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 doesnít do enough to teach and that the Unite Morphs are too unwieldy to use.
They arenít 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 gameís 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 playerís 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 thereís no logical difference between a consolation prize and another gameís 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 donít associate with a bronze grade, even though bronze is usually the same.
Remember the continue screen? Well itís back as the gameís 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 itís true nature.
Itís 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
Itís 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 donít worry, the game has itís 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 donít yet know how they work) and the lack of skills and abilities they possess. The latter is really important because it affects the playerís 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
Itís 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, itís absolutely clear what the gameís goal is when it comes to making the player feel something. The gameís 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 itís 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. Itís 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 isnít 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 playerís attention on the satisfaction that comes with aggressive comboing. Itís not only through combat that the gameís 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 gameís 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 enemyís assortment of creatures and war machines. Without context, these sections are pretty meaningless. If they were played in isolation, they wouldnít 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 Cometís laser is firing. Thereís 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 isnít 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 101
does 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, thereís 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 itís 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 ďbeatingĒ Super Mario World
but for any real retro gamer truly ďbeatingĒ the game meant conquering Star Road.
What Iím getting at with all of this in regards to The Wonderful 101
is that itís 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 whatís 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 playerís 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.
Thereís 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 playerís 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 shouldnít 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, itís actually really cool how the game handles increasing difficulty. Each mode has itís 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 doesnít 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 wonít 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 wouldnít 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.
In case you were interested/missed them:
Wonderful Design 101 - Part 1: An Overview
Wonderful Design 101 - Part 2: Player Guidance
Wonderful Design 101 - Part 3: The Design of Secrets
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