I am just your average gamer with aspirations to enter the gaming industry. I live in Australia and as such get raped by technological pricing and policies by the idiots who run the country and various other backwards thinking organizations. So yeah...I have to buy a lot of lube...
on a lighter note, why is this not Australia's National flag?
Anyway, my favouritest thing in all the world is good design. Not just in video games but in the real world as well. It baffles me in so many ways how badly some things are designed and how so many people will overlook/ignore these problems. This is probably why i am deeply cynical in regards to the human race and spend so much time in escapism. However, good design just kicks ass.
Mastering a game is not an easy thing to do but it is something that feels incredibly rewarding. The Wonderful 101 was created with this feeling in mind and it not only provides that satisfaction, it also does a few things to help the player grow from novice to master. The way the game handles this transition would initially seem counter-intuitive, the game starts off hard and then for the most part becomes easier. As a consequence the game will turn off a large number of players. Those who have become comfortable in the trend of a linear difficulty curve will turn away from this game citing that it doesn’t do enough to teach and that the Unite Morphs are too unwieldy to use.
They aren’t wrong to have these criticisms but this in no way implies that the game is flawed not from a design point of view. The Wonderful 101 is built to be hard in the early game but because of it, the rest of the game feels more satisfying. This what the game sets out to do from the very beginning. It is why the tutorials are so bare bones and why there is so much negative reinforcement early on. The player must feel the hardships that come with learning before they can truly appreciate and enjoy what it feels to master the game’s challenges.
Videogames thrive on positive reinforcement especially in modern game design where death has become increasingly meaningless. The Wonderful 101 though, is not afraid to drive that feeling of failure into the player. Outside of the general sense of failure the player would feel when getting hit by an enemy attack or dying, the game also employs two other tools that reinforce the player’s sense of defeat.
The consolation prize is the first of these two and is such a fantastic design decision. Gold, silver and bronze are the industry standards when it comes to grades dished out to players following a mission. This makes a lot of sense when considering the whole positive reinforcement thing. No matter what you do, the least you will obtain is a bronze medal. To us, this is still third place and mentally still a reward even if we can see it for what it truly is.
Technically there’s no logical difference between a consolation prize and another game’s bronze medal but the nature of how we associate these things with a feeling of reward is different. Psychologically the consolation prize tells the player that they aren't even good enough to be in the competition. It has the same mental impact of a last place finish that you don’t associate with a bronze grade, even though bronze is usually the same.
Remember the continue screen? Well it’s back as the game’s second method of telling the player how much they fail. The continue screen is on its own, a pretty demoralising thing to see. For the retro gamer, It represents the loss of all the lives and quarters that fueled our time playing games in the past. It was always the last thing you saw before you exited the arcade or when finally giving up on that NES game. Seeing it again in The Wonderful 101 does not give off the feeling of nostalgia and after a while, the surface layer of humour it presents quickly fades to reveal it’s true nature.
It’s funny the first time you see the protagonist of the game splayed out like that but then you realise that the image of a debased hero is really a representation of your lack of skill. The hero of the game -- a once mighty figure in their majestic coloured spandex costume -- degraded and stripped of all dignity is just another poignant reminder of just how woefully inept you are.
Forcing the Issue
It’s basically impossible not to run into these things on your first playthrough. The fact that the game does not telegraph the enemy's attacks in a cut scene before the initial encounter puts players in the dark about how to deal with enemy aggression. This will lead to many instances of being hit and then eventually dying which will result in that continue screen. The consolation prizes always come about as a result of the grading system but don’t worry, the game has it’s methods of making sure the player runs into them also.
The way the grading system works depends on how much damage you take, how quickly you beat the enemies and how many points you score with combos and the like. The reason why players going in blind will more or less always see that consolation prize in the early game is a combination of taking damage from enemy attacks (since they don’t yet know how they work) and the lack of skills and abilities they possess. The latter is really important because it affects the player’s ability to combo. Players will still have the ability to stun once they get the enemy attack timings down but in order to obtain the better combo points, they need the ability to follow up on those stuns and juggle enemies in the air. Lastly, the time trophy is taken care of by both, since taking enemy damage is time not dealing it and the lack of ability to combo means the required damage to finish enemies off will take a longer time to achieve.
Shifting the Focus with Unlockables
It’s actually really interesting how the skills and abilities that the player unlock affect the gameplay. I say this because there are abilities the player can get that nullify the hardships that they come across. Things like Hero Time (slows down time before a potential hit so the player can avoid it) and Ukemi (after getting hit, if the player hits a button within a small window they will negate the damage as if it never happened) just make it easier to get the better trophies without really rewarding skilled play.
When considering those abilities in conjunction with how harsh the early game is, it’s absolutely clear what the game’s goal is when it comes to making the player feel something. The game’s opening operations are an exercise in frustration as the player continually gets hit by enemy attacks as they come to grips with them. Then all of a sudden they will have enough money to buy one of those abilities that make managing that aspect of the game easier. At that stage, the game already knows that it’s put the player through hard times. Being secure in that knowledge, the game begins to open up and offer things that help deal with those frustrations because they are no longer the focus.
Take for instance the last Unite Morph the player unlocks -- Unite Bomb. It’s ability to slow down time within an area could have been offered much earlier on. One of the reasons it was held back is that after a while, the game just isn’t as interested in punishing the player for getting hit anymore. They have proven their mettle and as a result, the game begins to provide the enjoyment that comes from destroying enemies. Those abilities that slow down time take the focus away from being hit and hone the player’s attention on the satisfaction that comes with aggressive comboing. It’s not only through combat that the game’s intent is made clear, the story further supports the aim of making the transition from novice to master more pleasing.
