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How Odama tilted the playing field

Why I Love: Pig Eat Ball's Nathan Fouts reminisces about Yoot Saito's bizarre pinball-meets-RTS GameCube exclusive

Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on GamesIndustry.biz intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This edition was contributed by Nathan Fouts, who spent years at Insomniac and Running With Scissors before going striking out on his own with Mommy's Best Games.

Hi! I'm Nathan Fouts, owner and designer at Mommy's Best Games. My latest creation, Pig Eat Ball, is out now on Steam and coming to consoles early this year. Pig Eat Ball is like what would happen if Pac-Man got fatter while eating, and… lived on a huge, clock-work, space station. I have a fondness for intricate action systems. I like seeing lots of varied, tiny characters and creature at work. That's one of the many appeals for me with Odama.

My Liege

Released only on the GameCube in 2006, Odama is a wild blend of pinball and real-time strategy, set in feudal Japan. Playing as a struggling general, you must command and assist your men to carry a heavy metal bell through the enemy's gates at the top of the screen. To do this you have some tricks up your sleeve. Your army has possession of an enormous ball, the titular Odama. Each unique battlefield is equipped with pinball paddles at the bottom of the screen, allowing you to knock the ball around and kill soldiers. As a general you can actually issue several voice commands to your men to carry out your will. The men are nearly helpless without your leadership, and require your constant direction and encouragement.

Getting the bell to the top of the screen sounds easier than it is. (Screenshot pulled from MobyGames)

Getting the bell to the top of the screen sounds easier than it is. (Screenshot pulled from MobyGames)

Stunning Originality

I was at E3 in the early 2000's, wandering the halls of endless me-toos and polished polygons all vying for attention. It was near the end of day and I was starting to flag. That is until I rounded a modest column in the Nintendo booth and found Odama hidden on the back side. As soon as I started to play, the rest of the show fell away.

What was this insanity? Japanese feudal war fields… and pinball? And voice-control?? E3 was a different show back then, easier to get into the big N's booth and, surprisingly, not always deafeningly loud, which allowed the special microphone to hear my voice. Shouting at the little men to "Press Forward", knocking the giant, rolling Odama about the board, and crushing enemy soldiers--I was in love!

Sea and Hear

The designer of Odama is Yoot Saito. He also designed the even weirder game Seaman. A "digital pet" game in which you rear a fish with the face of a man, Seaman is also incredibly original. Both games feature voice-command control, and both games carve their own path, ignoring the main stream.

To think that Saito would make something as insane as Seaman, and then follow it up with something nearly as crazy, but completely different, is incredible.

Microcosmic Chaos

The call of the horn at the start of a level.

The worry and murmur of enemy soldiers as you aim the Odama cannon in their direction.

The three small men that actually pull back the paddles when you pull the triggers.

There is so much wonderful detail to absorb and enjoy with each level. I love getting to a new level and seeing all the strategies and possibilities present themselves. Games that make each new level a special treat, with original mechanics and custom assets and designs are my favorite. Each of the 11 levels in Odama is unique and has custom surprises.

Flipping the Odds

Odama has strong highs and lows. You can feel very close to defeat and then quickly turn the tide. A great feeling is to have the enemies pressing your forces back, but at the last moment you crash the ball into your bell creating a loud sound, knocking nearby enemies unconscious for a time.

The appropriately named Heavenly Odama. (Screenshot pulled from MobyGames)

The appropriately named Heavenly Odama. (Screenshot pulled from MobyGames)

But the best thing is to grab the coveted green powerup. It's even better than simply knocking out or killing enemies. The green orb creates the "Heavenly Odama" which allows the Odama to *conscript* enemy soldiers! Yes, now rolling the ball across baddies causes them to fly through the air, into your base, and increases your precious soldier count. And for good measure, your ball now doesn't kill your own soldiers like it usually does. The green Odama creates an amazing feel, akin to grabbing the power pellet in Pac-Man and turning the tides on those tenacious ghosts.

Serious and Sensational

Another perfect addition is the advisor. Speaking only in Japanese, the deep, strong voice encourages you and drives you forward. The tone and delivery really transport you back to a different time, making you feel the weight of being in charge of all these desperate soldiers.

As straight as the advisor treats things, it makes it even better when enemies like 30-foot high warrior-generals show up, or a giant spider-monster with the head of a man. Combining straight-laced a Japanese feudal setting with a sprinkle of fantasy makes the wild stuff even more exciting and surreal.

You can see the 30-foot-tall enemy general near the top-middle. The dots around him are his men carrying flags. (Screenshot pulled from MobyGames)

You can see the 30-foot-tall enemy general near the top-middle. The dots around him are his men carrying flags. (Screenshot pulled from MobyGames)

Crush Your Enemies

For me it never gets old to knock the Odama around and destroy scores of enemy soldiers. Seeing a perfect line of them set up, and hitting the ball just right, having it careen through the battlefield and knock them all over is very satisfying. And every level is festooned with so many huts, towers, bridges, buildings, trees, and walls, all of which can be destroyed by your great ball of chaos.

In the second area, there is a grid-like layout of enemy outposts in front of their gate. These towers are a threat to your men, but are also a delightful Arkanoid-like bouncing bonanza for your giant, rolling destructor. Recognizing and exploiting these seamless blends of gameplay and strategy is a delight.

Deathball

What's especially strange and endearing to me, is back in 1996, I made a shareware game about a giant iron ball called "Deathball Incarnate". Strangely similar to Odama (and another fun one, Rock of Ages), you control a large ball that you can roll about, gleefully squishy tiny, fleeing humans.

I don't know what it is about this sub-genre of a man-crushing-ball, but I really like it.

Odama's giant ball of man-crushing doom really spoke to Fouts, creator of Deathball Incarnate

Odama's giant ball of man-crushing doom really spoke to Fouts, creator of Deathball Incarnate

Balls to the Wall

Sadly Odama is not without its problems, some of which can make it tough to enjoy. The game is punishingly hard and unforgiving. There is only one way to win, but many ways to fail.

If your bell is pushed through your gate you fail.

If all your balls fall out of the board, you fail.

If you take too long and the sun sets, you fail.

Nothing is worse than seeing your men push, the bell is close to the enemy gate, but you just can't get the ball there in time. Or your focus on the bell and your men, but your ball freaks out and shoots right between your paddles and the battle is lost. Odama can be maddeningly difficult and fickle at times.

Full Tilt

I cherish Yoot Saito's groundbreaking games. Odama is not perfect, but there are a lot of wild things to enjoy, and when occasionally a board just happens to go your way, it really is a treat to play. Perhaps with the proliferation of microphones in our controllers, we could get a modern re-release, rather than having Odama trapped in a few lucky gamers' collections. I wish more well-funded games would take such incredible chances with design like Odama did.

Developers interested in contributing their own Why I Love column are encouraged to reach out to us at news@gamesindustry.biz.

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Latest comments (1)

Peter Bond Studying Art & Design, University of Bedfordshire3 months ago
Great and indeed, a very interesting article. We need more innovative and creative pinball games, Yoku's Island Express is a great example of what can be done with the pinball genre!
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