What would warfare be like if your most lethal weapons were flippers and a giant ball of destruction?
A traditional pinball table has lots of colorful, blinking lights, elevated rails, magnets, bumpers, ramps, sink holes, loud ringing noises, and high-score numbers. In Odama all these things are replaced with hundreds of soldiers, barracks, catapults, rocks, rivers, and shacks. The theme is clearly warfare, as the action takes place on huge battlefields set in feudal Japan.
Thus, Odama is more than just a pinball game. It’s also a real time strategy game. Your objective is to pave the way for your troops, so they can transport a giant bell to its destination at the end of the battlefield. The pinball itself, called the Odama, is your primary weapon. It can destroy buildings and cannons blocking the way, lower bridges, squash enemy troops (as well as your own), knock over giant bosses, as well as activate dams to stop the flow of water. What’s more, new troops are recruited if the Odama rolls over enemies while in a powered-up state. You’re defeated if time runs out, if your last Odama is lost, or if the enemies manage to force your bell back behind your flippers.
At this point, Odama certainly sounds intriguing. The whole concept of mixing real time strategy with pinball mechanics is both original and refreshing, and it demonstrates a lot of creative energy from the developer. Sadly, the actual implementation of the concept isn’t up to par. Neither the pinball aspect nor the strategy aspect work particularly well.
First of all, the physics aren’t precise. The speed of the Odama and the way it bounces off objects don’t feel very natural. There are collision detection issues. Furthermore, the Odama might suddenly accelerate or decelerate without reason, and it tends to "want" to follow predefined paths on the field.
Secondly, the controls are frustratingly unresponsive. They make use of the GameCube Microphone, which comes bundled with the game. By giving voice commands, you can direct soldiers to a given spot, tell them to advance or retreat, or make them carry out more complex work. The idea of manipulating your troops by voice is intuitive, as it somewhat resembles the way armies are directed in real life. However, once again the implementation falls short. Your troops won’t always react to your voice commands, and if they do they tend to forget your commands very quickly – as if they have a mind of their own. Having to continuously yell “advance!", “advance!" becomes the frustrating result of this setup.
The third culprit is the level design, the quality of which varies quite a lot. Every level starts with a voiced introduction, detailing specific conditions relevant to your progress. These range from killing bosses to taking over enemy weaponry or discovering hidden statues in forests. Thus, the problem doesn’t revolve around not knowing your overall objective but rather around how to accomplish it. You’ll spend countless tries on many levels with no idea as to what you’re doing wrong. When you finally win you question what you did right.
The feeling that the game is controlling the action more than you are exists in most levels, but fortunately not all. In one of them an entire enemy defensive structure needs to be torn down with the Odama. In general, such levels that require less manipulation of troops and put more emphasis on controlling the direction of the Odama are the most fun. They are still challenging but in a more skill-based way, which makes them more rewarding to beat.
The presentation is neither terrible nor staggering. The sound effects, particularly the Japanese storyteller, fit the feudal Japanese war setting well. The visuals are functional, but they lack special effects. Character models not only look boring artistically but are also blurry and have little detail. When two giant armies collide, you don’t see much more than dots in a chaotic mess. A game like Pikmin, which is five years old, did a much better job of handling +100 characters on screen. The frame rate runs smoothly for the most time but stutters in heated battles.
All in all, Odama is one of the most bizarre games ever created. It takes a simple game of pinball and complicates it significantly by combining it with real time strategy. The end result is a game as refreshing as it is frustrating. It deserves credit for its originality, but not for its controls and visuals. The interesting concept does leave the door open for a sequel – although the crazy developers at Vivarium probably already have yet another quirky game design on their minds.