May 3, 2006

One of the swiftest ways to kill your enjoyment of a game is to get your hopes up too high before playing it, especially when there isn’t a lot of company hype getting in the way. When I pre-ordered [i]Odama[/i] — solely to ensure that my local EB would even have a copy, since I knew that this was going to be a niche title at best — I was eagerly anticipating some “demolition derby” pinball set on the backdrop of feudal Japan. Being able to give my troops commands to enable various areas of the board seemed like just the kind of odd twist that would make the game unique.

The first hour of actual play, therefore, turned out to be a prolonged series of swift kicks to the junk as my expectations were shattered time and again. [i]Odama[/i] is more a strategy title with a pinball interface than it is a pinball table with strategy elements, and that’s a rough paradigm shift for devotees of the silver ball like myself (ever since I was a young boy); sadly, we’re also the group of gamers most likely to give [i]Odama[/i] a shot in the first place. What we encounter, instead of our beloved physics, is something wearing a familiar skin and yet clearly alien underneath: targets that you should try to not hit; obstacles that are destroyed upon impact instead of redirecting your shot; power-ups like some sort of “shmup”; slightly-stupid AI that needs your nearly-constant verbal attention while you’re trying to keep the ball in play; a victory condition that has absolutely nothing to do with your flipper accuracy; and perhaps the most egregious crime (nay, sin) against pinballers everywhere, [b]a time limit[/b].

Nothing else is really a factor here. The graphics are small and at times undetailed, but they serve their purpose of mixing a battlefield and pinball table well, with “ramps” and other targets somewhat innocuously masquerading as natural formations or structures. The physical controls are also simple and intuitive, with the L and R buttons operating their respective flippers and the control stick both “tilting” the table and aiming your cannon for firing replacement Odamas — or tasty rice balls — on to the field; the Z button summons forth reserve recruits if you have any and do not already have too many on the field. On a couple of stages, the C-stick moves the camera to a different segment of the field, as these sieges feature multiple “fronts” for your assault. Finally, the D-pad is used to select targets for your troops, like keys, catapults, additional flippers, and enemy generals; once you’ve selected the target, hitting X and issuing the “Rally” command will send some of your men over to complete the task.

Ah yes, the infamous voice commands. [i]Odama[/i] comes with the GCN Microphone, which you might already own if you’ve played Mario Party 7 or Karaoke Revolution. It also comes with a convenient clip that affixes to the top of the GCN pad (or Wavebird) to provide convenient hands-free access, since you’ll want both hands on the pad for flipper duty. On the first few stages, you’ll need to fire the [i]Odama[/i] at glowing scrolls in order to learn new commands for your troops; until you learn “Press Forward” (which should be the second scroll you hit), you will not be able to convince your forces to make the final push through the gate on each map, so keep an eye out for them. Other commands include “March Left/Right”, “Company Halt”, and “Charge!”, plus the aforementioned “Rally” and other, lesser-used directions. The voice recognition is solid, and you don’t need to shout your orders (although you might be screaming for other reasons).

Sadly, the gameplay itself is the biggest obstacle to enjoying [i]Odama[/i]. For many, the first hour of play is also the only hour. The game is just too difficult, too unwieldy, too bizarre, and/or too “not what I wanted it to be”. And these are all fair assessments. There is also the matter of extensive damage to personal property and/or physical health due to fist-smashing and blood-boiling frustration to consider. But those who stick it out, who learn the ways of the [i]Odama[/i] and the Path of Heavenly Duty (also called the “Way of Ninten”… or “Ninten-do”), and who take up the cause of reclaiming the lands and honor of the Kurasawa clan by delivering the Ninten Bell through ten enemy-filled battlefields… they will not be completely unrewarded. Especially not once they find the spoiler-worthy “bonus stage” on the final level and have their “Godzilla meets pinball” dreams finally fulfilled without any of those other distractions, even if only briefly.

I’m not going to lie to you, though: for a majority of players, it won’t be worth the effort. [i]Odama[/i] is a game that demands near-military levels of concentration, and at times Budda-like levels of patience and tolerance. Little by little I had my initial doubts and frustrations fall by the wayside as I progressed — and in some cases, regressed, as I occasionally felt the need to retrace my steps in order to advance to the next board with a better army — through the intricacies of the interface, until finally, via hard work and determination, victory was mine. And it was indeed a sweet sensation. But “hard work and determination” isn’t everyone’s idea of a fun gaming experience, and I wouldn’t fault you for abandoning the game after your first few tries. Give it a rent first and see if you can find the motivation to see this game through to its conclusion.

The ending of the game suggests a sequel, as “The End” is crossed out in favor of “To be Continued”. I hope that, if nothing else, Vivarium abandons the time limit for any [i]Odama 2[/i] that might come down the line. As I learned tricks to overcome obstacles (like the proper use of rice balls), I was able to forgive just about every other transgression that [i]Odama[/i] hurled at me, from seemingly poor AI to questionable pinball physics, but no pinball-based game should ever have a time limit placed on what is an inherently wildly-inaccurate interface: you’re supposed to lose when the ball goes between the flippers (or in the additional case of [i]Odama[/i], when the Ninten Bell is forced between them by opposing forces) and not for any other reason. I lost far too many boards by not being able to hit a crucial ramp or target in a timely manner, and that’s simply unfair. The only use I could see that [i]Odama[/i] even has for the time limit — other than as an arbitrary inflation of difficulty — is as an impromptu scoring device (every 100 seconds you have left over after each board results in an “extra ball”) that could easily be replaced by an actual score tally.

Score: 2/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.