For almost a whole year, gamers who picked up Nintendo’s latest console had to go months at a time without a major release to justify picking up the touchscreen controller. But now, slowly but surely, the Wii U is turning its software drought around. Last month we were treated to the charming Pikmin 3, and now The Wonderful 101, another game that has you controlling hordes of colorful characters, is arriving just in time to satisfy game-starved Wii U owners. However, unlike Pikmin, this is no laid-back experience; this is hardcore, balls-to-the-wall action with a bit of humor and self-reference thrown in for good measure.
Coming from the mind of Hideki Kamiya (the mind behind Viewtiful Joe, Okami and Bayonneta), The Wonderful 101 is a highly stylised take on the superhero genre. You are Wonder Red, newly appointed leader of the Wonderful 100 (read – One Double O), who must lead his squad of one hundred superheroes against the evil Geathjerk, an alien organisation whose sole purpose is the destruction of Earth. The story is clichéd and cheesy, but instead of that being a bad thing, The Wonderful 101 embraces its cheesiness and makes a story that is worth following through to the end.
As mentioned, you will be controlling a squad of one hundred superheroes. At the head of this group is your leader. Each leader has a different ability called a Unite Morph which allows the whole team to transform into a weapon specific to that leader like a giant fist, a sword, or even a gun. You can also make multiple Unite Morphs at the same time to really dish out the pain on your opponent, but watch out; one hit and you have to re-morph from scratch.
It’s this Unite Morph mechanic that helps give The Wonderful 101’s gameplay a unique feel. But don’t think for a second that all you’ll be doing is morphing and bashing on enemies. Oh no, the game will keep you on your toes with all manner of different gameplay sections. One second you might be battling a giant robot, the next gliding across crumbling rooftops only to take control of a flying battlecruiser taking down incoming bogeys. The entire game is just filled with one massive set piece moment after another, and this constant change of pace helps make the steep learning curve much more manageable.
I’ll just put it bluntly: the game is hard. Like really hard. Not only does a single hit from an enemy send your whole team flying, forcing you to regroup with them, but while you’re running around getting everyone your enemy is probably about to attack again. After a few levels you are finally able to unlock the ‘dodge’ function which, after the initial frustrations, will have you dancing in the streets with joy. But the gameplay isn’t the only thing that you will need to get used to as the controls are also…unique. You move your entire team with the left stick, while the right stick is used to draw the shapes of your Unite Morphs (you could also use the touch screen, but it takes so long that it makes the game nigh-on impossible to play). The face buttons are used to control your attacks and the triggers are for dodging and shielding. So what’s missing here? Camera controls! Your only option for changing your point of view is a useless zoom in/out feature which does nothing but take up the perfectly good ‘L’ shoulder button. A rotating camera would have been a great feature and alleviated a lot of the stress of dying to off-screen attacks, not to mention allowed you to take a second to look at the amazing scenery.
Hideki Kamiya’s games have always held a certain visual flair and The Wonderful 101 is certainly no exception. The whole universe in which the game takes place is brimming with so much personality (and nods to developer Platinum Games) that even the futuristic cities and landscapes come alive. Everything feels like a mix between a Saturday morning cartoon and a cheesy anime, and the game definitely embraces that. From the corny dialogue to the poorly-synched mouths, this game nails its feel down perfectly.
For all the game’s attention to detail in the art department, however, the technical visuals tend to fall a bit flat. Maybe it’s to do with the sacrifices that had to be made to ensure the game ran at a smooth framerate even when there’s over a hundred characters doing something different at the same time, but the game just looks really dated when inspected closely. That being said, as soon as you zoom out and look at something like a giant enemy space-dragon-lizard-thing destroying the city, you’ll soon forget that a few of the wonderful heroes look like N64 characters.
Actually, I was surprised at just how well the game actually runs. I mean, you have a hundred superheroes each doing their own thing battling giant enemy robots while all the while explosions are going off left and right, rockets are flying, and buildings are collapsing, but not once did I notice the framerate drop. I did, however, notice a couple of minor visual glitches here and there (why is everyone floating?!), but nothing that hurt the gameplay experience or didn’t go away once I left the area.
The soundtrack is also fantastic and just over-the-top enough to fit right into The Wonderful 101’s universe, featuring bombastic tunes that would be right at home introducing Ultraman or the Power Rangers. The voice acting is also quite impressive, with each character’s personality coming through wonderfully. This is also a testament to the excellent writing that will have you in stitches from the moment you pick up the game.
With a story that will last you between 13 and 16 hours to complete, The Wonderful 101 actually hits a decent length for a game in a genre where often times the credits are rolling by the time things start to get interesting. The game also has an almost Rareware-level (see: insane) of hidden collectibles scattered throughout. You can also choose to tackle Wonderful Missions (either solo or with up to four friends) to really test your skills. Sadly, the only online interactions to be had here are over MiiVerse, though the game does draw some nice drawings for you. So yeah, that’s a thing.
The biggest roadblock that may hold back players from getting into The Wonderful 101 is definitely the game’s high difficulty. From the get go the game throws you against impossible odd with boss after boss – sometimes even two bosses at once! And that’s not to mention the steep difficulty curve in learning the game’s unique control method and the fact that after every hit you take you have to regroup your now-scattered squad. For the real masochists out there (not just the 50 Shades crowd), the game also offers achievements and bonuses for playing the game flawlessly. Yeah, good luck with that. One strange addition is that you can’t actually get a ‘game over’. Once your health bar reaches zero you can simply take a point penalty and start over so that everyone has a chance at seeing the ending.
At the end of the day, I would definitely recommend The Wonderful 101 but only to those who identify themselves as ‘hardcore gamers’. This isn’t a game for the faint of heart or those looking for a casual romp through a well-crafted story. No, this is a merciless game whose true reward comes from overcoming a very steep learning curve and mastering the hectic flow of combat. Don’t get me wrong, there’s tons of fun to be had with this game, you’ll just have to work for it.
This review is based on the retail version of The Wonderful 101 for Wii U.