This may sound blasphemous to the gamers who read Backstage, but I’ve really, really cut back on console gaming as of late – so much so in fact that I disposed of my Xbox 360, stopped playing through Black for the PlayStation 2 about mid-way through, and spend what little gaming time I have on the DS Lite these days. Last night, I made a big exception: I fired up my Nintendo GameCube and turned on a game I’ve been anxiously waiting to play for around two years now: Odama, developed by Vivarium for Nintendo, just released this week. My advice would be to just stop reading for a few minutes and open up one of these links, clicking on Spider Temple or Kurawa Plains, for example. The movies really say more than I can.
The deal with Odama is this: it’s really clever. Like, so clever that some people aren’t going to understand it, apparently and regrettably including the usual crop of game critics. But as Metacritics’ rankings suggest – in early polling, at least – the game is scoring better (8.7/10) with users than critics (68/100), and it’s my feeling that people who do understand it will be really impressed by what Vivarium has pulled off. This company, best known for its freaky Dreamcast talking fish title Seaman, has managed to successfully fuse two totally disparate game genres: pinball and light military strategy, here blended under a Japanese feudal samurai theme.
There’s an elaborate backstory, which I’m going to skip save to note that you control a giant wrecking ball called the Odama and a battering ram-like bell humorously called the Ninten-do. Your hand controller controls the pinball flippers, and thus Odama. A free packed-in microphone accessory controls the battering bell. In order to complete each level, set on military battlefields populated by two armies worth of soldiers and obstacles, you need to knock the Odama ball into enemy soldiers and specific targets, then use voice commands to send the Ninten bell through the holes you create. If the bell makes it from the bottom to the top of the screen within a time limit, you advance. If not, you fail. And by the way, the pinball tables, if you can call them that, can be in 3-D – say, wrapped around the sides of a mountain, which you rotate. Additional details are at Read More, below.
Other than the fact that Odama is legitimately fun, challenging, and totally unlike any other pinball game I’ve played, what’s most impressive about this concept is how thoroughly realized it is. From the first moment the game’s narrative begins, you’re caught up in the Japanese feudal sights and sounds in a way that transcends the actual visual quality – it’s obvious that Vivarium isn’t the most gifted of visual developers when things zoom in for close-ups – and that’s mostly because the concept works so well on the macro level. You’re not just playing pinball. There are lives, and military victories, at stake.
Battlefields are filled with rushing streams of water, hundreds of people, burning fires, and, of course, this huge black ball that’s rolling through everything. For once, the pinball doesn’t have shiny silver invulnerability; here, it possesses weight and a sense of momentum, littering the field with bodies, and occasionally, temporarily finding itself wrapped up in them. Smack the mystical Ninten-do bell with the ball and a tone rings out across the battlefield, magically knocking down enemy soldiers attempting to block the bell’s path. Pick up a green power-up and Odama transforms enemy soldiers it touches into conscripts for your army. There’s a humanity in the levels that makes them more compelling than typical pinball tables, aided by the fact that you’re constantly learning new ways to control your own people on the ground.
As it turns out, the progress of your bell is aided by reserves of soldiers you call up by the dozens from the bottom of the screen. Using the microphone, you can bark at them to “rally” to items scattered on the fields, “press forward,” turn left or right, and more; on some missions, you can order them to close a dam to allow the bell to pass through watery rapids, or fetch keys to open up alternate pathways for the bell to travel to the top of the screen. The key to success is juggling the demands of controlling your armies and paddling around the Odama ball; it’s impossible to win without developing some skill at doing both.
Though graphics and sounds aren’t the superstars here, it merits a note that Odama looks really, really nice running in progressive (480P) mode on a HDTV, and sounds just right when you’re playing it. Its occasional lack of detail on zooms-in is thoroughly made up for by the clean, realistic look of the levels as a whole. Similarly, the audio isn’t insane and overbearing; it’s appropriate to the action, and not distracting given that you’re using the microphone with some frequency. Like Nintendo’s earlier Pikmin titles, this is a game that’s easy on the eyes and ears, and focused squarely on providing a compelling gameplay experience.
There’s some sad irony in the fact that reviewers bemoan the lack of originality in games, then squander the opportunity to praise truly innovative and well-executed ones like Odama. It’s especially telling that Metroid Prime Pinball – a pretty but decidedly me-too pinball title for Nintendo DS – rated a higher-than-Odama 79/100 from critics, but an almost identical-to-Odama 8.8/10 with users. I’m thinking that professional reviewers, who are used to chewing up and spitting out 3 new games a week, got sucked in by the Metroid license and the ease of playing a familiar, fast-paced pinball game, rather than really sitting back and considering what made Odama special. And I’d be willing to bet that if Nintendo re-released this as Advance Wars Pinball – even without significant other changes – the game would rank higher. But that’s besides the point: regardless of what the critics may say, Odama is very, very much worth playing.