The Influence of the Story
The game’s story has a Gurren Lagann esque escalation of scale that is the perfect vehicle to make the player feel that sense of satisfaction the designers intended. The end game is full of moments where the player is piloting mechs and spaceships all the while quickly dispatching the enemy’s assortment of creatures and war machines. Without context, these sections are pretty meaningless. If they were played in isolation, they wouldn’t be nearly as gratifying as they are.
For instance, there is one section of the game where the player controls the Shirogane Comet. The screen is filled with the enemy space fleet and the player must move a pointer on screen that dictates where The Shirogane Comet’s laser is firing. There’s nothing challenging here but it still feels immensely satisfying to do and it only is so because of what happened in the early game. The player is coming from a place where ground troops gave them trouble and are now destroying the entire space fleet within a few seconds. This is what is so enjoyable about experiencing the story the game offers. It works with the hardships that are brought about by gameplay in the beginning, to enhance the gratification the player feels toward the end. It is only through the context of what has happened before that any of this is meaningful to the player and without it, these scenes play out as simplistic and unchallenging.
The great thing is that the story isn’t the only thing that gives the player this sense of satisfaction and really, it is more of a supplement to what is truly providing the player that feeling. Mastery of anything is a truly rewarding experience and The Wonderful 101does what it can to push the player toward mastery of the game without taking any of the satisfaction away.
Designed to be Replayed
After the story has concluded and outside of seperate game modes, there’s really nothing new the game has to offer as incentive for someone to continue playing. In modern times, beating the game has become merely the act of playing out the narrative to it’s conclusion. However for retro gamers, those who The Wonderful 101 is designed for, beating a game usually meant or resulted in the mastery of it. You could consider rescuing the princess as “beating” Super Mario World but for any real retro gamer truly “beating” the game meant conquering Star Road.
What I’m getting at with all of this in regards to The Wonderful 101 is that it’s end goal is to try and make the player a master at the game. Achievements and unlockable characters are an incentive to do this to be sure but what’s really impressive about getting the player to that stage is how the game aids their skill development.
Upon finishing the game -- unless the player has been incredibly diligent practicing the combat outside of time spent in the story -- they should still be having some issues dealing with the harder enemies found in the end game. The player should feel very comfortable against the first set of enemy units at this stage, but the ones introduced later on should still pose at least some threat.
Further development of the player’s skill level from here onward can only be done through replaying the game or replaying specific levels. The latter is taken care of by the game allowing players to select any operation they wish to tackle at any point after they have completed those levels. As for the former, The Wonderful 101 actually does something quite unique.
A New Paradigm for Difficulty
When you finish the game on normal you unlock hard mode. Those who wish to increase their skill and experience more of a challenge will rightfully choose this new mode to replay the game. Normally, harder difficulty settings simply result in enemies having more health or hitting for more damage which is a simple fix but very shallow and not very rewarding. In a genius move, the designers of The Wonderful 101 created a hard mode that becomes an extension of where the player is at skill wise. They changed the missions so that the harder enemies appear much sooner in the story. The second battle of the first operation pits the player against one of the enemies that only commonly appears in the late game.
There’s little reason to retread old ground here because on replay, the story has already been experienced as it was intended and easing the player into the game world is no longer a factor. The focus now is on challenge, so through the new enemy placements the player immediately begins where they left off at the end of the first playthrough. Doing things this way makes everything about replaying the game more efficient. Not only are players getting practice against the enemies that are giving them the most trouble, but they do so in a linear progression of the story mode that also aids in finding secrets.
The Last Test for the Would-be Master
101% hard is the next difficulty setting and on paper it seems like the lazy move I described earlier. The enemy placements in this mode are the same as in hard but the difference is that they dish out more damage. The one thing that makes the mode a great edition to the game is that it removes the player’s training wheels.
In every mode before this, whenever the player draws a Wonder Liner, time will slow down. 101% hard removes this time slow which actually makes everything quite a bit harder to execute. This move makes a lot of sense; there shouldn’t be much left to learn in terms of how best to deal with all the enemies so the focus shifts from understanding/learning to proper execution. The designers new execution would be hard, so they slowed time to make things easier for the player. At this point the designers know the player is good enough to do without the time slow so the game removes it, showing them the world for what it truly is.
In retrospect, it’s actually really cool how the game handles increasing difficulty. Each mode has it’s own focus on what it expects the player to master. Normal mode is mastering all of the basics, hard is really about mastering knowledge of the enemy and game world(finding secrets) and 101% hard is about true mastery of the controls. This all brings about subtle changes on each replay. Things are actually different from a gameplay perspective which is such a rare occurrence.
The Wonderful 101 is designed to be replayed, designed with a longer term goal than just what the story encompasses. It sets out with the goal of transitioning the player from novice to master. This is why the game doesn’t start off fun, it was an intentional move that creates a scenario where the player has to slowly learn and acquire new abilities while also trying to figure out how to deal with all the enemies. The game won’t tell the player how exactly to deal with those enemies or how to effectively use what they unlock but the player will gain something that they wouldn’t otherwise -- the feeling of true satisfaction.
By letting the player discover everything but the basics for themselves, the game gives the player a sense of ownership over their accomplishments. When the player finally walks away from the game, they will be able to tout their pure platinum trophies and their in-game Wonder Bayonetta and be proud that it was through their own strength that they achieved this level of mastery.
Most games use secrets as a tool to inflate play time. Acquiring the secrets in these games is usually just a matter of spending the time to travel to some location off the set path. If it’s not this, it’s hiding them in such a way that is so obscure that the player would never discover them on their own. Good secrets are ones that reward the player for skillful use of the game mechanics or observations of the game world. These secrets are the ones that feel satisfying to uncover because they correspond to some kind of discovery or mental connection. In essence, good secrets are designed similarly to puzzles, but their very existence is what’s hidden.
