Call the ball.
Tucked in a corner at last year’s E3, Nintendo had its own version of Katamari Damacy. Yoot Saito’s Odama is a pinball/strategy game, seemingly a hybrid more impossible than Napoleon Dynamite’s favorite animal. But onlookers were hooked. The concept – in which players dash the gates of an enemy stronghold with a giant pinball – was crazy and fun, and the game seemed great.
This year, Odama returned, slightly less hidden in Nintendo’s massive booth. But it wasn’t the same old game. Someone in the development chain added voice recognition to the already full plate. Huh? A pinball/strategy/v.r. title?
Here’s how this impossible creature works. Rival forces contend over a plot of land. At the far end is a gate – the player’s goal. At the near end is a giant pair of pinball flippers. Infantry for each side clashes along the field, and environmental hazards such as a raging river may impede the progress of ground troops. A small group of player units haul around a large bell, which has to clear the enemy gates like a football crossing the goal line.
Those huge flippers thwack a giant stone ball, the Odama of the title. It can steamroll enemy troops (creating reserves for the player at the same time) and even flatten friendly units. The Odama can also smash structures and hit switches, which might dam that raging river, for example. By battering the enemy, a path is cleared to maneuver the bell into the end zone.
What sounds ludicrous on paper becomes intuitive and a hell of a lot of fun on screen. The animations are simple and entertaining, and who doesn’t know how to play pinball? The Odama has all the physics and speed you’d hope for. I cackle every time it mows down a regiment. It’s as if the boulder that menaced Indiana Jones has been called into civil service.
Initially, controlling the Odama was a matter of flicking the D-pad, which added a layer of complexity while only barely complicating the controls. Though a microphone might streamline the system further, I can’t help feeling that using voice recognition is a bad idea. (And not merely because I’m unwilling to burden my Wavebird with a microphone wire.)
From Nintendo’s perspective, going with the voice recognition technology probably seems like a good idea. After all, Yoot Saito is the man responsible for the bizarre Seaman, arguably the best use of a microphone in a console game starring a man-fish. If the whole thing works, the company truly has a potential Katamari on its hands. If not, Odama might be merely one more curious failure in a long line of Nintendo experiments.
But while it’s easy enough to convince nearly anyone to roll a big ball of junk, getting them to scream ‘charge the gate!’ at a bunch of bowlegged bell-carriers may take more work. If it works, that is. The E3 show floor, which would drive otologists insane, is hardly the venue of choice to test voice recognition. The D-pad may yet work to control the bell as well, though it didn’t seem to on the show floor.
Three scenarios were on tap at the show, each slightly more complex than the last. During the course of play, new commands could be ‘learned’ so that players could move the bell around with more finesse. Simple ‘left’ or ‘forward’ exclamations were soon kept company by orders to ‘form up’ and other commands.
Setting aside the whole microphone thing, Odama has more items to offer. While you’re throwing the ball against the far gates, soldiers can attack the flippers and prepare the Odama for the fate feared by so many pinball wizards. Reinforcements can fend them off, or you can just launch a giant hamburger to distract the troops until the Odama rolls back. That’s right – now it’s Burger Time/pinball/strategy/v.r. Yoot Saito is gaming’s Iron Chef.
Nintendo has made all sorts of noise about the need for accessibility and intuitive game design, and despite its odd nature, Odama is their best example. I can see a DS spinoff being fantastic, especially since the portable already has a microphone. So even with the potentially dodgy voice recognition, I’m cheering my ass off for Odama. You could wander E3 for several days and find barely a handful of games that even try something new, much less do it with balls. Expect it to go full tilt later this year.