”

From a purely cultural point of view, hip hop and wrestling make odd companions. One takes its muse from the street, the other from the trailer park. Alas, whether there was a need or not, the gaming world now has “Def Jam Vendetta,” the first hip-hop wrestling hybrid.

The object of the game is to beat the FUBU out of rap VIPs in the quest to unseat the big dog, D-Mob. On the way to the top, players acquire more skills and a female posse. One tacky addition — although right in line with the intended juvenile audience — is a photo gallery of the actual women whose digitized doppelgangers appear on screen. The women are fully clothed, but c’mon.

By mastering a Byzantine array of button combinations, players eke out a number of holds, slaps and pins. On paper, “Vendetta” boasts some 1500 moves. Don’t count on mastering them all. Eventually “Vendetta,” like many fighting games, turns into a button masher. Each fighter also comes with a finishing move, a standard in every fighting game since “Mortal Kombat.”

Def Jam lends a soundtrack and a Cadillac Escalade-full of stars including DMX, Ghostface Killah, Method Man and Ludacris. But rap wrestlers and urban-style arenas aside, “Vendetta” fails to break new ground.

On the other hand, it’s not clear that “Vendetta” is really trying to be anything but a fighting game with rap music. Play the game long enough and the hip-hop and wrestling nexus makes sense. It’s like a chicken and waffles combo-plate. A bad idea, but it works. “Vendetta” may rot your brain. But when it’s 1 a.m. and the significant other is in bed, a little mano-a-mano against Funkmaster Flex somehow feels right.

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