This is where The Wonderful 101 shines: its secrets are designed in such a way that the visual and contextual design of both the world and game mechanics are used to give clues as to their whereabouts. The game is not flawless in this regard though, as some of the secrets are very counter intuitive. I’ll address these first. But for the most part, every secret just requires a small mental connection to find and unlock.
Littered throughout every standard level are secret missions that necessitate backtracking to a previous mission to trigger. The game makes an attempt at signposting these secret missions by having each one be numbered in order. This makes it easier for those who are paying attention when suddenly they are entering Mission 5 after just completing Mission 3. If only this method were actually reliable.
Going down a certain elevator or reaching the point where a giant robot wrecks stuff will make earlier points inaccessible. So the only solid clue the player has to backtrack and find the secret missions doesn’t always work, especially when the mission after the point of no return is the one that tips them off.
One issue I have with the way these secret missions are done is that the backtracking itself doesn’t have a purpose. Backtracking done correctly, ala the Metroid series, rewards the player with new content. Each time the player backtracks in a Metroid game, they are doing so with the intent of either exploration or progression. Either way, when the player goes back they will obtain a previously unreachable item or open a new path to move forward in the game. Always something new and always with a purpose.
The backtracking required to find secret missions in The Wonderful 101 doesn’t offer the player anything. There is no insight gained as to the nature of the level; no new locales or other incentives either. The only things to be found are the secret missions themselves, and they can’t be considered rewards because they are designed as challenges. This results in the player feeling rewarded purely based on how well they accomplish said mission and not the discovery of the secret itself, which makes the backtracking completely redundant.
The second problem with this is the specific triggers for the secret missions. These can be ridiculously obscure. For example, there is a level where the player first learns that using a Unite Hammer will result in them sinking in water. This part has the player jumping into a pool and running around on top of the water while they are hinted at to use the Unite Hammer. When they first enter the pool the player begins a combat mission. The player is being told that they have to fight but there are no enemies. They are shown a hammer here, so the player should make the logical connection that the Unite Hammer is heavy and will make them sink to where the enemies are.
The trigger for the secret mission requires the player to completely ignore what is being suggested to them. They need to wait on the top of the water for the enemies to swim up and then beat them. At no point before this is it established that the enemy even has the ability to swim… so, on top of doing the opposite of what the game tells them, the player must also assume the enemies have an ability that has never been shown or hinted at.
The secret missions are a good idea but are executed in a totally counter-intuitive way. A better option would have been to put them in secret areas of the levels that require creative use of the Unite Morphs to get to. This way the player gains the reward of a new area to explore, and the secret mission becomes an organic extension of that reward. The whole thing can then become a double whammy of: “cool, I found this secret area” and “I nailed that secret mission”. You gain the benefit of having a mission be a secret one, and reward the player’s use of the game mechanics without the tedium and ambiguity of the poorly-executed backtracking.
Rewarding Mental Leaps
Here is where we get into masterful game design. The secrets in The Wonderful 101 come in many varieties. Some are simple extensions of the game mechanics while others require the player to re-think the things they know about the game world. The game will never explicitly tell the player what to look out for or that secrets exist at all.
The analogy I like to use for the secrets in The Wonderful 101 is that all of them are like hidden chests. The game gives clues, usually visual, as to where these chests are and the player must use the game mechanics in order to unlock them. This leads to the player feeling rewarded for not only the discovery of the secret, but also in unlocking it.
There are boxes in the game that make that analogy literal. They are right out in the open and simply require the player to attack them with the corresponding Unite Morph to unlock them. The other secrets which will be discussed here are really just an evolution of these boxes. They are in essence the same, but have taken different forms and require different use of the game mechanics to unlock. The player must go beyond their basic understanding of how things work and with the aid of a few clues from the game, make the logical connections that will see the reward come their way.
Advancing Your Team Through Holes…
In the first mission after the prologue the player will come across a toilet where they are told that if they draw a wonder liner into it they will get a prize. From this set-up the world opens to reveal huge numbers of similar secrets that just require a little cognitive leap to identify. Take these open doors for example:
There’s nothing really out of place here unless the player makes the connection that the toilet and these doorways are both things you can shove people into. This mental leap will forever change the player’s perception of open doorways in this game world. They all now become secrets and if it works for doorways...
What about windows?
The mouths of statues?
The list goes on.
Drawing shapes is something fundamental to gameplay and is taught very early on. The Wonder-Liner Circle is special as it is the only drawn shape that has a non-combat related purpose. As there is no other basis to the in-game effects of this ability, the game tells the player that drawing a circle around things can result in cool stuff happening. On the same screen are a bunch of visually distinct withered plants sitting in a circular container.
The player does what they are told and what will happen is very similar to when they draw a circle around a group of civilians. The Wonder-Liner becomes rainbow-coloured which signifies the player doing the correct thing and then - bang! Everything blooms, becoming more in tune with the game’s colourful artstyle and the player is given an item as a reward. To reinforce the power of the Wonder-Liner Circle, the player is shown a Kahkoo-Regah later on in the level which is essentially a circular portal and - you guessed it - requires a Wonder-Liner Circle to activate.
There are plenty of structures and other aesthetic things in the world that are circular in nature. Many of these will hold secrets that will reward the player for paying attention to the minute details of the world. These circular secrets in and of themselves aren’t that interesting but they train the player to look for things in the world to draw circles around. This combined with a few other things should lead to the player’s discovery of a new set of secrets.
Establishing the Secret Patterns
Take the above screenshot. This is one of the very rare moments in the game where the camera will be used to emphasise something. Normally, the camera follows the player’s movement but in this instance the camera settles in this position until the player moves to the edge of the screen. This is the game’s way of somewhat subtly telling the player to pay attention to what is shown. The key to activating this secret requires the player to make the logical leap that maybe circles aren’t the only shapes that unlock things.
