- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Here’s a look at some software that’s available for the samurai in the family:

Odama, by Nintendo for Game Cube, rated E-10+ for violence, $49.99. Nintendo may not always create the best video games, but the company goes out of its way to try to release the most innovative. Its latest title places a player in the middle of a feudal war set in medieval Japan and mixes real-time strategy, pinball and voice-activation technology.

The story of Yamanouchi Kagetora, a young general set to avenge his clan and preserve the Way of Ninten, plays out on top of a three-quarter-perspective, over-the-top landscape and involves an undermanned Kagetora army at odds with a traitor and his minions.

Kagetora has at his disposal a powerful weapon called the Odama, a giant stone ball used to pulverize the opposition and its structures. He also has a magical bell, and his goal during each battle is to get the ringer carried through the opposition’s main gate while moving as many of his troops as possible ahead of the precious cargo.

If you haven’t already figured it out, the Odama is actually a pinball, and instead of banging it into bumpers and up ramps, the player uses flippers at the bottom of the combat screen to bounce the weapon off of and crush houses, guard towers, trees, soldiers and anything else that gets in its way.

Of course, the problem is controlling this orb of mass destruction, which also has a habit of rolling over a player’s troops or making a mess of an apparently under-control situation.

For example, in the first campaign, I was tasked to close a floodgate so my troops could cross a river. I managed to move the ball into tripping the mechanism, but a stray bounce minutes later opened the gate and washed about half of my comrades down the formerly dry gulch.

The game also comes with a microphone that attaches to the Game Cube controller and helps get a player’s soldiers out of the way of the Odama and also encourages them to perform tasks and move into battle. Patiently barking commands such as “Press forward,” “Flank and destroy,” “Rally” and “Close the gate” into the microphone will send the boys scattering, like ants, into action.

Although the graphics will not win any awards, especially the character close-ups, a rousing narration in Japanese (with English subtitles) by veteran actor Hideji Otaki and woodblock illustrations deliver an authentic feel for the feudal struggle.

The dialogue bubbles that appear as soldiers are crushed filled my sick-humor quotient for the day as the poor fellows exclaimed, “We’re on your side, dummy,” “The horror,” “This is no way to die,” and “Tell my kids that I love them.”

Unfortunately, two problems kept me from loving Odama. First, the time limits put on battles are brutal, and even a precious second wasted in completing a secondary objective delivers defeat.

Next, the struggle for my pea brain to execute voice and multiple tactile commands simultaneously also was brutal. A practice mode would have been appreciated.

Odama certainly is a quirky experience that offers a unique blend of virtual pinball and war, but it falls just short of impressive — even though screaming at my television while puny humans are crushed is a stress reliever.

Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams, Capcom for PlayStation 2, rated M for blood, language and violence, $39.99. A single player journeys back to 16th-century Japan, 15 years after the defeat of a power-hungry dictator, to control a band of young warriors out to destroy another crazed dictator in a role-playing challenge packed with action and cinematic visuals.

The five-year-old Onimusha franchise has been enhanced with dazzling features. Multiple playable characters, puzzles, slick weapons, armor upgrades, magical attacks and plenty of combat make for a robust experience in 17 stages spread across the two-disc DVD set.

Just like its predecessors, the game has its share of tough bosses, undead minions and violent, bloody confrontations that made it a hit with mature teens and adults.

The title transcends common video-game fare through beautifully directed computer-generated cut scenes that propel the story, along with a dramatic musical score, rich design of traditional Japanese landscapes and architecture, and a 360-degree controllable camera to absorb all of the intense detail.

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com)

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