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Yoot Saito's Odama

Katamari's out, Colossus tops the charts, Phoenix Wright is around the corner and Chibi Robo is on its way in May. Publishers' willingness to put esoteric Japanese games on European shelves seems to be at an all-time high, but you still have to wonder if this voice-activated hybrid of feudal military strategy and pinball would be getting a global release, let alone a near-simultaneous one, if GameCube's schedule wasn't quite so desolately empty.

Its creator Yoot Saito (also father of the talking fish Seaman) disagrees, arguing that it's a universal game. "I wanted it to be something that Japan, Europe, and the US could all look at from roughly the same distance: a medieval setting," he says. In other words, it's just as weird for everybody.

The Odama itself - the vast, flipper- propelled iron ball that can crush your own troops as well as the enemy's as it lumbers around the battlefield - is not the only strategic hunk of metal you, as the disenfranchised warlord Kagetora, will need to keep an eye on.

To progress to the next area, a small troop of men carrying a huge bell must be safely shepherded to the gate at the top of the screen; special actions can be triggered by ringing it with the Odama.

This troupe's movement is the focus of the vocal commands you'll be barking into the controller-mounted microphone that will ship with the game.

The remainder of your army responds to general orders like 'push' and 'rally', but is fairly autonomous when it comes to overcoming obstacles, gaining control of additional flippers and engaging the enemy.

Combining the checks and balances and best-laid plans of realtime strategy with the chaos of pinball is a daunting, not to say foolhardy, goal. Most previous attempts to blend pinball with systematic videogame structure have ended in at best compromise and at worst unplayable frustration, and those didn't have to implement mass troop AI, or the holy grail of reliable voice recognition.

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