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by Marty Demarest & r & & r & Brain Age; Rated Everyone 10 +; Nintendo Gamecube & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he name Odama, loosely translated from Japanese, means "Sir Ball." Not a pretentious official title like Sir Elton John, but one designating clout, like Sir Mix-A-Lot. It's a name that implies swagger and strength, and it's perfect for the title weapon in Odama: a ball the size of a house. Launched by cannon, the Odama zigzags violently across battlefields. It plows through battalions of soldiers, rolling away with screaming men stuck to its surface. It smashes towers to pieces. It rebounds off mountainsides and barrels down valleys. I'd call it Sir too.


This & uuml;ber-ball is my greatest weapon as I lead a clan of 16th-century Japanese rebels across 11 different battlefields -- er, pinball tables. The Odama is, of course, the ball. My flippers are gigantic but standard and are operated by a bunch of sweaty, shirtless slaves. There is no game score; there is my army, which I must preserve from one battle to another. And when I tilt the table, the earth rolls beneath my soldiers' feet.


Much of this is historically inaccurate, of course. Nobody played pinball in Japan during the 1500s. But the goal of Odama -- to overcome in battle, subdue nations, and bring home spoils with infinite manslaughter -- has a long precedent in the real world. By using the chaos of pinball, Odama highlights the spirit of war better than many micromanagement-filled wargames. And in a particularly brilliant touch, the game's designer, Yoot Saito, has incorporated a microphone. Instead of pressing buttons to direct my troops, I simply command them to "press forward," or "march right," and (clever soldiers) they respond in Japanese. They might also ignore me if they're hungry, making Odama the first pinball game in which the table stages a mutiny.


Although Saito says that there is no real historical precedent for a weapon like the Odama, it's hard not to think of gunpowder. Indeed the name Odama could also mean 'the age of Oda,' referring to Oda Nobunaga, the first samurai to successfully use gunpowder, which reached Japan during the years in which Odama is set. Between the game's historical details and its story of honorable conquest, there's a strong sense that Odama is ultimately about being the samurai with the biggest ball.





THE GOOD: Yoot Saito, Odama's designer, is one of the world's most creative videogame artists. His games (Seaman, SimTower) tend to be set in sealed environments, with players kept outside by aquarium walls, office doors, and pinball glass. As a result, the games become about influencing the action indirectly. It's a rare form of gameplay in an era of first-person immersion. But Saito's agile imagination makes it compelling enough to invigorate even the dust-gathering GameCube.





THE BAD: The controls are so unique and complex that the early stages of Odama are devoted to mastering them. These inescapable tutorial levels are boring, even for a pinball fanatic, and before the game finally moves to mountains with flippers scattered around their bases, or long village lanes waiting to be rolled through, the game has begun to overstay its welcome.





THE BOTTOM LINE: A blazingly original pinball game topped with strategic warfare and crazy Japanese monsters, Odama unfortunately runs out of steam before it can truly run amok.

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