Sega's Ooga Booga is a strange beast, existing as somewhat of a median between Nintendo's untraditional fighting game Super Smash Bros. and one of the better titles in Hudson's Bomberman series (which are well known for their excellent multiplayer modes). And while many of Sega's recent releases for the Dreamcast have spotlighted what is arguably the system's best feature, its online capabilities, Ooga Booga is no exception. It's a 3D action/puzzle game in which the focus is so strongly on matches against online opponents that its single player mode is much like that of Sega's Phantasy Star Online; it exists only to get you acquainted with the controls and to open up extras for use in online play.
In the game, you play as a witch doctor competing for the favor of the volcano goddess, Ooga Booga, against one to three other witch doctors in tropical island arenas. You choose from one of four tribes: Fatty, Hottie, Hoodoo, and Twitchy, each with its own specialty and weakness. For instance, witch doctors from the Fatty tribe can carry more items and are more powerful than the rest, but they are the slowest of the four. Meanwhile, those from the Twitchy tribe are faster but less powerful.
Like in Super Smash Bros., there are numerous items sprinkled around the game's environments for you to collect and use against your opponents. Shrunken heads that you can hurl at enemies fall from trees, wild boars graze on plants until you mount and ride them into foes, exotic birds take you on an aerial tour of the island so that you can drop heads down upon your opponents, and fireball throwing and lightning casting spells materialize every few minutes, and so on. In addition, you can claim tiki statues and make them attack your rivals if they venture too close to them. By the time you've unlocked all the different items in the single-player game, you'll have more than a dozen different cartoonish ways of inflicting damage on witch doctor rivals.
Smakahuna is the basic free-for-all mode that serves as the brunt of the game, but there are two other modes of play besides it. Rodeo is a slight variation on Smakahuna wherein you can score points only by hitting opponents while you're riding a boar or by knocking them off their boar. In boar polo, you must push a large boulder through your enemy's goal. You can do this by smacking the boulder or throwing shrunken heads at it, but the best way to get it moving is by charging a wild boar straight into it. Rodeo is difficult to get into because it doesn't offer anything that you can't already find within Smakahuna, but matches in boar polo can be very gripping, as the boar is hard to steer but can push the boulder much farther than a witch doctor on foot. Plus, there are many items available for knocking an opponent off a boar, not the least of which is another boar. Ooga Booga's biggest drawback is that there aren't enough different modes available overall. Options such as the number of boars and birds present in a match, how many points needed to win, and the amount of time allotted each match can be adjusted to your liking, but having a few more truly unique modes altogether would give Ooga Booga considerably longer legs.
The gameplay itself is fast and furious, but several cheap ways exist to exploit a win. When you're knocked off a particular island and into the water, you can't throw shrunken heads or cast spells while you swim to shore, but one of your enemies can stand on the shore and lob either or both at you, knocking you even farther out. Sometimes you can get stuck in a corner while an enemy juggles you with combinations of hits, spells, and thrown heads. Likewise, bird attacks can be stopped only through the use of a homing head item, which can be hard to find and take time to aim correctly. But essentially, the game is so chaotic in nature that even the most skilled or cheap player can be brought low because of such random events as a spell materializing closer to an opponent or a boar suddenly going wild and knocking him into a volcano. This unpredictability is definitely a positive aspect of the game, as there's plenty of room for both skill and randomness in all but the most confined arenas. And because of this wild card element, matches often come down to the last few seconds, just like in movies about sports teams, except more exciting and perhaps less emotional.
Patience and determination are key requirements for playing Ooga Booga's single-player mode, which must be done for you to unlock every item and mode for the online multiplayer game, unless one of your live opponents has already done so and starts a match with the goods that he or she has already acquired. The single-player mode can be dull, since the computer-controlled opponents are either completely easy or very tough. The online aspect of Ooga Booga is really the only way to play it. You can play the game against one to three human opponents through a multiplayer split-screen mode, but there's often so much going on within the game arena that it's easy to miss the action with a smaller screen. This mode would've been conspicuous by its absence, but it quickly becomes apparent that you need a full screen to play the game correctly.
A good, online multiplayer experience is not just about the in-game mechanics, but also the connection logistics, both human and technical. The lobby and chat interfaces are awkward at times, but it's easy to find a game to join or track down a friend (although a PSO guild card-style system would've been a nice addition). Lag is a more common occurrence than you'd like it to be, though not too frequent overall. But when lag hits, it can be painful. Steering a boar is hard enough without lag causing you to overcompensate for your steering.
Ooga Booga is a lighthearted and somewhat original game, but it's not quite as addictive as the games it most closely resembles, and its lack of different gameplay modes will cap your desire to keep coming back to it over an extended period of time. Its relatively lower price certainly makes it worth checking out for Dreamcast owners looking for more games to play against the friends they made in Phantasy Star Online, but for those new to the online console world, PSO or the upcoming Bomberman Online may very well be the better, most satisfying inaugural game.