Few game designers have proven such an eagerness to disregard the status quo as Yoot Saito. Best known for creating Seaman, the virtual-life simulator for the Dreamcast that saw you engaging in conversation with a bizarre amphibian that looked disturbingly like Yoot himself, he and his development house, Vivarium, have now launched off into a equally bizarre venture with Odama, a strategy game that quite literally turns the battlefields of feudal Japan into a pinball table. If this doesn't sound like the most natural combination, rest assured that it's not. As admirable as it is for a developer to attempt something so totally different, admiration cannot fully compensate for what is an awkward and regularly infuriating experience. Still, there's something to be said for a game with such a fresh perspective, and that novelty will be enough to draw in some people, at least for a while.
Crush your enemies! See them driven before you!
Despite the underlying pinball mechanics and the presence of gigantic warlords that tower over the battlefield and crazy spider creatures, Odama presents its feudal Japanese setting with certain sincerity and a convincing backstory. You are Kagetora, a young general out for revenge against a more powerful general who betrayed your father. What you lack in numbers you make up for with two secret weapons. One is the Odama itself, a massive ball that you can launch onto the battlefield, destroying buildings and crushing your enemies. The other is the Ninten Bell, a large hanging bell that you carry out onto the battlefield which, when struck with the Odama, sends out a shockwave that can knock down and stun your enemies. Using these unconventional weapons along with your foot soldiers, cavalry, and giant, flying rice balls, you'll march your way toward revenge across 11 different battlefields.
Besides the game's Bushido aesthetic--which isn't so much technically impressive as it is thorough--the most immediately striking thing about Odama is how much it looks like a pinball table. There's no question that you're looking at battlegrounds of antiquity, but you also can't ignore the gigantic pinball flippers at the bottom of the screen. Though the Odama is pretty good at decimating the opposing forces, brute force alone will not bring you victory. In order to advance, you'll need to carry the Ninten Bell from the bottom of the screen up through a gate at the top, all the while contending with hordes of enemies and their own weapons, which include the conventional and the less than conventional.
While there is only one way to win, there are several ways you can lose. Like in a regular pinball game, it's game over if your last Odama slips down between your flippers. In addition to your swarms of soldiers, you have a dedicated crew that diligently carries the Ninten Bell to the other end of the battlefield. Without proper reinforcements, the opposing armies will push the bell crew down past your flippers, which will also spell defeat. Adding a sense of urgency is a countdown timer that you'll also be racing against--which, surprisingly, led to more defeats for us than the other two methods combined.
There's always a lot going on in Odama--often too much.
You use the left and right triggers on the GameCube controller to activate the left and right flippers accordingly, and the left analog stick can be used to tilt the entire battlefield, giving you a modicum of control over the path of the Odama. As you smash through various structures on the battlefield, you'll come upon a few different power-ups. Hourglasses will increase your timer, and considering how precious time can be in Odama, they are appropriately rare. More common are the giant rice balls, which can be launched back onto the battlefield, thus distracting the apparently famished opposing army.
Of greatest tactical importance, though, are the glowing green orbs and heart power-ups. In its regular form, the Odama is an indiscriminate killer. If it happens to roll over your troops as it makes its way toward its intended target, tough cookies, because you're out a handful of soldiers. But when the Odama rolls over the glowing green orbs, it takes on a green glow of its own, and for a time it not only spares your armies, but also forces any enemy soldiers it rolls over to join your ranks. The heart power-ups are kind of a roundabout version of the green orbs, in that they make the Ninten Bell glow white, and if you ring the Ninten Bell while it's glowing white, you get the awesome green Odama effect.