The game aids the player in making this jump in a few ways. The camera trick is the first step in getting the player to notice the possibility that a secret is here. It is then up to the curiosity of the player to try to interact with the odd pattern centred in the middle of the screen. Since practically all interaction with the environment begins with a Wonder-Liner the game will know what the player intends to do.
[notice the slight shine compared to the previous image.]
When a Wonder-Liner is near the pattern the game will begin highlighting it, which reinforces the player’s initial curiosity. At this point the game is basically telling the player: “You're on the right track, but you need to do a little more. Here’s a clue”. The highlighting of the pattern in conjunction with the Wonder-Liner should be enough for most players to start tracing the pattern with the Wonder-Liner. Now this particular example is strange; the pattern is like an upside down bucket but the player is required to draw a fully-formed square to make it work.
I have no idea why this is the case -- it just doesn’t make any sense. Anyway, after the player has completed one of these secret patterns for the first time they should view the world differently. Any pattern drawn anywhere should now stand out and be viewed as a potential secret.
For me, the moment I realised just how well these secrets were designed was when I came across the following:
The visual design is so good here that when playing for the first time the numbers on the road didn't even register. My brain felt that they were inconsequential so I ignored them. But upon replaying the game and having my perceptions of the world altered by the initial discovery of the secret patterns, these numbers stood out juuuust enough for me to give a shot at tracing them. It blew me away the fact that the game was able to create a secret so innocuous yet so obvious at the same time.
Sneaking in Some Hammer Time!
This is one of my favourite secrets in terms of design in the entire game. Take a look at the following screenshot:
There’s nothing that visually gives away the fact that there are secrets here. You get a bunch of platforms floating on pillars of water. Now the reason the secret here is so well designed is that on the surface it looks like a regular platforming challenge. One that requires the player to time their jumps with the rise and fall of the platforms to progress. Everything here looks like it is meant to serve that one purpose. The pillars of water could be taken out but they seem like they are there to fulfill the theme of the level, which makes a lot of sense and the player should be none the wiser. Unless of course they make that logical connection between the water and something the game teaches them in the very same level.
The above screenshot shows an obvious break in the platform that blocks the player from progressing further. It’s here that the player must use the hammer in order to sink the platform and then progress. In one fell swoop the game makes sure that the player knows 100% how to sink in water and thus how to unlock the secret of the floating platforms.
[The hammer builds the pressure but when it's gone...]
[The platform shoots up to a hidden area!]
One on the Side
This secret I only discovered on my third pass through the game. It’s another one that opened my eyes to the brilliance of the visual design of this game. That screenshot shows a level that is entirely made up of circular platforms. Eventually, the player will come across this platform, with an odd looking right-angled protrusion on the side.
The great thing about this secret is that the protrusion doesn’t look at all amiss; the visual design of the thing blends in so well with the surroundings that it’s easy to overlook. Even when the player realises that the protrusion is an oddity they still have to figure out what it represents. The player has to look to an ability that is used regularly in the opening stages of the game but not in the mid-to-late game.
The Wonder-Liner throughout the game can be used up a building to create a ladder or chain that allows the player to traverse to the top. The only real thing connecting the protrusion and the buildings is the right-angle that is present in both scenarios. It is a bit of a leap but the cost of trying out the theory is so minimal that the only reason the player would have to not do it is if they haven’t made that connection.
But once it clicks in their mind, the game quickly reciprocates after the Wonder-Liner is used. Once it extends past the edge of the screen the game will turn the Wonder-Liner into a step ladder bridging the gap between the platform and the off-screen platform above. The player then feels the elation of figuring out the puzzle of the right-angled protrusion and with this new insight in hand they should begin wondering if the game has hidden these anywhere else…
Match the Shape
OK, so this secret I did not discover on my own. Though when I read about how to find it I never once thought “Jesus, how the hell was I supposed to figure that out?!”. Admittedly, this secret is still very obscure. It requires the player to use the Unite Ball to plug certain air vents or water spouts that will build pressure and end up shooting the player vertically upward to the hidden item. This secret is difficult to uncover because it relies on the player using out-of-game knowledge to figure out and requires using an ability that is completely optional and often overlooked. It also requires utilisation of that ability in a situation that the game never even gets close to teaching.
Now, the reason why it doesn’t feel cheap is that upon investigation the player should realise that something was amiss with these water spouts and fans all along.
Take this screenshot; the fan in the middle is the only one of the three that is at a lower elevation than the others. This is the game telling the player that something is up with that particular fan. All that is then required is for the player to experiment with their plethora of skills and play a successful game of match the shape.
Here’s an example without the aid of a highlighted difference between similar objects. Even here, if you really think about it, the game reveals the nature of the secret. The circle that the water spout is placed in is what gives it away. Mechanically, there’s no reason to have that circle there; the water spout would still function the same way even if the hole it came from was much smaller. However, having it come out of a hole that size is a subtle clue that a secret is here and becomes immediately apparent to anyone who has already figured this secret out before.
You see how part of the mob of Wonderful Ones spills over one side of this wall? Well that’s the player’s tip-off that there’s probably something there. This one seriously blew me away because it’s not tied to an ability the player uses. It comes about as a consequence of the player being familiar with how the mob-like nature of The Wonderful 101 works with the world around it.
Invisible walls are commonly found where the designers don’t want the player to die for attempting to find a secret. This is what stops the mob from spilling over the left wall, and the fact that they spill over the right means there’s no invisible wall there.
