A mean pinball.
Pinball and real-time strategy, two great tastes that the notoriously unorthodox Yoot Saito, creator of the bizarre Seaman, claims taste great together. And to Saito-san and Odama’s credit, strategy pinball is a much more entertaining mixture than the sarcastic fish man, if only because it stumbles upon the previously unknown joy of running over tiny men with a giant metal ball.
[image1] At its core, Odama is pinball with a point – protect a squad of little men while they carry a bell from one end of a battlefield to the other. Tiny enemy armies, towering giants, and all manner of environmental obstacles stand in their way, but most of these can be squashed or foiled by your Odama, a.k.a. giant metal ball, and your very own army of itty-bitty men. Of course. The result is an outrageously difficult and wildly creative game of impossible obstacles and zany solutions, which is hamstrung by bad graphics and some classic pinball problems.
You’re cast as Tamachiyo, the eldest son of the betrayed Lord Yamanouchi Nobutada. You are out to avenge your father and reclaim the land from the wicked Karasuma Genshin by using your magical Ninten Bell (“Way of Heavenly Duty”) and, of course, giant Odama. The story is a little highfalutin, but it sets a consistent stage (or table) and is wonderfully tempered by the hilarious verbal antics of your frantic advisor.
The first thing you’ll notice is that the battlefield looks like a pinball table. Your bumpers are at the bottom, the enemy gate is at the far end, and everything in between is a warzone. By pressing the Z button, you can send troops out to protect your bell by counteracting enemy troops, who will try to push the bell off the field. If you do nothing, your army will slowly march in a straight line to the enemy gates. However, they will do so right up the middle of the field, moronically getting in the way of your Odama. To prevent squishing your own men, you use the little Gamecube microphone to order them around with voice commands, like “Move right,” “Hold,” or “Fall back.”
There are also tons of geographical obstacles, and these must be overcome with the “Rally” command. By pressing up on the D-pad, you can toggle between points of interest on a battlefield, like flood gates, enemy flippers (they’ll hit the Odama at your men), giant ladders, and plain old giants. By selecting one of these and saying “Rally,” a portion of your troops will try to capture, kill, or manipulate whatever you’ve selected.
[image2]In one level, a river blocks your path, so you rally your troops to a pulley, then to a floodgate to stanch the flow. In another, a humongous general defends the gate, and you have to knock him down with the Odama, then rally troops to take him out like Gulliver. Otherwise, you mainly use the voice commands to keep your men and bell out of the way while you wreck shop with the ball.
The environments are full of destructible objects like houses and trees, some of which yield power-ups. If you get a green power-up, any enemies felled by the Odama join your reinforcements. If you get a heart power-up, the bell glows. If you strike it with the Odama, it sends forth a shockwave, leveling nearby enemies and giving your ball the green power. Green balls are big because your reinforcements are constantly getting killed by things like fire arrows, rampaging spiders and raging rivers, yet you need them to capture important objects and push your Ninten bell through the enemy gates. And since your troops carry over from one level to the next, you’ll want as many to survive as possible.
Then again, you don’t have much time to get green power-ups and run over some new recruits because you only have until sunset to achieve victory, and the days go by really quickly. This is probably the game’s biggest drawback. If you screw up just once or twice, you will run out of time. There’s that much to do. Things get incredibly hectic as you scream at troops, whack the ball and stare at the timer, and if you aren’t careful, you’ll run out of balls. Or at least patience. Odama is almost impossible to play for more than an hour since you’re constantly running into frustratingly hard battles. If you force yourself to play longer, you’ll begin to hate this game. The designers must have sensed this, because after the third or fourth loss in a row, your advisor tells you to take a break and come back later. Imagine that.
Also, it’s not like you’re dealing with normal RTS weaponry – a pinball is an imprecise instrument. You can use the left stick to influence its course as though you were tilting the table, but in some cases you’ll have to hit a switch before your army can advance and you’ll just miss and miss and miss, a repetitive loop of hell. Or even worse, you’ll slam it right at your own army, killing dozens of your own troops in one fell smack. Success feels a little random, but what’d you expect from a pinball strategy game?
[image3] Hopefully tons of character, because Odama has it in spades. From your silly advisor to the screams and cries of men as they flee from a giant metal pinball, this is a seriously charming game. A lot of this lies in seeing little men getting washed away by a river or sticking to the Odama as it rolls over them, or flying through the air from the impact of a giant’s shoe, but that doesn’t mean the visuals are even close to perfect. Particularly towards the enemy’s end of the battlefield, it is impossible to tell what’s going on. The game packs a ton of stuff on the screen, from troops to assault towers to power-ups, but it all resolves into a crazy visual mess near the gates. It’s also lame that you can’t control the camera at all. A top-down viewpoint definitely would have helped you keep a better eye on the action.
There are no such issues with the game’s audio, however. The battles take place to a war-march drum-beat, filled with the sounds of your Odama crushing things, clashing weapons, and the pleasing screams of tiny men.
Most games are fun for ten hours, after which you never play them again. Odama is fun for an hour, then you swear you’ll never play it again only to go back an hour later for more. It’s more like a Rubik's Cube than a video game, a weird enigma you can always pick up, just not for long. If you have the patience, feed this one some coin.