The Wonderful 101 | Principal Platforms: Wii U | Developer: Platinum Games | Publisher: Nintendo | Genre: Action-adventure | Year: 2013
It may have been on the market for little more than 3 years, but it’s clear that the Wii U needed more games willing to at least take a few risks and be more experimental with the hardware at their disposal.
We know that the Wii U could never hope to fight a console war based on raw specs, so you’d hope that by having a few oddball titles like The Wonderful 101 to kick around, it might at the least give the console some latent hipster appeal.
And this game is anything but mainstream, let me tell you.
The Wonderful 101 is an action-heavy romp that combines the gorgeously vibrant colour of a Mario title with all the genre-busting madness that you’d normally associate with a Japanese party game.
Best described as Pikmin meets Power Rangers, this primarily single player action adventure is about as unabashedly over-the-top and chaotic as its premise would suggest.
Players guide leader “Wonder Red” and his merry band of misfit heroes on an adventure to repel the aliens who are out to destroy Earth.
Much like Bayonetta 2 before it, 101’s use of colour is quite remarkable and when combined with the hundreds of tiny characters on the screen at once, it creates a suitably lush backdrop for the non-stop action.
The graphics aren’t the only thing reminiscent of Bayonetta though; the systems for scoring, collectibles and the overall structure of missions are also highly similar to Platinum’s masterpiece.
It even has the exact same story thread of a boy called Luka witnessing his father die at the hands of other-worldly forces. Hmm…
That’s not to say that 101 feels totally derivative however, as you can never quite know what to expect from the gameplay next as your method of interaction is frequently being mixed up in goofy ways.
The presence of practice battles during loading screens is a nice touch for instance and you’re never too far from another genre-bending sequence that has you taking part in everything from a Zaxxon inspired shoot ’em up to a one-on-one boxing brawl between giant robots!
Indeed, it all sounds as wonderful as the name would imply, so why then do I find the game to be so exasperatingly awful?
In case you glossed over what I said before, let’s make something crystal clear. The Wonderful 101 might have 101 different problems, but being unoriginal ain’t one.
Along with its quirky gameplay flourishes, there are some genuinely humourous moments and silly catchphrases found in the cartoon show narrative, and it’s almost impossible not to appreciate the creative flair that has been put into each and every set piece.
Unfortunately the game is also cursed with a nightmarish control scheme, an uneven pace, and many other quibbles that had my list of negative impressions a mile long before even the third mission.
The good things I might have said about The Wonderful 101 were often smothered under a heap of fresh annoyances with the biggest gripe of all being those fiddly and unintuitive controls.
During each level you’ll conscript bystanders and recruit other ‘Wonderful Ones’ in order to expand your rank of available allies. This is because with more backup you can perform more ‘unite morphs’ which are the techniques that allow your tiny helpers to merge their bodies into more useful forms.
In order to execute these vital morphing techniques however you need to first draw the matching shape – using a line of Wonderful Ones as your brush stroke – that corresponds to the morph you want.
Completing a circle of heroes for instance will activate the Unite Hand – great for punching and turning switches – whereas a zigzag line will switch to a set of Unite Claws that will help you slash enemies, scale walls and pry open tight doors or openings.
The morphing mechanic is an interesting one and it’s used during many context-sensitive situations such as building ladders or bridges and it even has more outlandish applications like creating a hand glider or plugging a breach in an underwater tunnel.
Anyone who has played Black & White for any length of time though will be able to relate to the inaccuracy of drawing exact shapes without a proper stylus.
You can use the right analogue stick to complete shapes, but it’s not always that accurate. The Gamepad’s touch screen is certainly better, only your attention gets dragged away from the main screen whilst sketching.
Taking your eyes off the screen during a battle sequence is something you don’t want to do too often though because fights are extremely challenging.
Seriously, this game’s learning curve is a vertical line. I’ve seen it.
And this isn’t the fun sort of difficulty where you get to feel good by overcoming a balanced obstacle, but rather the sort of difficulty that stems from obscure objectives, unfairly quick enemies, and the constant need to keep track of moves that be may needed at a moment’s notice.
Most enemies you come across leave you almost no time to react before attacking, which makes dodges and counters – two vitally important techniques that begin the game locked for some insane reason – especially hard to pull off without taking damage.
And why is it that certain attacks can be dodged but not countered? When should countering be considered a better approach than simply dodging?
These are key questions that The Wonderful 101 never really gives clear answers to and many times your characters will get struck by gigantic health-sapping laser beams and crushing body slams just because you countered when you actually should have dodged. Silly you!
Again, it’s aggravatingly unintuitive and when you do inevitably get hit by a big attack, you’ll need to spend the next several seconds reviving all of your dispersed allies which only leads to follow-up attacks that are even trickier to avoid.
The situation isn’t helped by the power meter that limits the number of morphs you can pull off in quick succession.
You’ll spend the majority of each combat encounter poking enemies into exposing their weak points before unleashing as many unite morphs as possible in the window you have available.
Executing these simultaneous attacks, as well as any defensive manoeuvre for that matter, drains your power meter quite rapidly and during the longer battles this poses a real problem as you have to wait for it to recharge before continuing your assault.
Pacing is likewise hurt by several overrunning cutscenes loaded with exposition, a number of poor missions featuring a lone underpowered character, and an abundance of tiresome spike-covered baddies who must be laboriously stripped of their armour before they can be destroyed.
It has to be said though that the game’s performance holds up pretty well when you consider the intensity of the on-screen action, but then keeping track of your miniature character amid a swarm of other small characters is difficult, especially when the gameplay shifts to the Gamepad screen for the odd gimmicky puzzle.
Even the Gamepad’s rumble setting is poorly configured, as performing even the slightest action in-game produces an incredibly strong, not to mention loud response and it wasn’t long before I disabled it entirely.
It’s disappointing that I need to say to say all this because The Wonderful 101 has such potential to be a uniquely charming game.
There’s plenty of content for one. You’re not likely to feel short-changed by the initial 10+ hour playthrough (even if it is because the story refuses to end) and that’s not even mentioning the multiple hidden secrets, collectibles, or bonus multiplayer missions for up to 5 players.
But it all comes back to those unintuitive controls whose effect on the game is so devastating that it makes recuperation impossible.
It’s commendable that Platinum Games is so willing to innovate and to paraphrase George Orwell: it is true that in certain design philosophies that two and two might equal five.
But when it comes to building a solid control system; two and two have to equal four. There’s just no two ways about it.
I may have overused the word at this point, but everything in this game is just so unintuitive, from the unclear mission objectives and power-ups, to the new control schematics that every other underwhelming minigame or turret sequence introduces.
And at the end of all this, none of it is really that fun either.
It is possible to develop some semblance of rhythm when the controls finally do sink in (after many hours of trial and error), but the time you need to invest for the amount of fun you actually get out just isn’t worth it.
Reports suggest that The Wonderful 101 was a bit of a financial bomb, though considering just how inaccessible and ultimately disappointing the final product is, I can’t really lament that outcome.
I’m sorry Wonder Red, but this time democracy isn’t the only thing that has failed.