There are many more secrets in The Wonderful 101. The ones I have brought to light here are just the ones that stand out to me the most in terms of great game design. I find it so beautiful how the game handles every single aspect of secrets. The subtlety and the way they are logically hinted at to the player makes finding them so incredibly rewarding. Having to use the game mechanics in different ways in order to unlock these secrets also adds a puzzle solving satisfaction to the whole thing. This is the kind of game design that sets The Wonderful 101 apart from the rest of the pack.
Boy those sub headings really took a dive toward the end there...
: (I wonder what that was all about?
When I think about the 7th generation of consoles, I think about Playstation grills, FPSs, the colour brown, the rise of the “casual” and the “hardcore” gamers and the attempt of companies to cater to both. Do you know what I won’t be remembering the last generation for though? My Wii gathering dust.
The consensus around the Wii that still seems to linger is that it was the casual console and it had no games. It was something your grandma played and no self respecting HARDCORE gamer would be caught dead playing that childish machine. Despite the stigma and the initial rush of: “Ha ha it’s called the weee” jokes, I never felt ashamed or even disappointed that the Wii was the one console I chose to buy. It not only managed to stick around for the entire generation *cough* Red Ring *cough* but it gave me something the other consoles couldn’t. A variety of unique games that were fun to play.
I mean seriously, what other console exclusively gave me a quality point-and-click adventure game? Or a game where you go painting things as a blob of paint. Throughout the entire generation, there were very few games that the competition had that piqued my interests. When you consider the games that also came out on PC there were fewer still. The games that were left, games like Bayonetta, Lost Odyssey and The Last of Us weren't enough for me to ever consider buying an entire console just to play those few games.
It all Started With Wii Sports
Wii Sports paved the way for motion controlled gaming and it did a marvelous job. Gamers won’t look fondly back on it now but to me it epitomised what the core of playing games is about. FUN. I think it’s safe to say at this point that Wii Sports, won Nintendo the 7th generation. The game’s motion controlled simplicity spoke to people at a base, instinctual level that allowed everyone to have fun with it.
It was when games first started pushing the complexity that we all realised how flawed motion-controlled gaming was and still is. For a while there, it seemed like we got nothing but mini-game collections and there was a sense that no one really knew how to make games for the system. Then Metroid Prime 3: Corruption and Super Mario Galaxy came out and everything was okay. It was at this point in Late 2007 that a slew of great games were being released. Hot off the heels of Galaxy and Corruption were the releases of Zack and Wiki and No More Heroes. All four of these games I enjoyed immensely and each one belonged to it’s own unique genre and style.
As I continued to buy games for the Wii, I realised that the games consistently gave me new experiences. Even if the games were mediocre, they at least gave me something fresh that elevated them above that mediocrity. Deadly Creatures for example is a very average game in respects to it’s combat and how obviously rushed the last part of the game is, but it had such a unique perspective on our own world that it felt great to explore. The perspective also gave the story a fresh twist as the silent protagonist angle made sense and the nature of being such a passive element in it was refreshing. I would probably lump Madworld and No More Heroes into this list too and what elevated these games above mediocrity among other things, was the motion controls. I don't think these games would have been anywhere near as satisfying to play if the finishing moves didn’t require me to physically execute them. It just felt so much more visceral than a button press and utilising the motion controls for only somewhat occasional input was a decision that made them feel more satisfying.
OK The Conduit, unfortunately, was legit mediocre in pretty much every way… So… Yeah, we'll just ignore it won't we Shiggy? Moving on!
Can’t do a memorium on the Internet without a list! So I’ll cap this part off with my personal top 10 games for the system.
1. Super Mario Galaxy
2. Super Smash Bros Brawl
3. Zack and Wiki
4. Xenoblade Chronicles
5. No More Heroes 2
6. Fire Emblem Radiant Dawn
7. Donkey Kong Country Returns
8. Tatsunoko Vs Capcom
9. A Boy and his Blob
Thanks for the Memories
I remember the spectacular hype train that was the Smash Dojo, the spectacular un-hype train that was Wii Music and the friend code debacle. I remember Project H.A.M.M.E.R, the vaporware of Sadness and Nintendo taking months to localise anything for the PAL region. I remember all the smashed TVs, the Wii-Remote condom and Wii-Fit telling everyone they were fat. I remember playing endless hours of Brawl with my mates tweaking the many options and assigning our own rules to keep the game enjoyable (ALL Ganondorf and you can only use specials). I remember the resurrection of PunchOut!, A Boy and His Blob and Donkey Kong in their own fantastic games, oh and Kirby is made of yarn. I remember discovering that the Wii-Remote was the umbrella, Mario skating on lava and hugging your blob.
I remember the fight for Nintendo to localise three awesome looking JRPGS: The Last Story, Pandora’s Tower and Xenoblade Chronicles. I remember wandering around on the surface of a titan and seeing the glowing eyes of another in the unreachable horizon. I remember how surprised i was that Tatsunoko Vs Capcom would be released to the west and that I would kick some ass with Tekkaman. I remember the backlash of Metroid Other M and thinking that the game was still pretty good, the unfulfilled promise of a Metroid Dread which still saddens me to this day and the majestic Metroid Prime Trilogy being released in a single disc.
From the slow strategic battles of Fire Emblem Radiant Dawn to the frantic Hack and Slash of Muramasa the Demon Blade. From the inside of the ring in Punchout! to the beautiful wide expanse of the world of Xenoblade Chronicles. From the down to earth realism of Deadly Creatures to the utter absurdity of No More Heroes. From one game world to the next, the Wii gave me so much to experience, explore and first and foremost enjoy. There is a lot that I will remember and take away from the life of the Wii and indeed the generation as a whole. However, the one thing that I will never forget, the ONE most important moment that perfectly encapsulates EVERYTHING about my thoughts on the Wii’s library of games is right here:
The combat in The Wonderful 101 is an odd beast. It combines the drawing mechanic of Okami, the move complexity of fighters, the peon management of Pikmin and wraps it all up in the framework of a classic beat-em-up. These are all very niche types of play and combining them forms something even more alien, so how does a game designer go about teaching the player these mechanics?
