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
5 man band: Check
When shit gets real, part of their masks break: 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.
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