Ten years ago, I was so busy singing the praises of Kamiya’s Viewtiful Joe (for Nintendo GameCube, 2003) that I actually fired up a campaign to help ensure that a sequel would happen. While my review of the game is no longer available online (written for a different site at the time), it received a very high score, as I praised its complete disregard for 2000s-era game customs, instead harkening back to the days of classic gaming yore—driven by compelling, tight gameplay, a sharp challenge, and most of all, fun.
Hideki Kamiya’s The Wonderful 101 is, in many ways, built upon the ashes of the Viewtiful Joe franchise. That, plus games like Bayonetta and (as it may be obvious) even Pikmin. But for better or for worse, in spite of its attitudinal similarities, it is more Bayonetta than Viewtiful Joe. It’s pure action and it’s wildly over-the-top, and its characters certainly resemble something out of Joe’s universe—but the action, camera, and signature design decisions feel more like modern Platinum than they do classic Joe.
As such an enormous fan of Kamiya’s past work, it’s painful for me to conclude this, but unfortunately, The Wonderful 101 stumbles often over its own ambitions. You see, while it might seem to take the same basic approach that made Viewtiful Joe such a refreshing breath of air, it actually lacks a large part of what defined it. It is an experience partially broken by its reliance on shaky mechanics and occasionally its favoring of flashiness and adrenaline rushes over fun. And it’s too bad, too—because at its core, there is a great game hiding here.
The absolute best thing about The Wonderful 101 is its presentation. It’s hilariously and intentionally over-the-top, irreverently incorporating the same sort of cheesy excessiveness that’s found in such unforgettable Japanese gifts as Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. But it does so in a way which is genuinely funny and self-aware most of the time, and it’s unapologetic in its mission—which is great.
You play a schoolteacher who is actually a superhero in secret: Wonder Red. Along with 99 other extra-special humans from around the globe, Wonder Red comprises a legendary group known as The Wonderful 100 (pronounced “one double-oh”). The 101, in case you were wondering, is because you are part of the team—cute, right? It’s the same sort of thing you’d expect coming away from Viewtiful Joe, which took much the same approach in the way of attitude.
Anyway, the game is split up into missions (which are split further into sub-missions), which make up the Story Mode of a healthy 14 to 18 hours or so of length. Per the instruction of your commander, each mission entails battling powerful alien forces which seek to take over Earth by way of destroying special protective sites that have been constructed to shield it from just such attacks. While the core gameplay remains fairly consistent throughout the course of the adventure, there is quite a bit of variety tossed into the mix, some of which is pretty brilliant stuff (and often pretty nostalgic, too).
In case you aren’t familiar, these core mechanics that we speak of come out looking an awful lot like a Pikmin brawler. Like Pikmin, you command up to 100 little guys in a swarm, using them to attack bad guys and navigate the world around you. It’s tough to keep track of all of them in the midst of the action, and that’s part of what The Wonderful 101 intends to present to the player as a challenge. But that’s where the similarities end. Unlike in Pikmin, your constituents in Wonderful 101 can never die; instead, they’re merely incapacitated for several seconds after damaged, during which time they can be touched by the current “leader” (whom the player controls) to revive them (alternatively, you can just wait for them to rise again on their own). You can add more people to your crowd by simply drawing lines through normal citizens to temporarily transform them into Wonderful team members, which is a neat mechanic. If your leader’s life is drained, on the other hand, you lose.
So what good are these other guys? See, the Wonderful 100 have these things called Unite Powers, which involve their assembling themselves into enormous weapon-like (and sometime un-weapon-like) shapes to attack their enemies. For instance, they can form a fist, a sword, or a gun, to better attack the enemy and exploit their particular weakness.
That’s all well and good, but the first problem that Wonderful 101 faces is how it expects the player to pull off these transformations. Rather than by mapping the various shapes to either particular buttons or a menu of some sort, the game instead relies on the Wii U Gamepad’s touchscreen as the primary input device for them, accepting drawings of an abbreviated form of each particular shape. For example, you can draw a circle to turn into a fist, or a rotated “L” shape to materialize as a gun.
The problem is—you guessed it—this doesn’t always work properly. And in fact, the game’s interpretation of what you’re after is wrong a lot of the time. It’s really easy, for instance, to attempt to draw a hammer and actually end up forming a whip. That’d be fine if this game were a casual adventure or puzzle game that encouraged players to take their time, but it’s precisely the opposite: a challenging, time-constrained, action-packed dose of digital octane that demands near-perfection in many scenarios. It actually goes so far as to grade the player (awarding bronze, silver, gold, platinum, or pure platinum) based on their performance during each mission segment, leveraging a rubric which incorporates both combat efficiency and completion time. That’s not an element which can be applied in the face of shaky game mechanics, and the reliance on the Wii U gamepad drawings in the midst of action to invoke battle-critical (and timely) transformations is the very definition of a shaky mechanic. (You can also use the right analog stick to perform these formations, by the way—but good luck with that.)