The Tutorial Stage:
A modern staple of game design is to always have the first level of the game devoted to teaching the player the controls. The Wonderful 101 uses this technique but masks it with an action packed scenario. This gives the level a sense of urgency and purpose that most tutorial levels sorely lack. The reason why this is important is because most tutorial levels feel like a roadblock to the actual gameplay. For seasoned gamers, tutorial levels feel like trudging through mud as the game forces them to do arbitrary tasks. Having the player hit the ground running into a situation that feels more frantic conveys to them that they are actually playing the game and not waiting for the game itself to approve of their ability to control it.
Setting the Scene
The level starts you off in a train compartment (Yes i know it’s actually a bus in the game but really, it’s a train for all intents and purposes) with a neighboring compartment on fire. The interface shows text with the player’s current objective and a stylised HELP! appearing above the students. A small light also surrounds the students, alluding to the fact that the player needs to interact with this object. The previous cutscene showed the player that the character they are controlling is the teacher of those students. The game, through both narrative and visuals, is telling the player that they have dominion over these students and that it is their job to rescue them. The player moves the teacher character over to the students and upon doing so a number of things happen that reinforce to the player that they are doing the correct thing.
Firstly, a small enlightening sound plays, the light surrounding that student disappears and they jump in the air to then follow the player character. Lastly, a number that appears at the bottom right corner that goes from 0/20 to 1/20. The last part is important, as it marks the player’s progress through this section of the level. At a glance, they know exactly how many kids are left to round up. In this first compartment there are only 10 students. When they are all collected, the stylised HELP! disappears from view but the counter is only registering at 10/20. The player is forced to come to the conclusion that there are more students on the train, but where could they be? Being in a train, there are only two directions to go. The way back is on fire, so the player must move toward the top/left of the screen and lo and behold, there are more students.
From a player guidance perspective, the choice to start the game on a train is rather brilliant. It automatically cuts down on the number of directions the player can move and by having an obstacle in one of those directions, the player always knows where they need to travel to complete the mission. There is no ambiguity in terms of movement, allowing the player to concentrate 100% on the core mechanics that the game is trying to teach them. The first of these we have just gone through: the player can gather up scattered teammates by walking to them.
You Must be This High to Pass
After the next cutscene the game begins to expand the player’s arsenal of skills. The player runs into a situation where they need to jump to progress forward. Nowhere does the game tell you how to jump i.e. (press B to jump) so the player, if they don't already know how to, will have to begin randomly pressing buttons. One of these will be the jump button and once pressed, their character will jump, visually confirming to the player the correct button press. This section and indeed the previous section somewhat rely on the player already knowing how to jump and move respectively. There are two reasons why it is totally fine to not directly teach the player these two controls.
Moving a character around the screen has more or less become a standard. The left analogue stick is the conventional means when it comes to movement and as such it does not need to be explicitly taught. Jumping however is not necessarily standard so it would seem that a tutorial should convey that button press to the player. However the pressing of the jump button results in immediate visual feedback which goes equally for movement with the analogue stick. Showing the button for jumping then becomes unnecessary as the player will end up pressing it through experimentation somewhere before this point or be forced to do it here. This road block then essentially boils down to a test, rather than a lesson. The game needs to ensure that the player knows how to jump, as it is required many times later on and in a real level, there are consequences for failing. Here though there are no punishments; just a lack of progress until the player correctly jumps.
Once they have tackled this obstacle, the game is confident enough that they have learned how to jump that it immediately lays down the next skill. This is done less subtly with the game opening a little window showing the player what to press in order to dash. They see that they need to press Y in conjunction with a direction to dash. They are already familiar with using the joystick to move so all they need to do is hit that Y button. The really cool thing here is that the game at this point zooms right in on the player. It does this to ensure that they witness exactly what happens when they press Y. The immediate surroundings are also free of any other obstacles and threats, essentially being an extended length of road where the player can get used to the sights and sounds of dashing.
Focusing on What is Important
The very next section is a little bit weird. The player character ends up going back into the train car and is introduced to the game’s bottom tier enemy but at this point in the tutorial, the player doesn't have any attacks. Their only option is to run, but this doesn’t serve to teach the player anything. With all the fights being very beat-em-up-esque, there is no running from combat at any point in the game. So it’s a bit odd for the tutorial to introduce the enemy at this point, and not later on when the player is able to fight. My thought is that since the sections right after involve a lot of cutscenes, the developers may have decided that it would be better to space the scenes out and place the initial reveal here. It could also be conceivable that the developers wanted the players to feel the difference between the empowerment of the Wonderful Ones compared to the relative helplessness of regular human beings in this universe. However, I think the cutscenes and mechanic of “recruiting” helpless civilians does a good enough job of conveying that feeling.
Anyway, after the cutscene, the player is greeted with that beat-em-up flavour. Enemies spawn and the level becomes a closed off arena. Another window is shown telling the player that to attack they need to press A. The camera zooms in again to focus on the action and the changing states of the enemies and that of the player character when attacking and taking damage. Again, the compact nature of the location limits what the player needs to think about. Later on in the game the combat arenas open up and the player has to manage and prioritise enemies not all of which may be visible on the screen at once. At this point though, the player shouldn't worry about any of that strategy nonsense and the tiny arena focuses their attention on what is important. Like the previous lesson, what’s important is that the player sees and hears all of the things that happen when they press that button.
Learning through… Quick Time Events?
