More than the sum of its parts
The Wonderful 101 was originally pitched as a Nintendo franchise crossover title, and the remnants of that plan remain in the final design. The cast of playable characters are all easily linked to some of Nintendo's biggest names. Wonder Red (the game's lead) can break blocks and shoot fireballs with his hands, not unlike the worlds most beloved super-powered, baby-bodied plumber.
There are similar connections between other playable characters in the game -- Wonder Blue = Link, Wonder Green = Fox McCloud, Wonder Pink = Samus Aran, Wonder Yellow = Donkey Kong, and so on.
In the end, it's for the best that The Wonderful 101 became its own game. There is plenty here that will appeal to fans of other Nintendo properties, but this is very much a one-of-a-kind experience, and deserves to be billed as such. It draws upon other Hideki Kamiya titles like Viewtiful Joe, Okami, and Devil May Cry, Super Sentai shows of the '70s, the previously mentioned Nintendo titles, with a touch of Pikmin thrown in on the side, all while infused with a unique wildness that will leave even the most jaded among us on the edge of their seats.
The Wonderful 101 (Wii U)
Developer: Platinum Games
Released: September 15, 2013
The concept of the game is simple -- control over 100 heroes as they explore exotic locations and battle robots and aliens. Unlike something like Pikmin where you're really only controlling one character at time, your army in Wonderful 101 moves like a single organism -- like a blob made of multi-colored bodybuilding handsome dwarfs, armed with the ability to transform into giant swords, guns, whips, rockets, tombstones, jello, and tons of other surprising things. The focus tends to stay on the "colored" members of the team like Wonder Red and Wonder Blue, but the likes of Wonder Toilet, Wonder Sister, and Wonder Santa, and 90+ others are also there to lend a hand. It's superheroes Kamiya-style, and there's nothing else quite like it.
Kamiya has said many times that The Wonderful 101 was never intended to be Viewtiful Joe 3, but I can't help but wonder. As much as I love Viewtiful Joe, I was left feeling that in order for the series to continue to grow, that the scale would have to be expanded upon in a big way. That's exactly what The Wonderful 101 does. It takes the core concepts and ideas of Viewtiful Joe and blows them out in every direction.
The game is rated T, probably due to all the death, violence, unnecessary butt shots peppered over its candy-coated exterior. The whole experience feels like a grown up looking back on their childhood fantasies, re-filtering it through their adult minds in the process, not unlike Adventure Time or LEGO Star Wars. Also like in LEGO Star Wars, everything in The Wonderful 101 looks like a part of gigantic, magnificent play set. When seen up close, many of the character models look like they could have come from the PS2-era, but the camera stays panned out most of the time, resulting in more impressive visuals. There are times when the game's hard plastic visual style is downright breathtaking, but be prepared to spot a few blemishes here and there.
The game's tone starts off unabashedly silly, but the story gets surprisingly serious by the fourth chapter. There are two central themes here -- that anyone can be a hero (or a villain), and that we can be defined by how we deal with loss and victimization. There's a great scene where a lone wolf anti-hero, who feels his personal losses (think Batman) entitle him to all the anger and rebellion, gets his comeuppance that I won't soon forget. An amazing score recorded by a full orchestra (complete with theme song) and strong voice acting from animation veterans Tara Strong and Steve Blum add cinematic polish in ways that both enhance and contrast the toy-like visuals.
The central gameplay hooks revolve around using the right offensive and defensive moves against the right enemies at the right time, while balancing the amount of meter you have left. You can pull out four super-powered attacks almost simultaneously if you want (activated by either drawing a shape on the Wii U GamePad or through a motion on the right analog stick), but that will blow your whole meter, leaving you relatively defenseless.
If you wait to block an enemy attack by forming a giant jello mold, you could leave them stunned, allowing you to perform a (potentially) lengthy multi-part juggle combo, which if you have the right upgrades, may even cause you to earn back more meter than you spent. Again, it's a very similar formula as Viewtiful Joe, but instead of focusing mostly on balancing meter with slow-mo, it's balancing meter with over multiple melee attacks, projectiles, a slow-motion activating bomb, and tons of other options.
