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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Odama I forgot to write a strapline.

Names like Shigeru Miyamoto and Tetsuya Mizuguchi will be familiar to many reading these pages, but Yoot Saito might not be. Producer and game designer of Odama, Saito was also the architect of the excellent SimTower during a stint with Maxis in the mid-90s, and later the charmingly bizarre Seaman for Dreamcast. Yet while Odama isn't good enough to stop the dust building up on the GameCube for very long, anybody fortunate enough to sit down with it for half an hour is likely to look for his name in future.

Much has been made of Odama's "wacky" high concept - a mixture of pinball and military strategy - and a lot of the review's going to be given over to explaining why it's probably not what you're imagining and how it actually does work. Game manual stuff, basically. Usually I'd feel a bit bad about that, but here I don't - if you don't find the idea interesting, you're not going to like the game anyway.

First of all, picture a pinball table. Now scrub away all the buffers, blinking lights, Vegas presentation and ringing noises and replace them with a battlefield - a grassy basin bordered by mountainous rock, sprinkled with shacks, cut apart by rivers, stone walls, siege towers and hordes of men toting spears.

Like a pinball table, there are flippers at the bottom of the screen, and everything on the battlefield is relevant to the path and usefulness of the titular odama, a giant metal pinball, which it's your job to control. Houses smash to reveal pick-ups, which we'll get to in a bit; stone walls that run from side to side can be used to trap the odama in the top half where it can clobber increasingly nasty instruments of war in a frenzy of delightful ricochets; rivers can be bridged by knocking over distant objects, or forded by striking a floodgate control to one side of the play area; the hordes of men, some of which are your own, are fighting a battle, and what you do with the odama can change the flow of it.

This is what it's really about: the Ninten bell.

But out of all that, nothing is particularly important. Sure, enemy troops can reach your "bell crew" manning the flippers and knock them briefly out of commission, or a wayward odama can re-flood a river, trapping your troops in the wrong place and prevent you from reinforcing, but really the only truly important thing on the battlefield is a giant bell being pushed on your behalf toward a gate at the far end. Called the Ninten bell (I'll try to get to that eventually), it's the decisive factor in any battle - you win if you can get it through the gate, and you lose if it's forced back behind your flippers. The only other outcome of battle is defeat from losing your odama behind the flippers or letting the sun set and time run out.

So how do you control the bell? Simple - you clear a path for it using the odama, and you make sure it's moving in the right direction by always having more troops on the field than your enemy. You can reinforce your numbers by pressing the Z button, but only to a certain extent, and you can conscript enemy troops by using one of those pick-ups I mentioned - collecting hearts and then striking the Ninten bell, or collecting a single, slightly rarer green blob, transforms the odama into a "Heavenly" state, which means it will pass over your troops without harming them and convert any others it falls upon.

There are of course greater subtleties. Prior to each battle, you're given an overview of the battlefield by your advisor, who notes items of particular significance. For example, a gate at the back-left, which you'll need a key hidden in a house to go through; a hill that the Ninten bell cannot climb, which requires you to transport a ramp from somewhere else on the map; a pair of enemy flippers, which can be used to wield the odama against your troops, but which can also be taken over by your troops if you're thoughtful enough to do so.

The tilt control gives you more direct influence over ball movement than you'd expect.

In fact, there's an enormous amount to discover and master in Odama. I've written nearly 700 words, and I've still not touched upon using rice balls to distract enemy troops or boost your own men's morale, nor deploying cavalry to gain a temporary boost, and - god - I've not even mentioned the microphone.

I imagine that reading a review of Odama from a position of absolute ignorance is either tremendously boring or quite fascinating. This isn't an archetypal action or strategy game; it's not somebody's generic template with five extra bullet points on the back of the box. It's something you have to describe completely in order to even begin analysing whether it works or not. And that will either frustrate you (in which case you are quite safe to leave, by the way - this doesn't end particularly happily), or excite you immensely, as every revelation cocks your head with a little bit more interest. But I digress.