On the surface, the Unite Morphs are not conventional control mechanics. Drawing a shape and then a button press to execute an attack is going to be foreign to most players. Because of this, there’s no way to rely on the player’s past experience like you can with the movement or the jump controls. Purely using the button windows doesn’t really work either because they are really only suited for conveying simple correlations between button presses and actions. Especially since they are now appearing in combat, you want all of the information they contain to be consumed at a quick glance. Hence why introducing and explaining the functionality of Unite Morphs purely in these little windows doesn't work; you have very little real estate to convey that information.
The way it’s actually introduced and explained is through exposition and a quick-time-event...Booooo! Now, now kids, calm down! The QTEs in The Wonderful 101 actually work in the context of the game and I’ll explain why. These QTEs take the form of the action the player takes to execute those moves normally in combat. For instance, The above screenshot shows Wonder Red announcing his move of “Unite Hand”, the QTE requires the player to successfully execute the combination of drawing a circle and then pressing the A button to progress. This is exactly what is required of the player when they want to do a Unite Morph in actual combat which means there isn’t any disparity between what is happening in the cut scene and normal gameplay.
Another difference between these quick-time-events and those found in other games is that there’s no psychological link we as the player have with the Unite Morph ability and the real world. So for us, Unite morphs are always associated with that particular pattern of, for example, circle + A button. In other games, quick-time-events take the form of “press X to dodge this boulder” or “press X to swing your sword”. These actions in our minds aren't generally associated with those button presses (which also change from game to game and QTE to QTE) and so the game world breaks apart a little bit because of the displacement between what the game is telling us narratively, what it’s telling us mechanically and our own experiences.
The quick-time-events used throughout The Wonderful 101 give the player a chance to practice their Unite Morph drawing skills. Each one allows ample time to complete the required pattern and there is little to no consequence for failing (small health loss and restarting the QTE). The benefit for the player is that they are able to develop the muscle memory required to master the Unite Morphs in an environment free of the stress and confusion of actual combat.
Learning what the Team can do
After those quick-time-events are dealt with, the player enters their first real battle as a team. That familiar instructional window is back again but this time it alternates between telling the player to press A to Unite Attack and press X for a team attack. This lesson shows the player what the addition of the team members does to gameplay. The player gains the ability of the team attack which they can see some of the effects of in the fight. They also know now, that the addition of the team changes their regular attack to be a Unite Attack.
There is one more battle the player has to go through and the instructional windows in this latter fight switch between telling the player how to do a Unite Hand and a Unite Sword attack. This basically boils down to the player experimenting with the two available Unite Morphs. They are able to get a feel for not only how the two Unite Morphs differ in terms of damage and usage, but also how they affect what the player knows about pressing the A button.
The Progression of Complexity
Looking at the overall tutorial, it’s interesting to see the progression of complexity in the abilities the player learns. The first thing the player learns in terms of combat is that they can punch. The next is what happens to that punch when a team is added and the team’s use as it’s own attack. The last thing the player learns is that drawing a Unite Morph in combat changes the attack button to represent that particular Unite Morph. The attack button in the tutorial changes in scope with each lesson and the complexity of what the player needs in order to accomplish that scope increases as well.
The team attack is the only thing that sticks out here as it has nothing to do with pressing the A button. However it is one of the game’s core mechanics and is introduced in the perfect spot in terms of the progression of complexity. The designers placed it in the lesson where the player isn't learning anything new about the controls. The previous fight showed the introduction of the attack button and the following fight centers around the player drawing a pattern and then pressing attack to change the Unite Morph. Both of these fights are introducing something new the player has to execute. The team attack is placed in between these two where the only other instructional window is telling the player something they already know.
A Hiccup in the Lesson
The odd thing about these last two lessons is that the ordering is just a bit confusing given what the cutscene/QTE showed the player previously. Based purely on the instruction windows (as the fights themselves are identical), it would seem that the developers intended the first fight of the two to be focused on the player learning to use the team attack in conjunction with the regular attack. This makes a lot of sense in regards to the progression of complexity in what the player learns in this tutorial. However, the cutscene undermines this flow as it doesn’t show any of the benefits of the team attack, but does an excellent job of showing how awesome a Unite Morph is.
The cutscene makes the player immediately want to use the Unite Morphs in a fight. In combination with the quick-time-event, the cutscene flashes the player a really cool new ability and immediately teaches them how to use it. Like dangling a new toy in front of a child, the player’s first instinct is to play with the cool new shiny thing. The Unite Morph ability is also available immediately after that QTE, which further supports the player’s intent of trying it out. Having the lesson that takes place after the QTE centre around the team attack doesn’t seem consistent with what the player is shown or what they are going through psychologically.
The tricky thing with all of this is that there’s no clear way around this issue. Having the team attack be taught after the Unite Morph breaks that steady complexity progression the tutorial was on. Adding more or changing the cutscenes might have worked but could have seriously broken the flow of the level. The team attack has to be put in here somewhere and where it is still very good, but I just feel that it's a minor flaw in an otherwise well designed tutorial.
That pretty much wraps up what I wanted to analyse about how the game teaches the player the mechanics. There are other skills taught here but they aren’t as interesting to discuss as they more or less follow the structure of what came before them. Anything basic and necessary to complete the game is covered in either this tutorial stage or in a Unite Morph cutscene later on when the specific character with that Unite Morph appears in the storyline. Every single other intermediate to advanced technique is up to the player to discover and experiment with as they play the game.
Recalling what I said in part 1 of this design analysis, this method of teaching the player is very much in the vein of old school gaming. The tutorial level is a modern day necessity because of the death of the paper manuals that were the go to method of teaching the player the controls. The Wonderful 101 uses it in a sense but does everything it can to keep that retro feeling of reading a manual alive. The little instructional windows look like they could have been ripped right out of a manual and browsing purchasable and unlockable skills using the menu interface feels like taking a break from the game to look through one.
