Odama © Nintendo
First Impressions by Tim Eller

While the rush of sequels, licensed titles, and genre cogs glutted the arenas of Sony and Microsoft (amongst the many other booths at E3), there wasn’t a whole lot of really new stuff going on. That is to say, by and large, the ideas were derivative of something else, usually popular, preferably identifiable by name. So where did I go for my f-ed up game idea fix? Why, Nintendo’s always been a big name favorite. I found the very quirky Odama skirting the edge of Nintendo’s show area, like a wallflower with braces and two left feet.

Part of what makes Odama such an interesting specimen is the developer that actually makes it. Vivarium may not ever gain more notoriety than it did for the grotesquely bizarre game called Seaman (made for Sega’s ill-fated Dreamcast). Right from the minds that put together a sentient, anthropomorphized fish sim comes a pseudo-RTS taking place in the medieval battle stage of Japan... set to the mechanics of a pinball machine. I’ll let you read that last part again for effect: A PINBALL MACHINE.

It’s either a brilliant gamble in concept, or a scream of insanity in execution, but seeing it all take place in action does bring the idea a little closer to the reality in which we all live, instead of some relative dimension where Rod Sterling reigns supreme. Upon entering the comparably tiny area with a set of playable machines, I was led gently by my arm to an open system and dropped willingly into play. I even learned a little something standing there with my mouth slightly agape.

The battleground of the stage I played was a painted beauty, featuring the muddy textures of thin forests, a river bank, and open fields of vegetation. The top of the screen was a bank of my enemies post, and the bottom angled inwards along sharpened gate pikes, to an opening that contained – you guessed it – flippers. Periodically, I would get a lesson or two from the kind Nintendo hired hands behind me, who led me down the path of weird conceptual battle dynamics.

My first endeavor was the thrilling crush of the Odama, a gigantic rock, and legendary good luck charm, said to have been in the possession of a powerful Japanese warlord. This is your pinball. As it ejected itself mid-field, the forces of the opposing team either split to allow it through, or were crushed and tossed into the air. I had to be careful, as the Odama had the ability to do the same to my troops as well. Hitting different obstacles in the field triggered different events; slamming into a gong sent enemy cavalry running down the field to cause trouble in my ranks; smashing a tower removed enemy missile fire. Adding more soldiers to the field is as easy as pressing “up” on the C stick, and if my ranks grew low in number, the Odama became my recruiting tool (such was its mythical ability to sway the loyalties of opposing troops). Powering up the Odama and rolling it through the adversarial numbers would convert them to my side, but care needed to be taken as morale slipped every time this was executed and revolt became a mounting threat. And on top of all that, there’s the time-honored cheat tactic (yes, even in a pinball game) of tilting the entire playing field with the shoulder buttons – this was not only effective in manipulating the ball, but also served as an amusement to watch the little samurai sway and pitch to the motion of the ground.

Ultimately, I had to get a small team of vulnerable soldiers up the field with a ladder to climb the wall my opponent’s fort. Needless to say, I never got that far, but the point was well-taken.

I still can’t put my finger on what’s so charming about Odama, besides its casual RTS ingredients and the addictive twitch action of a pinball machine. Even from this early build, I was able to grasp that something wonderful had been captured amidst some very different game structures. What was even more mystifying was that it worked. I’ll certainly be watching for Odama in 2005. This one has cult status written all over it.