As dawn creeps over the horizon, you face another day of mindless violence. Roughly a thousand yards away, your enemies are standing poised and ready to attack. They don’t seem like much; just a small group of country folk that refuse to be conquered. Rumor has it that these guys have something called an Odama to help them ensure victory. You’ve got a near infinite amount of expendable soldiers on your side, many of which have already crowded the front lines and are eager to attack. You can almost taste the adrenaline, intensity, and bloodlust coming from the men around you. But before the tension can reach its climax, you hear a rumbling sound somewhere across the battleground. That thunderous roar is coming from a giant metal ball that is currently speeding toward you. Before you can react, the ball rolls over you, effectively smashing your bones to pieces, crushing your innards into paste, and leaves you broken and bleeding into the mud. As you lay dying, the Odama continues to ravage whatever’s left of your once-glorious army.
Luckily, you won’t have to experience this strange and horrible death. In Odama, you play as the commander of the army that wields the gigantic ball, not the poor fools that stand against it. Despite its semi-serious story, this game is not supposed to be some Japanese wartime epic like Dynasty Warriors; rather, it operates as a glorified pinball game. Instead of hacking and slashing your way through legions of foes, you’ll launch the Odama onto the battlefield and watch it squish anything that gets in its way. As the anguished screams of the mighty pinball’s victims fill the air, you can use two manpowered flippers at the bottom of the screen to send the Odama rolling all over the battlefield. Not only can it annihilate entire armies in seconds, but it can also demolish enemy buildings, barricades, and whatever other defenses set up. Needless to say, it is the most bizarre weapons of mass destruction ever conceived.
The key to victory does not rely solely on destruction, however. As the Odama smashes through enemy lines, a single unit will be automatically deployed from your headquarters. It is a convoy carrying a ceremonial bell, an ancient relic with mystical powers. Should your weapon collide with it, the reverberating sound waves will knock any nearby enemies aside. But in order to seize victory, it’ll have to pass from one end of the battlefield and through the other. Since the bell’s carriers are too burdened by the weight, you’ll have to deploy soldiers and use them to defend its passage. You can have your forces rally around the bell, push forward, outflank the enemies, and do a handful of other tactical maneuvers. Your soldiers will have to perform certain tasks, such as building bridges across rivers, dismantling enemy outposts, and unlocking new pathways across the battleground. The trick is using both the army and the Odama to achieve the goals; the pinball may knock a house down, allowing the soldiers to grab its remains and build a ladder with it. The Odama can also help seal or break down dams, effectively stopping up rivers and allowing your forces to cross without getting washed away. When all is said and done, the game balances out both RTS and pinball gameplay, allowing for a gaming experience unlike any other.
But then Nintendo had to go and **** it all up.
While the game could have been fine as an RTS/Pinball hybrid, Nintendo decided to go the extra mile and include one of their gimmicky peripherals to “enhance” the gameplay. All of the commands to your army must be made via the Gamecube Microphone. Instead of doing the logical thing and mapping commands to the Directional Pad, Nintendo forces you to attach the microphone to your controller (sorry, Wavebird Controller users, the microphone needs a cord to work), and issue your orders as if you were a real general. If you want your soldiers to pick up a certain item, you have to pinpoint the item on the map and say, “Rally” to get your forces moving to it. The same goes with pressing forward, flanking, and other basic maneuvers. The problem with this is that the game doesn’t always recognize your commands; actions will be frequently be performed too late to be useful; your forces will get annihilated, their morale will drop, and they’ll stop listening to you. There’s nothing quite as aggravating as getting close to goal, then having your soldiers turn into cowards and make a point of ignoring or questioning your orders. The fact that many stages have a fairly short time limit doesn’t help, either. In order to get the bell safely across, be prepared to endure plenty of tedious and frustrating moments.
But as you throw your controller away in frustration and your soldier’s fearful wails echo from the battleground, you can at least sit back and watch how beautiful the combat truly is. Since the game’s camera is fixed on a high vantage point, the majority of your soldiers look like tiny stick figures with colored flags, banners, and swords. What they lack in detail, however, they make up for in sound; you can hear them scream their battlecry with righteous fury. You’ll know when they acknowledge one of your orders (obeying it or otherwise), a thought bubble will appear to show how well the soldiers are receiving them. Though your forces may look pretty pathetic, the rest of the game is downright beautiful. Much of the battles in Odama take place on incredibly detailed expanses, valleys, and fields. You’ll notice patches of grass and trees strewn around, rocky outcroppings around the perimeter, river water flowing smoothly through the battlefield, and even see the color scheme gradually change as the day moves into dusk and twilight.
Poor Odama. It has a brilliant, (if not utterly insane) gameplay formula that combines two very different genres. Pinball enthusiasts will likely enjoy annihilating entire armies with a giant pinball, and RTS fanatics ought to appreciate the strategies involving the armies and the completion of objectives. It’s got a highly polished presentation, a feat that few games on the Gamecube can muster. Sadly, this game has one a single flaw that ultimately denies it from greatness: the damned microphone. In their zeal to unleash peripherals upon the gaming masses, Nintendo took possibly one of their greatest titles and completely ruined it. Thus Odama is left as not as an outstanding game, but as the innovative idea that could have been.