The game can be unforgiving in that retro way as it only explicitly shows the player the essentials and expects the player to discover and learn the rest of the game on their own. This can be especially frustrating as the game disapprovingly hands you consolation prizes at the end of each operation as you learn. Despite this, and probably even because of this, you strive on; playing the game hoping to get it’s approval eventually. The longer you persevere, the more you learn and discover the things it wasn’t telling you but have been hinted at and have been sitting just below the surface waiting for that mental leap to click. Eventually reaching that stage where you can kick it’s ass, replacing those consolation prizes with PURE PLATINUM trophies.
BTW MILD SPOILERS FOR THE GAME(Only don't read if you want to go into the game completely blind)
It is clear that the intent of the Wonderful 101 was to capture the essence of Super Sentai shows and imbue that essence into a game. There are many obvious things in the game that display this. First and foremost are the aesthetics. The audio,(The Wonderful 101 have their own theme song for Christ sake, when is the last time you've heard a theme song in a video game) the cut scenes and the visual design of the game all blend together to create that same feeling you would get when watching the shows. For instance, everything from the environments to the characters all have this plastic-y toy feeling about them. The characters are ridiculously shiny, to the point where it seems cheap and distracting but it fits in with the Super Sentai themes so well.
Speaking of Super Sentai themes, let's go over some of the many that the wonderful 101 captures quickly
Latex: Check 5 man band: Check When shit gets real, part of their masks break: Check Transformations: Check Mech battles: Check Colour coded protagonists: Check Colour defines group role: Check Special attacks must be announced: Check Enemy power level = Authority level: Check
Now, something that is less obvious is that the game's overall structure also mimics that of the shows. The game is split up into essentially nine operations and all but one of these is split up into 3 sections/levels. This may not make much sense right now but if you think about the operations as episodes in a season and the levels as acts in an episode, it all begins to click together.
Admittedly this isn't an air tight comparison. The game's operations need to be much longer than your average Super Sentai episode in length. This is due to the difference between the two mediums. Television spends it's time conveying character, story and action. Video games need to do that too, but also have to teach and engage the player in combat mechanics. The result of this added length is that the three act structure of the shows is not entirely transferred, especially as the first level of the operations include plenty of action.
Despite that discrepancy The Wonderful 101 completely and utterly succeeds at imparting the feeling of watching the shows upon the player. Every operation ramps up in terms of scale and difficulty until the epic climax is reached; usually with the defeat or destruction of the big bad boss. When you finish an operation, you truly feel just as you would upon completion of an episode of a Super Sentai show. It is a pretty remarkable feat to make a player feel something so specific and the Wonderful 101 pulls it off masterfully through a combination of it's aesthetics, characters and indeed the very structure of the game itself.
Variety is necessary in order to keep the player engaged and interested but there are many games that fall into the staleness of week old bread. Like that bread analogy, they get to that point by just sitting there...Sitting on the few mechanics they have, sitting on overused themes and stories, sitting on the same set pieces, same enemies...same same same same same. What makes The Wonderful 101 a well designed game is that it never becomes dull.
A contributing factor to this is that Super Sentai series arc structure that the game follows. The protagonists/player starts with few powers and steadily through the game these powers and abilities increase in number. This results in the player consistently doing different things as they are put up against varying enemies with different weaknesses when they climb the command structure of the enemy forces.
The level variety on offer too is spectacular. Most of the levels are similar in nature, with the player controlling the wonderful 100 and progressing from battle to battle. There are the obvious changes in terms of the locale i.e. City levels, Ice levels, ruins etc, but if you strip the aesthetics away the core battle elements always remain the same. The game however has much more to offer than just battles and locales.
Throughout the game there are many puzzle sections where the player needs to use the environment and their abilities to progress. These take two forms, one is a more static experience where practically everything is in front of the player ready to be solved. The second is the much more exciting chase sequence where the player is forced to rush through the level and solve small puzzles that impede their progress. These two supplements to the game play don't just vary the game in terms of what the player does, they also offer something more subtle. They change the emotional state of the player. The static puzzles slow everything down, instilling a sense of calm, while the chase sequences obviously heighten the tension and urgency the player feels.
Normally, this would do for most games however The Wonderful 101 goes even further to diversify the things the player does. There are sections of the game that are so different to the core combat mechanics that they almost seem like they don't belong. The player goes from controlling the 100 heroes and combating enemies, to piloting space ships Starfox style, battling giant mechs Punch Out! style and I think there's even a level that's heavily inspired by Mr Driller...
Consequences of the Homage
On paper this sounds awesome especially if the player has fond memories of those franchises but it does come at a price. In these sections, the game forces the player to do things that they have no familiarity in. So if the player has no idea how to play Punch Out! properly, they're kind of fucked for those sections. This can leads to huge amounts of frustration for the player as they have been learning the mechanics of one game only to require the skills of a completely different game in order to progress. The game has to out right plop the controls of these sections right in front of the player before they start. This helps in the transition, but telling the player how to play doesn't translate to them how to succeed.
I can't leave this on a negative note as I personally enjoyed these varied gameplay elements but I wanted to address that variety can be something that is jarring and unnecessary. I think it works in The Wonderful 101 because of what the main intent was, an homage to the past. Sure, Super Sentai is the focus but it becomes very evident that on the periphery, the essence of Nintendo and retro gaming in general also helps form the game's identity.
That concludes my analyses for Part 1. If you find it a bit lacking in terms of content I will be back to talk about some things I totally skipped over to not make this thing too long. The next part will be focused more on the core combat mechanics and why they work/don't work in context of what was talked about here. I might also throw in my thoughts on the game's design accommodating a myriad of play styles.