Ikaruga. Know what it means? We'll give you a moment. If you're still stumped, then you probably don't care about Odama. The very definition of a niche title, Ikaruga is a game that few non-hardcore gamers know about, a top-down, GameCube shooter that's as challenging as it is beautiful - and it's very beautiful. The point is, if you didn't track down Ikaruga and then spend hours mastering each and every level of that punishing but polished game, then you probably aren't going to want to spend the time and effort it takes to deal with Odama's bizarre mixture of pinball and strategy either. It's in the same class.
When we say strategy, we mean it. Odama truly brings pinball to the battlefield. No, it doesn't make much sense. It's probably a miracle that it even works at all - but it does, enough to make the game more than a mistake headed for the bargain bins. At its most basic, Odama is a pinball game: flippers, bumpers and a ball careening off of 'em. But it's also a strategy game, with armies clashing in a desperate struggle as hundreds die. And you're playing them both at the same time.
It's like this: the pinball table is also the battlefield. The pinball is not really a pinball at all - it's the "Odama," which literally just means "big ball." It's a holy relic, the key to winning a bloody war - and you fire it into the middle of the fray, where it rolls around smashing your enemies. The game constantly veers between battle tactics and pinball - front lines and flippers, pressing forward and power-ups.
That's a problem, of course. Mixing two ideas that were never meant to go together results in a game that we can guarantee nobody else will ever copy - but it doesn't really make for the best gameplay. You have to shout orders at your soldiers using the microphone that comes packed in the box and use the controller's analog stick to tilt the board to keep the Odama from crushing those same soldiers, all while flattening your foes and collecting power-ups that are essential to victory. It's not simple.
But it's manageable, if just barely. Getting the basics of the control down is surprisingly doable - within an hour you should be set. Even so, the game's way too hard. It's stacked against you: hordes of enemy soldiers constantly rush into battle, power-ups appear and disappear randomly, horsemen disable your flippers (which leads quickly and unavoidably to death) and each level has a time limit. That's not even counting the fact that it's simply tough to see everything that's going on, and difficult to steer the Odama even when you can. And sometimes it's purely down to luck - which you certainly can't control. You're simply going to lose much, much more often than you win.
That in mind, clever ideas abound in Odama. Everything on the battlefield, from enemy battlements, to generals, to troops, gates and pulleys works with one another - and your voice and your ball. It's not the best strategy game, and it's not the best pinball game, but it's an oddly addictive blend. No, Odama is not a great pinball game - there are many better straight simulations of that classic arcade experience of lights, bumpers and gravity. There are also, obviously, superior strategy games - the GameCube's Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance springs quickly to mind.
So why play Odama? A few types of gamers will be interested. Those who make purchases based on quirk rather than quality have already slapped money down on the counter. Gamers who crave a challenge, whether or not it's a fair one, will be hooked on Odama's difficulty. And, of course, GameCube die-hards, sadly enough, are pretty much forced to take what they can get these days.
Though unbound creativity can lead to classics like PS2's Katamari Damacy and its colorful balls of space-bound garbage, it can also lead to a game that makes as little sense as it seems like it would the first time someone tells you about it. Strategy and pinball? Right. It's better than it sounds, but not that much better. The world is probably a more interesting place with this game in it, but that doesn't necessarily mean your life will improve if you play it.