If you were a child in the 80’s or 90’s then, like me, your youth was probably filled with dozens of bad ass, colourful robots that could combine together to form even bigger, more bad ass and colourful robots. Throw in some high pitched, wailing guitar riffs and we’re looking at a pretty good monday afternoon. It’s this same type of nostalgia that ‘The Wonderful 101’ manages to tap into so effortlessly. ‘Bayonetta’ developers Platinum Games clearly have a deep love of not only cheesy kids TV shows of the 80’s/90’s but also the wide wealth of Japanese film and television that inspired them. ‘The Wonderful 101’ is bold, vibrant and unashamedly cheesy and for the most part, it works.
The story revolves around a vast, alien menace threatening the earth, the hilariously named ‘GEATHJERK’ (which is an acronym for something even more hilarious). Enter the Wonderful 100, a huge team of superheroes from across the globe, who have to unite to fight the enemy that no single hero could fight alone. Just think of The Avengers but on a much larger (and more camp) scale. The story itself is low on narrative but high on drama. The wacky presentation perfectly replicates the vibe of any of the best anime TV shows, even throwing in some great references (including a Tuxedo Mask reference that had me laughing out loud). Characters and enemies will get their own stylish freeze frame introduction but then the game will go that extra step to poke fun, like having a character start wiggling impatiently during their freeze frame. It’s this tongue in cheek approach to the tone of the game that gets the story across the line. What it might lack in an engaging plot it makes up for in entertainment value and you find yourself playing on just to meet more members of your super posse.
The gameplay is one of the more unique aspects of the game and I suspect where many people will either jump on board or decide it isn’t for them. You play the game from a top down perspective, where you control one of several main superhero squad leaders and direct your group of fearless fighters. Your squad can number from zero to a hundred, with your strength and abilities increasing in proportion to your numbers. At a glance, the game may look like a Pikmin style strategy game but in reality it’s more a button mashing action fest. With the tap of the ‘X’ button your sidekicks will lash out and attack anything you want them to. But the real beauty of the combat is when you use ‘Unite Morph’. It sounds very Power Rangers but it’s probably closer to Green Lanterns powers, when you use your super friends to form new objects and weapons to help you in your goals. Pressing ZL will morph you into a giant, coloured jelly to block attacks while ZR will turn you into a snake to jump out of the way of incoming threats.
Then there are the offensive morphs and no, I’m not talking about morphing into the shape of anything ‘unsavoury’. You have several main playable leaders, each of whom specialises in a particular weapon type. Wonder Red has his giant, red fist for huge punches, grabs and throwing large objects. Wonder Blue has his sword, Wonder Green a giant gun and so on. This feature feels like both a blessing and a curse.
First of all, it’s a really novel approach for a fighting game to have each individual move mapped to a different character’s abilities. It really enforces that feeling of fighting on a super team when switching moves and weapons has you switching between different characters. It’s also a great way to showcase the many wacky characters that ‘101’ has on offer. The Unite Morph can also be used in quite creative situations whether it’s sending out your heroes to form a chain so you can get across vast gaps and scale skyscrapers or creating a power ring around dead flowers to revive them into a beautiful garden, which in turn rewards you with bonuses and upgrades.
Where this combat system takes a sudden wrong left turn is in the controls. I’m not sure if this combat system was built with the Wii U game pad in mind or if it was simply an after thought but I’ll tell you one thing, it is not satisfying. Basically, there are two ways you can form your squad into shapes, by either drawing them on the gamepad or using the joystick. The shapes you have to make are simple enough, circles, straight lines, L shapes, but the game is simply too fast paced to accomodate the variety the game offers. While it might be fun to draw a straight line to form a giant, blue energy sword, if you’re in the heat of a battle it simply isn’t practical. The number of times I accidently switched squad members or took major damage in the instant I was looking at the gamepad, it made it really hard to not get frustrated. It just reeks of gimmickry and it’s a damn shame that in a game with so many fantastic battles, the toughest fight of all is with the controls themselves. That said, the analog stick does work well enough as an alternative for most of the morph attacks, which is what stops the combat from being unbearable but still, it does make you question the usefulness of the gamepad overall if even the developers don’t really know what to do with it.
What’s more, at times the combat can feel quite unforgiving. There are elements of strategy, as some enemies take more damage from certain weapons, but there are many boss fights where it doesn’t feel like any particular weapon matters. Some people might enjoy that but for me it seemed at odds with what the game was trying to be. In fact, that’s my lasting impression of the game in general. The tone, the characters and the world all feel so vibrant, I would have loved to be able to explore that more creatively but this game ends up being a slightly more interesting action game rather than the diverse puzzle game it could have been. The many different abilities and shape shifting could have totally lent themselves to more diverse problem solving and being able to use late game powers to solve puzzles in earlier levels could have given the game a huge amount of replayability too.
Speaking of replayability, the game also features a 5 player co-op mode. I say co-op but really it’s more competitive than anything. 5 players can join in the fun locally and compete for points by fighting enemies. The mode itself is fun with the same frantic combat from the story mode but the downsides are that you’ll need either the Wii U Pro controller or the Wii Classic controller for other players to join in and the multiplayer is local only. I’m not one to complain about the dedication to couch co-op but I feel like expecting people to own not one but 4 Pro or Classic controllers is a huge ask. I also feel that considering that controller requirement, the story mode should really also be playable in co-op. With all those characters, it would have been loads of fun for players to get to fight the GEATHJERK side by side.
Another complaint, although minor, is the camera angle being quite far away from the characters. While it might help you survey an entire battlefield, it does stop you from enjoying the many wacky characters that Platinum Games have clearly put a lot of thought and effort into. I mean, what’s the point of a character like ‘Wonder Toilet’ if I can’t enjoy the novelty of a guy with a toilet for a head? The end result is, you don’t end up switching out characters that often which makes the whole levelling system for all of the characters feel a tad redundant.
All in all, while not perfect, ‘The Wonderful 101’ is still an enjoyably unique addition to the Wii U, a system that definitely needs some more interesting exclusives up it’s sleeve. Despite it’s controller issues and some weird gameplay choices (like changing to the gamepad camera mode for all indoor segments) this is still a game bursting with character. There’s been a news story floating around that at one point in development, ‘The Wonderful 101’ was originally going to feature all Nintendo characters and honestly, I think the game is much better off without that inclusion. This game stands apart on the Wii U as an original game that relies on it’s own concept rather than the familiarity of the big N’s brand. Flaws aside, I’d recommend this game to anyone who wants something fun and new and really, any game that had me yelling out loud “Asssssseeeeemble!” in a non ironic way, can’t be all bad. Right?