Mixing things together can be a tricky business. Add crispy bacon with a 2 sunny side up eggs and you get a traditional breakfast, but join football and pro wrestling and you get He Hate Me and a professional football championship in Los Angeles. Somewhere along the line, Yutaka Saito (who goes by the more well-known and significantly more enjoyable to say nickname "Yoot") decided that real-time strategy and pinball needed to be combined, and the result is Odama for the GameCube. Sadly, combining military tactics with bumpers and flippers produced something closer to Pepsi Blue than it is the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.
In Odama, you play the role of Tamachiyo Yamanouchi, son of the deposed lord of an apparently nameless land remarkably like Japan. He adopts the name Kagetora and sets out with a handful of soldiers to defeat Karasuma Genshin, the retainer who killed his father and took over the throne. Kagetora has two secrets at his disposal that can turn the tide in his favor. The first is a giant metal ball recovered from ancient China and passed down called the Odama, which can affect the environment and crush armies. The second is a giant bell which carries the spirit of the bushido-like code of Ninten-do.
Yes, that’s right – “Ninten-do”. Vivarium made a noble effort to explain just how the publisher’s name got into the plot, from providing a legitimate translation for the word (“the way of heavenly duty”) to claiming that it was derived from the first kanji in three proverbs. Still, the inclusion of Ninten-do amounts to little more than excessive marketing by the Big N, and adds nothing to the game except additional silliness. In a title that tries to take itself seriously, silliness is not a good thing.
Our hero does not actually appear during the game. Instead, all the action is carried out by the faceless minions of the army, while Kagetora is nowhere near the battlefield. Even his right-hand man, who provides advice, encouragement and occasional snark stays behind the lines and does nothing more than take hacks at any enemies who get close enough to threaten him. Yoot Saito, Odama’s producer, uses two pages of the instruction manual to explain how the game is about the lives of the rank and file rather than the well-known heroes. Presumably, this concept is why his name was eventually dropped from the game’s official title just before it was released.
There are a total of eleven stages, which take place in various areas of the countryside, with at least two flippers and a gate. The primary objective of each area is to get your troops to carry the Ninten Bell through the gate with as many of your soldiers as possible. Odama encourages you to care for your mooks by only giving you as many men to deploy in a stage as you got through the gate in the last stage. The same is true of some items and balls – what you start with is what you had left at the end of the prior level. You start the game with just one ball, and get another one for each 100 seconds left at the end of a level or if you roll over the extra ball icon. Opposing you is an army intent on repelling you and the forces of gravity which would drive the Odama crashing through your headquarters. You fail if any of your troops are pushed past the flippers or you run out of time (i.e. the sun sets) or balls.
Certain stages also have bosses, which in this title take the form of larger-than-life generals or monsters. The theme is the same in each case – knock them down with the Odama, and then send your troops to assault it. However, each has its own defenses, like ramps, obstacles and weird creatures like disembodied pinball-flinging hands to protect it. They also have the ability to turn the ball evil, making their own troops immune to it while preserving its ability to flatten your soldiers. Some stages do not require you to defeat the boss before advancing, but doing so is a challenging proposition.
Your primary weapon is, of course, the Odama. You use the giant ball to crush your enemies, reshape the landscape and collect items. You need to be careful, though, because your troops are just as squishy as the enemy’s; both do have self-preservation instincts, but rarely have the time to get out of the way. You can power up the ball to conscript any foes it crushes while not affecting your troops by either rolling over the uncommon green power-up (which, like many things in this game, has no name) or grabbing the more common hearts and then striking the bell with the Odama. There are other beneficial items, like giant rice balls which distract enemies or raise your troops’ morale and hourglasses which turn back time (they not only increase the timer, but brighten the screen, presumably by forcing the sun higher in the sky). Most are found by destroying huts on the map, but extra balls can be anywhere – including behind the flippers, where collecting them would be a pyrrhic victory at best.
You give your troops orders through a microphone that plugs into the GameCube’s second memory card slot. Odama comes with a microphone as well as a plastic clip that attaches it to the back of a controller. You hold X to activate it, and speak one of a list of commands you have earned by locating scrolls in the game. There are only two essential commands, “press forward” (a.k.a. “go through the gate”) and “rally” (the generic “go here and do something”), but there are over a dozen commands available which give your troops a number of movement and attack options. The microphone is light and very responsive, even if it looks like it could replace the PS2’s Trance Vibrator anytime the rumble feature is turned on.
The rest of the control scheme is somewhat complicated due to the number of options you are given. Every button does something in this game, and some functions are not very intuitive. The flippers are operated by the L and R buttons, which makes sense. However, the Z button performs the next most important function – deploying troops. There are two different cursors: one using the analog joystick to aim the Odama’s launch and rice ball deployment, and one that uses the directional pad to choose where to rally troops. The analog stick also angles the table, which is a very nice feature; you can do more than shake it at random and hope you don’t tilt. However, having a second function assigned to the same joystick can make either or both of the functions very complex. Even the C-stick gets into the action, moving between areas on larger levels. The game can be cleared with little more than X and the shoulder buttons, but in order to give yourself the best chance, you need to master all parts of the counterintuitive control scheme.
Getting the hang of all the buttons is part of what makes this one of the more difficult games in recent memory. Most of the stages have their own unique challenges, such as a level where a river runs straight down from the top of the screen, with the tendency to sweep the Odama straight between the flippers. Having to manage troops in real-time while accomplishing tasks and squashing only the bad guys only makes completing a mission harder. What makes Odama addicting is that, even in a loss, the player never seems overwhelmed. You may have plenty of men but not enough balls, or you may accidentally sweep your own army away by opening a floodgate at the wrong time, but in any case, you feel like you really will be able to win the next time.
Odama is lacking in extras, so the replay is more than a little lacking. After clearing the game for the first time, you can replay any stage without affecting your status in the main game. The only score kept is the number of soldiers who made it through the gate, and that is artificially limited by the game. There’s nothing beyond that – no multiplayer, no bonus stages, nothing. The game is still enjoyable after clearing it for the first time, but something to accomplish would have been very helpful.
Graphics are a mixed bag in this title. The backgrounds are detailed and realistic, and provide an excellent setting for your campaign. Stills from the cutscenes are gorgeous, reminiscent of the Japanese art from the period depicted in the game. The fading of colors from vibrant to monochrome as you come closer to losing (either from the setting sun or having your HQ invaded) is a nice touch. Characters, however, are somewhat blocky and unattractive. Also, there is precious little variety in the types of soldiers depicted. This is understandable, since there can be so many of them on the screen and they spend so much time too far away to see the detail, but it detracts somewhat from the overall visual effect. Also, the screen is not as large as the play field near the flippers, so sometimes the ball and other important objects disappear off the edge of the screen.
The sound quality in this title is excellent. Most of the stages are played without music, giving a more realistic quality to a seemingly absurd concept. What music does show up fits the setting well. Sound effects are also infrequent, but well done and add to the experience more than adequately. The small amount of voice acting is also excellent quality, especially when the general makes a snide comment about the number of times you have lost a battle. There’s not much listening to be done in this title, but what audio exists is well worth hearing.
Odama is the third-best console game that involver rolling a giant ball over people. This is not the faint praise that it would initially seem to be, but neither is it the best of recommendations. This title is worth a look for pinball fans and anyone looking for a peculiar gaming experience, but wait until it hits the bargain bins to pick a copy up. Real-time strategy pinball is extremely fun, but lacks the staying power necessary to make Yoot Saito’s tribute to the everyman worth more than a rental