Let me be very clear: I love Platinum Games. Hideki Kamiya and his team have made consistently entertaining and engaging titles in the past from cult hits like Okami, Viewtiful Joe and God Hand to the more popular Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and Bayonetta. Not too surprising since the aforementioned director wrote the book on hack and slash combat action games, it was called Devil May Cry. Each title has boasted visceral and satisfying combat systems, iconic and impressive boss battles and set pieces, and Kamiya’s special brand of quirky off color humor.
The Wonderful 101, which was originally pitched as a massive Nintendo mascot crossover team-up game, has a lot of expectations to meet with such pedigree and skill behind the wheel. It has to not only be a solid action game, but be a system seller for the Wii U as well as put an effort towards destroying the idea that Nintendo’s newest console doesn’t have any original games. Much like the group of the title, there are some minor things that get in the way of these goals, but when brought together, the result is pure ecstasy.
When planet Earth is threatened, a mysterious team of heroes known as the Wonderful 100 arrive to keep the peace. One hundred masked heroes united for the sole purpose of protecting humanity from any threat. Twenty years after Earth Defense War 2, the Guild of Evil Aliens Terrorizing Humans with Jiggawatt bombs Energy beams Ray guns and Killer lasers ( aka GEATHJERK) have returned with their entire armada to destroy the Wonderful 100 and Earth, just in time for the team’s new leader, Wonder-Red, to get a crash course in team management and experience.
The narrative in The Wonderful 101 isn’t exactly groundbreaking or complicated, but it is well told and absolutely earnest in its delivery. The tone and style of the game has very strong ties to superhero comics and Japanese Tokusatsu shows (think Power Rangers), which is further cemented by how hopeful and upbeat it is despite some dark moments by support characters and some sprinklings of adult humor here and there. It’s a big love letter to the superhero genre that understands the secret to success isn’t to subvert the various ubiquitous tropes, but to play them straight and get the emotional highs just right. At the same time, the game remembers to have fun with its very premise with support heroes like Wonder-Shopping, Wonder-Beer, Wonder-Zombie, and Wonder-Yeti slowly being added to the roster.
Core gameplay has strong ties to Devil May Cry-esque hack and slash with some hints of Pikmin thrown in. You control one member of the team, the rest follows with no input needed, as you guide the group through each level beating up GEATHJERK forces, complete with the usual action game staples of air juggles and jump cancels, and getting ranked at the end of each battle based on speed, combo attacks, and how much damage taken; par for the course for Platinum Games.
What changes things up in a novel way is the Wonderful 100’s Unite Morph ability. By drawing on the Wii U gamepad a certain shape in battle, the team combines into a large weapon, each one with its own strengths and weaknesses, which can vary in size based on how large the shape was drawn and how many members you have at the time. Overall, this system works for three reasons. First, the shapes are generally easy to pull off and easily recognizable: a circle for Unite Hand, straight line for Unite Sword, “L” shape for Unite Gun, etc.. Second, whenever you begin drawing a Unite power, the battle slows down considerably to avoid artificial tension or frustration, which really helps when the shapes being drawn start getting a bit more involved. Third, using the Wii U gamepad is optional. It is completely possible to not take a hand out of play and just use the right analog stick to draw the shape manually. It takes some time to get used to, but once you do, it really becomes quite satisfying to use the Unite powers.
The powers also have a key role to play in combat and especially in Boss Battles. In a way, The Wonderful 101 is more akin to an in-depth fighting game than a button mashing beat-em up. Every single attack thrown at the heroes can be countered or blocked in one way or another, and part of the fun and challenge comes from getting the timing or the attack just right. More times than I can count I was getting flattened by a new enemy type, but after gritting my teeth and paying attention I was able to figure out at least two different ways to take the monster down by either watching its tells or just thinking outside the box.
While the core gameplay is a lot of fun and very addictive, it isn’t perfect. The upgrade shop that you can visit between levels has plenty of dynamic upgrades, but the dodge and block ability has to be bought. They aren’t expensive but it is suspicious that they weren’t available immediately. Also, as considerate as it was for there to be an alternative form of input for the Unite Morph powers, the loss of the right analog stick leaves control of the camera static and restrictive which can lead to frustration.
There are also some abrupt changes in gameplay as the story goes on. Most of these changes are in the form of arcade-style shoot-em-up sections, Star Fox-esque dogfighting, and even a few fistfights in the vein of Punch-Out!!. All of which are well designed and entertaining…. Then there are the dual screen sections. Every now and then there are puzzle sections where various activity will be happening on the television screen while the protagonists are on the Wii U Gamepad navigating or fighting. It leads to some clever, entertaining moments, but the camera is controlled by the gamepad’s built-in gyroscope and can’t be reset, which makes the otherwise fluid gameplay an annoying trial of wrestling the camera into place. These sections are so sparse and brief that it doesn’t completely wreck the flow of the game, but it can come close.
The Wonderful 101 has a very distinct look that I just adore. The team of heroes and the metropolis known as Blossom City all look like an elaborate, large-scale children’s playset complete with all of the toyetic weapons and vehicles, while the aggressive GEATHJERK enemies all are overdone mech creatures with sleek black metal with glowing lights being the official uniform. It’s a holistic aesthetic choice that sells one of my favorite themes of the game: the personification of the Golden Age of Superheroes full of personality, charm and old-school heroics versus the personification of the modern cynical age of the aggressively juvenile and morally grey anti-heroism and the results of the two clashing. The juxtaposition of the two styles also contrast each other really well, leading to some very impressive visuals, all being delivered at a consistently smooth framerate with absolutely zero texture pop.
Being a bombastic superhero game wouldn’t be complete without a triumphant musical score performed by a massive orchestra. Wonderful 101 goes one step further and also has its very own grandiose theme song. A theme song that is still stuck in my head as of writing, and I’m okay with letting it play on loop. The voice-acting also straddles the line between earnest and hamtastic with JB Blanc, Quinton Flynn, and Tara Strong bringing in consistent work respectively.
My first playthrough of The Wonderful 101 on Normal difficulty clocked in at seventeen hours, and this is without finding all hidden collectibles, teammates or Secret Missions. When modern game development trends lean on DLC and annual sequels of an established property so much that a single self-contained game having that much content is considered a surprise, it brings a smile to my face. Platinum has done something right with The Wonderful 101. It has been done so right that the game’s ancillary cooperative mode is just icing on a cake that was already large and made for a wedding right off the bat. It has been done so right that despite the fact that the Unite Powers are a gimmick at their very core, they still compliment gameplay so well. It’s even done so right that despite how tight-lipped the tutorial is about certain tricks, there is still an innate joy in discovering the ins and outs of the game’s systems for yourself. The minute the credits rolled, I wanted to immediately start New Game + and experiment with more Unite Powers and unlock new upgrades and simply wanted more of the game. That is a winner in my book.
The Wonderful 101 is a grand slam for Platinum Games. Fun, funny, imaginative, and confident in its wackiness, it is an absolute blast to play. If you have a Wii U and love superheroes or just love fun, check it out.
AAG SCORE: 9/10
- Solid, Deep Brawling Gameplay
- Entertaining Characters and Level Design
- Lots of Replay Value
- Questionable Progression Design
- Camera Issues