The Wonderful 101 is an action-adventure game developed by Platinum Games and published by Nintendo in 2013 for the Wii U. Take the high-octane action of Bayonetta and mix it with the group control mechanics of Pikmin, and you get this crazy game. The titular Wonderful 101 is a team of 100 (not yet 101) heroes from around the world tasked with protecting Earth from the forces of the invading aliens, the GEATHJERK. If you know either Platinum’s usual gameplay over the top action style and have played/seen Pikmin, you might be wondering how they could possibly be merged together. Well Platinum managed to pull it off with their distinct flair, but is it a wonderful combination or a complete mess? Read on to find out…
Well in terms of gameplay, The Wonderful 101 is not terrible, but it’s certainly not wonderful. The main gameplay style revolves around controlling the heroic group as a single entity that can merge together to take a variety of forms to fight foes called Unite Morphs. You start off only being able to form a giant hand, but you quickly get the sword, gun, whip and hammer morphs, with claws and bomb not far behind. These Morphs are all used to attack in unique ways, with some being more effective than others in different situations. While the sword morph is probably the most useful overall, all of them have their place in battle and will be used frequently no matter how far into the game you get. There’s even more Unite Morphs than just these, some are ability based like Rocket letting you reach higher places, and Guts turning you into a giant pudding that blocks attacks. And of course there’s a number of special Morphs that are story specific, but still just as useful as the main ones. It’s actually impressive how I can’t think of a single Unite Morph that I would call useless, they all manage to pull their weight and are all rather fun to use. It’s creative and colourful, and gives the game a distinct style, in terms of both gameplay and visuals.
The creativity continues with the massive amount of different enemies you’ll face throughout the game. The game is still introducing new enemy types even when you’re past the halfway point of the story. On top of that, they all fight in interesting ways that require increasingly clever usage of the Unite Morphs to overcome them. And when the combat works, it’s a crazy spectacle that’s really enjoyable. Unfortunately, the gameplay doesn’t always work, and in the more chaotic battles, you have a 50/50 chance of the game not doing what you wanted. There’s two core issues with the main gameplay of Wonderful 101, the controls and the camera. You see in order actually make the Unite Morphs, you have to draw special shapes on the Wii U Gamepad. This can be done either with the stylus, to directly draw them, or the right stick to guesstimate the shape. While using the stylus will lead to getting the shape exactly as you want it, you’ll find it too slow as the battles get faster and more demanding. This is where the right stick comes in as it’s much faster to draw with, but it has its own problem, and that’s inaccuracy. While good for drawing any shapes that require straight or wavy lines (sword, whip, hammer), you’ll find it much harder to pull off any shape that requires curves or specific angles (hand, gun, bomb).
Compounding this is the camera, which suffers from numerous problems. The first is tthat it is simultaneously too zoomed out, yet not zoomed out enough. Action single, large enemies, it works perfectly, which most of the boss are thankfully. But against multiple enemies of any size, and especially against tiny enemies (like the picture above), it becomes a problem. On one hand, you’re too zoomed out to see exactly what an enemy is going to do, especially when there’s a lot of characters on screen and tons of flashy effects going off. But on the other hand, unlike in many modern games, enemies will attack you from offscreen, and they will do it frequently. So you get battles where you’re trying to see what the tiny enemy in-front of you is about to do, all the while a cannonball or chainsaw is coming at you from behind, but you can’t see it until it’s too late. And in a game with a deep and ridiculously strict scoring system, this becomes a major problem. Especially since even boss fights aren’t immune to this problem, specifically the fights against your rival, Prince Vorkken. In any other Platinum game, these would be the best fights, but here, they’re just a complete mess where dodging constantly and some unique skills are the only way to do remotely good.
Even with all this, you do start to slowly learn the game and figure out which skills are godsends and which Morphs are best in any given situation. Unfortunately, that learning curve is slow, not just because of the game’s difficulty, but also because The Wonderful 1o1 likes to turn into a completely different game every 10 minutes. You’ll be going along a level, learning whatever new stuff was introduced, when suddenly, you’re in a 2D shoot ’em up, then you’ll get past that overly long nonsense and being playing the normal game once mo- oh wait, no, now you’re playing Punch Out. That’s not even getting into all the different sections that require just the Gamepad, which nice to see it actually being used, the majority are very tedious. Some boss fights can be especially bad about this, where each section is completely different from the last, and it all feels tacked on, regardless of the witty dialogue. It’s bad enough that a friend of mine instantly caught on to it when I showed him a boss fight, where after the 3rd gameplay change, he pointed out how little time you get to enjoy or learn each one…and that was before a 4th gameplay change happened.
