In feudal Japan, families and warlords ruled, and strict codes of conduct and respect were enforced with the sword—or was it the giant pinball? In Odama, set in 1539, you play the revenge-seeking son of a warlord with two unusual weapons on your side: a big ol' ball and a big ol' bell. The battlefields (the game has 12, plus a hidden one) are set up as pinball tables, but there's more to Odama than simply keeping the ball from falling through the flippers (which are manned by cute little soldiers). No, the goal is to guide your giant bell through a gate at the other side of the battlefield, past enemy troops and any number of other obstacles, including lots of flowing rivers and guarded towers.
Though you're ostensibly in control—this is billed as a strategy game, after all—there's a lot of luck involved in guiding your magic bell to its destination. You need to keep an eye on the ball (the titular Odama) as well as your troops, but it's absolutely impossible not to crush your own poorly rendered guards while smiting enemies, since they're generally engaged in a big fighting jumble. While it's fun to smack the ball around, Odama would work better if its two entertainingly mismatched components were presented separately. As delivered, it's a maddening mish-mash of quick thrills and ugly frustrations.
Beyond the game: In another bid for wackiness, Nintendo has packaged Odama with a microphone (the same one used in recent Mario Party games), so you don't press buttons to order your troops around—you bark orders ("Rally!" "Advance!") at them. Try explaining that to your roommates at 4 a.m.
Worth playing for: Those delicious, infrequent moments when everything comes together—your troops and your giant ball work in sync.
Frustration sets in when: You fire up the GameCube. It takes forever to get into Odama's groove, and even when you've mastered the controls, the missions can be nightmarishly difficult, and not in a fun way.
Final judgment: Cheers to any game developers who can come up with new, clever combinations—and this one sounded great on paper—but Odama is rarely enough fun to justify the commitment.