So yes - the microphone. You use the microphone to direct your troops. By collecting scrolls hidden in houses, you learn new commands. "Press forward" force-marches the Ninten bell a few paces even against a tide of enemy forces, and is most useful in the dying moments of a battle as you approach the gate; "march left" or "march right" sends it off to one side; "rally" sends your troops to the point where your cursor, controlled with the left analogue stick, is currently resting, or the nearest logical objective, like a rice ball or a key.

Your men's morale can be crucial too - build it up with skilful odama use.

By this point you're probably thinking that my biggest problem with Odama is its control system - you're looking at your hands and wondering how the seemingly endless procession of commands and features translate to a single pad, and wondering whether the fact a core selection of them have spilled over to a periphery microphone is going to render it hopelessly complicated. Well, no - the biggest compliment I can pay Odama is that it's overwhelmingly new without actually being overwhelming. Controlling the odama, like playing pinball, is quite instinctive; the biggest distinction here is how influential the table-tilt function (also on the left analogue stick) is in helping you strike at specific targets. And the rest just seems to follow naturally - when troop numbers fall or the bell starts to fall back, you know how to act.

Odama's problem isn't really one of architecture. The design, though it is complicated, is fascinating to prod and discover; you won't know what's happening or how to change it to begin with, and it's not especially intuitive, but you will not be frustrated by failure because every battle is interesting. The odama's basically a bull, in a china shop, refereeing a tug of war. And so you'll fail, because you sent the ball careening into a floodgate control when you didn't mean to, or because you decided to launch it over the central dividing stone wall so it would smash up the siege towers, like a Breakout ball dancing magically over the top row when you somehow sneak it around the side, only to discover that your force at the bottom isn't strong enough to push the Ninten bell forward no matter how much you reinforce. Or you'll start a battle, and two seconds later you'll accidentally whack the Ninten bell with the odama and score an own goal.

But these aren't bad failures to begin with; you can usually work out why you've lost and how to stop it. The problem is that you can't often work out why you've won, and it's here that the frustration needed to be avoided. Having hammered away at a particular level, attempting several different approaches, for the best part of half an hour, and often simply exhausting the time-limit, I won. I wasn't doing anything differently, I wasn't particularly lucky; in fact, I do not know why I won. And this happened to me too often. There are component parts of the victory you understand - you moved that ladder there, issued the "press forward" command as you closed in on the gate, and so on - but the determining factor evades you, and it's maddening. Odama continually offers you strategic options, and the prospect of using them in concert with the odama itself is exciting, but victory too often feels a bit empty. And with that, a momentary act of randomness from the odama that leads to defeat stings harder too.

Rice balls help distract the enemy, effectively allowing you to bypass them on occasion.

But rubber-stamping Odama's ignominy - let's face it, it's a mid-scoring Cube game, and no-one's going to buy it - actually hurts.

This is probably a good time to get round to explaining the whole "Ninten bell" thing.

Set in the warring states period, Odama's story concerns a young man seeking to avenge his father's betrayal, with two secrets to his name, one of which is the odama, and the other is... Well, here's an extract from the introduction (replicated in the manual): "The other secret was the doctrine of Ninten-do, the Way of Heavenly Duty. The word Ninten-do is formed from the first kanji of three proverbs: Nin-ga Mu-shin ('Attend to one's duties without ego'), Tenzai Kohrin ('Those in heaven will descend') and Do-gi Tsuu-mei ('Moral action is a daily command'). The Way of Ninten illustrates the mindset of the Kagetora army, soldiers who have entrusted themselves to the heavens to fight for a common purpose. This is the true origin of bushido, the code of the samurai."

One way or another, you'll probably feel that Odama doesn't quite work. But there's such love in it, so much needless, thankless extra toil and detail, like using the Ninten bell as an excuse to remind us of the etymology of a very familiar name, that at the very least a few more radars deserve to be tuned to Saito's movements in future.

Anyway, I'm usually loath to advise rentals, but in this case I'll make an exception - not because I'm copping out, but because I want you to fail. Failure's rarely been as interesting as it is during your first hour here, and if you care about games rather than simply caring about which games are good, you'll want to play it for at least that long.

6 / 10