As you can probably tell from the pictures, The Wonderful 101 is a bright and vibrant game, full of colours and flashy effects. In a time where the majority of games are attempting to be all pale and tragic, with dark “realistic” aesthetics, The Wonderful 101 goes in the complete opposite direction and its extremely refreshing. Considering that all the main characters are referred to and practically defined by the colour of their costumes, it’s a good thing that the game’s colours pop out at you. The Unite Morphs look great because of this, with each having its own unique colour that makes them stand out amid all the chaos on screen. You always know which Morph you’re using, and while sometimes distracting (especially Unite Claw) the flashy effects they have make each attack a visual treat that feels good to use.
Outside of the gameplay, the cutscenes are extremely well made, looking far better than the actual game and delivering the over the top narrative in a suitably mind-blowing fashion. Even the in-engine cutscenes look great despite the rather low-poly characters, with the gameplay set pieces looking almost like you’re playing a cutscene. When they need to, the characters can look great too, it’s just a shame that you don’t get too see them up close all that much. And you can tell that unlike many games where a ton of money was spent on the opening, The Wonderful 101 gives “Grand Finale” a whole new meaning, having the best visual and music in the game. Speaking of, the music is certainly no slouch, as it’s just a bombastic and over the top as you would expect it to be. All the tracks fit the action or story on screen, and particularly awesome is how the music is very dynamic during boss fights, with the fun and empowering main theme kicking whenever you go for the crazy finishing move.
One problem that Platinum Games typically has, is that while they make enjoyable and unique characters, their stories are nonsensical and poorly told. The Wonderful 101 however, completely reverses this trend. The story is as over the top as possible while still somehow making sense, meanwhile the majority of the cast is completely bland and is defined by a single joke. Let’s discuss why the story is great first. The main reason is how much it just rolls with being ridiculous and action packed. Most of the game’s dialog is tongue in cheek, with heroes and enemies alike either being silly, or reacting in deadpan fashion to the each others antics. The game never takes itself too seriously…until it suddenly does. And surprisingly, it actually does a good job at being serious while remaining over the top and having tons of action, which is pretty admirable.
With Platinum finally delivering a decent story that compliments their gameplay style, it’s a real shame that they completely botched it with the characters. Of course, they’re not all bad. Wonder Red, the protagonist, is extremely likeable, has a decent backstory, and his interactions with the rest of the cast are always great. Appropriately enough, his rival, Prince Vorkken, is also fantastic, being a rather affable villain, whose lines are hilarious and his voice actor knocks it out of the park. Lastly there’s Immorta, a space cop, who manages to be cool and charming, without getting stuck in the usual Platinum fanservice rut.
However, that’s only 3 characters in a rather large cast, the latter two only appearing for short bursts throughout the story. Most of the time, you will be dealing with the Wonderful 101 themselves, whose personalities and interactions are far from wonderful. Now it would take to long to cover each character but, luckily they all suffer from the exact same problems. The first issue is that aside from Red, each character has a single joke and a single character trait. Each joke will be used constantly, starting off barely funny at first, and just being headache inducing by the end when they’re still spouting them. But that’s nothing compared to the single trait each character has, as not only are most of the characters annoying jerks, they also tend to never shut up. Of course, with so many characters, only a couple have any weight in the story, and don’t even think about character development. Unless you consider the tired cliche of the rogue rebelling against the leader, only to realize the error of his ways, to be character development. And when the contest to see who is the most annoying character in the game is a royal rumble involving all of the cast except for 3 characters…that’s not good.
The Wonderful 101 is a colourful and unique game that plays like no other. It delivers a satisfying story that is as hilarious as it is epic. With gameplay so different from the norm, it’s expected that it won’t be perfect. However, Platinum has enough experience with the types of controls and camera that these kinds of stylish action games require, which is why it’s unfortunate that they’re issues with the game. Even more disappointing is the cast of annoying characters that are so bland, they might as well all be called Wonder Beige. But despite all that, it’s a game like no other with a story so crazy and hammy that you can’t help but want to see where it goes. So while I doubt it’ll happen, I wouldn’t mind if Platinum and Nintendo took what they learned from this game and either made a direct sequel, or a spiritual successor.