I've heard other reviewers had trouble with the controls, but I've had no issues. Like playing a fighting game, you need to have some level of dexterity to pull off motions and combos, but it all gets to be muscle memory after a while. Knowing that there are different levels of physical skill to aspire towards helps gives The Wonderful 101 a feeling of depth, but what keeps me coming back is the depth of the combat system. The game does more to show you how to play it on an expert level than Vanquish or MadWorld did, but isn't quite the immaculate teacher that Viewtiful Joe was.
It makes sense, as there are so many more moving parts here that to gently inspire you how to use them all would be a lot to ask. Instead, the game shows you how to handle most of the basics and inspires you to keep digging back in to explore and re-explore what your sizable arsenal of super powers can do. Just before writing this I found a new way to move quickly and powerfully murder giant robot turtles. This is after fighting many, many robot turtles prior. Who knows -- maybe I'll discover an even better way to murder robot turtles tomorrow.
Part of what makes the prospect of return plays so inviting comes from all the other things you can do with your powers outside of combat. There are so many secrets to unlock here: Secret Missions, hidden challenges in every level, secret files, new members to your wonder army, achievement-like "bottle caps" to score in order to unlock secret characters (Bayonetta, Jeanne, the Viewtiful Joe-inspired Poseman, and even Kamiya himself), and more.
Most of these are found by attempting to break into parts of the environment that don't appear to be accessible on the surface, or by commandeering a giant robot or other mechanical monstrosity to take on the world with titanic new abilities. The act of combing every inch of the environment as you move in-between fights is a thrill unto itself, especially when they involve using your new powers in new and interesting (and destructive) ways. I don't want to give too much away, but I'm very tempted to gush about how much I love the Zelda and Punch-Out tributes that pop up in the game. I hope you discover them for yourself.
Sadly, these diversions also offer some of the game's worst moments. The methods towards to tackling the puzzles and platforming aren't always logical or easy to read. That's fine in an optional hunt for a secret character or unlockable, but when you're hit with a timed puzzle that has an arbitrary solution, and you end up dying on it as you scratch in the dirt for a way to move forward, it can be a be a real stinker. The game doesn't have a ton of these stinkers, but the ones that are there are worth mentioning.
There's about two exploration/puzzle elements per character that were specially designed for the Wii U GamePad, though GamePad screen use is totally optional. You can move the stuff on the GamePad screen to the TV, or have both screens up on the TV or down on the GamePad via split-screen if you don't want to divide your attention between two separate displays. Sadly, the camera tends to be pretty poor in these sections, and the solutions to the puzzles tend to either be way too obvious or way too obscure. But they still feel fresh, and are generally more fun to run through after you've already discovered their solutions.
The campaign is split into a prologue, an epilogue, and nine chapters, each containing three levels. Each level takes anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes to get through, so you can expect your first playthrough to take upwards of 20 hours. You can change the difficulty from Very Easy, Easy, or Normal in between levels, with more difficulties available later on. I played the entire game on Normal, and while I didn't always get a great grade at the end of a level and I missed a lot of secrets on my first run through, I never felt like the game was overly punishing.
There's also a separate mission mode that borrows content from the campaign, allowing for up to five players to join in at a time. Multiplayer adds a huge arcade-style replay element to the game which almost feels unnecessary given how much content there already is here. It will be interesting to see if it picks up a following.
There were moments early on in my time with The Wonderful 101 when I wasn't sure which way it was going to go. The third chapter was particularly rough going, as it introduces a new weapon that isn't particularly fun to use (at first) and has some of the least satisfying platforming and puzzle segments. Thankfully, it keeps getting better from there, and going back into that third chapter with all the abilities and combat strategies I've acquired since makes it a lot more fun than it was the first time around.
The Wonderful 101 is one of those rare games that keeps getting more and more fun the more that you play it. If you have the dexterity to handle the controls and the patience to deal with a few momentum-killing platforming/puzzle bits, you're in for a heck of a time.
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