Adding insult to injury is Platinum Games’ trademark refusal to explain even the most fundamental gameplay elements to the player—something which, regardless of what some sanctimonious types might argue, absolutely does not make for a better game. In this case, it’s actually even absurd, as some of the most critical concepts for success—such as the shield and dodge mechanics—are completely buried away in the game’s shop amongst dozens of other purchasable items, where they’re lucky to be noticed at all by the player before they first throw the controller through their flat panel in frustration.
The discovery of these most basic concepts is left entirely to trial and error, something which the game relies upon time and time again as a basic (and positively ludicrous) strategy for design. During frustrating scenes such as some boss battles or quick time events, this makes the game feel less like a game and more like an irrational lesson. While you can’t actually die and lose (you have unlimited lives for all intents and purposes), you are still graded on your performance, and your humble editor can confidently say that the share of Consolation Prizes he received while playing was due in no small part to the game’s mechanical negligence. Each sequence leaves you so exhausted (and merely relieved to have made it through) that there is almost no incentive to ever return and replay a mission subsequently. Then there’s the occasional “puzzle” which doesn’t quite make sense—just another excuse to put down the controller and play something else. There are far too many of these excuses; many players will be lucky to even continue beyond the first few hours due to these unfortunate design choices.
And that’s a shame, because after the first several hours of gameplay lies a sense of charm and variety which is rarely found in modern games—along with some truly thrilling eye candy and clever dual-screen concepts. The game really opens up at this point (around the start of Operation 004), and the balance finally shifts away from frustration and more toward fun. Things finally start to feel more like Viewtiful Joe did at this point, with challenge at the forefront, but novelty, variety, and amusement sharing precedence. The fundamental problems with the gameplay still remain, but at least at this point the player has become well enough acquainted with the design to overlook the rougher edges. Plus, the dialogue and humor is frequently hilarious, with an endearing selection of heroes and villains alike, all of whom manage to evoke a smile or even a laugh.
Interstitial to the often excessive battle sequences are unique bits of action which truly do feel fresh and fun-centric—and occasionally ingenious—much like the best moments in Viewtiful Joe, but with even more creativity to take advantage of the Wii U dual-screen setup. One frequently-referenced sequence is the flying of a ship through a perilous airborne battle through the use of giant pads on the floor of the inner deck. The ship’s flight is shown on the television, while the characters roam its bowels on the Wii U Gamepad screen. Yet another button fires a laser cannon at oncoming adversaries. If this sounds tough enough (it is), try doing it while battling waves of enemies on the Gamepad screen simultaneously. It’s a real challenge and a clever balancing act that is only made possible by the Wii U’s unique hardware.
There are actually even cooler situations later in the game, such as one where you are climbing a colored wall on the Gamepad screen while an enemy ship fires lasers (at random intervals) at like-colored tiles on the television screen. By paying attention to the television while playing on the Gamepad, you have to avoid climbing on colors which are being fired upon so you aren’t electrified.
The boss battles—while sometimes far too chaotic to be taken completely seriously (unless you memorize every single event of their 30+ minute duration)—are most certainly a rollercoaster ride. As cinematic as the game is for nearly the entire adventure, the bosses are the unrelenting climax, generally organized in a way that resembles multiple back-to-back boss battles separated by “draw this fast!” quick time events. And as the game progresses, the boss battles (well, the entire game) becomes more and more intentionally absurd—and hilarious—something which helps to offset the frustrations with the game’s mechanics.
There’s also a ton of ancillary content to digest, such as an item blending system and countless collectibles, which most players are unlikely to ever take seriously. And all of this is decorated by one of the most beautiful graphical presentations to date on the Wii U and a phenomenal superhero-grade orchestral soundtrack that is as majestic as it is infectious. The Wonderful 101’s presentation is as heroic and over-the-top as its story and attitude, and that translates to near-constant eye-candy and a soundtrack that would be good enough to listen to even on its own. It’s also not a short experience. The campaign mode alone will likely take you as much as 15 hours to complete—and again, it’s full of variety. But even after you’re finished with that, there are a handful of missions (divided by difficulty) to undertake with up to four friends.
If all of its problems were rectified, The Wonderful 101 could truly be a wonderful experience. As it stands, however, as long as you can withstand some inherent frustrations, it’s still something worth picking up.