It’s Friday night, and cries of “rally”, “march left”, “advance”, “fall back”, and “press forward”, spill out of an open window onto the street. Every battle order is met with a cheer, as if from a group of soldiers. Who is this charismatic leader, managing troops in the dead of night, out of a small flat no less? Well, it’s me! Not graced with the ability to command battle-hardened soldiers in my day-to-day life, I get my thrills these days from Odama, the pinball-military simulation set in the warring-states period in medieval Japan.
As I warned in my recent Four Swords Adventures post, I’m back with more Gamecube peripheral stories. I could’ve written about Donkey Konga and DK: Jungle Beat, which I’ve also been playing recently, but neither of those games grabbed me the same way as Odama. Odama comes packaged with a Gamecube microphone and clip to attach said microphone to a Gamecube controller – hence all that shouting. You plug the microphone into a Gamecube memory card slot, fix the mic to your controller and bam, you’re away. It’s a simple-to-use peripheral for a complex game.
Gameplay-wise the game reminds me of Little King’s Story. Not only because LKS has a boss battle that plays like pinball, but really just the emphasis on multi-tasking and managing your troops. There’s a similar balance in Odama between direct pinball action and indirect resource management. Net result: a ton of crap going on on-screen that you need to deal with and think about. (I might add that this game is also mighty challenging to explain.) At heart, Odama is a pinball game, and yet there’s a whole other dimension to it thanks to the added pressure of managing your troops over the microphone and protecting the “Ninten-bell”.
A typical level consists of your troops marching forwards against an enemy stronghold whilst carrying the Ninten-bell. You give the troops orders for specific movements, while using your Odama – your big ball – to help your troops. Helping your troops takes the form of running over enemy troops with the Odama, but you can also hinder your troops by running over them! Most of the time, the Odama doesn’t discriminate between uniform colours, and so good control of the Odama is key – easier said than done. Thankfully there is a power-up that for a brief period allows you to recruit any enemy troops the Odama touches, and move harmlessly through your own troops. There are also rice balls, which you can send out as either distractions for the enemy or to boost your own soldiers’ morale. Morale is necessary, otherwise your troops won’t respond to your spoken orders.
Levels contain more than one objective, and you need to wisely manage your resources to cope with changing circumstances. One level contains a stream, controlled by a dam, which the Odama can open and close. Forcing your soldiers to walk into the stream will see them washed away and killed, so you need to hold them back until you can get the dam closed. Once it’s closed then your troops will clash with the enemy’s troops, so you need ample soldier numbers to dispatch of them. You could also stop the dam, keep your troops back, and then flood the stream again with the Odama when the enemy soldiers are crossing – a sadistic strategy that requires some serious ball control. Regardless, with the enemy troops weakened and on the back foot, you then need to “press forward” (a phrase you will say an ungodly number of times into the mic over the course of this game) and hopefully overcome the enemy, carrying the Ninten-bell to the top of the stage, at which the point the level will end.
Structurally (and difficulty-wise), Odama is similar to an arcade or NES game. Your resources – troop numbers, power-ups, lives – carry from level to level, and although you can retry any level you’ve beaten, retrying an earlier level will mean you no longer have access to subsequent levels. This hasn’t happened to me yet, but barely scraping through a level could potentially make the next level virtually unbeatable, necessitating a restart of the previous level. It all seems geared towards making you go for a perfect or near-perfect run, in which you amass spectacularly high numbers of troops and equipment from one level to the next and easily beat the entire game in an hour. The game is relatively lean on content with only eleven levels (average levels last between five and fifteen minutes each), but I’ve sunk multiple hours into trying to beat a single level on more than one occasion.
Is it frustrating? Sometimes. The nature of pinball means some things feel out of your control. Your strategy might be great, your troops successful, but in an instant the Odama will find its way between your paddles and, whoops, game over. Conversely you can be doing great on the pinball front, while the strategy component goes horribly wrong, and the power-up you need to turn the battle tide is just not appearing. There are numerous ways to lose in Odama, although with infinite continues, no penalty for losing and short levels, it’s not so bad. What’s more, by way of compensation for the difficulty, the game gives you a ton of tilt control over the table- er, sorry, battlefield. And if you’re as bad at pinball as me, you’ll be using this constantly to finesse the Odama’s course.
In order to make this demanding game that little bit more approachable, the developers really went to a lot of effort with this game’s narrator. His comments in the game’s menus (all spoken in Japanese with subtitles) are varied, funny and expressive. Over the course of twenty level retries, you’ll hear the narrator’s mood go from confident (“my liege, perhaps we should try again?”) to mournful (“that was a close call”), to questioning (“perhaps we should take a break?!”), to reproachful (“are you insane?!”), to utterly exasperated (*sigh*). The five stages of grief are represented here and then some! Clearly the developers were aware of the challenge this game presents, since they made losing a key part of this game’s DNA.
On a sidenote, you’re not going to be overwhelmed by flashy graphics. Let me tell you, Odama ain’t a looker, which is somewhat surprising given this is a very late Gamecube release and a Nintendo co-production. Everything in this game looks like it’s made of paper. Anyway the sound effects are great at least – I love the horn blaring on the title screen for instance. Authentic sounding or what?
You might have noticed I haven’t mentioned the voice commands once, and that’s because they’re broadly very good and reliable. I suspect that, thanks to being a bit of a posho, I don’t have a strong Northern English accent or something that the game might struggle to recognise.
All told, I’m very impressed with Odama. Although it’ll turn many people off and is occasionally frustrating, the game’s high difficulty appeals to me enormously. It’s a rare thing indeed for a console game of this era to be so demanding, and coupled with Odama’s well-executed and utterly novel gameplay, the result is a truly unique and irresistible slice of gaming. Press forward! Press forward! Press forward!