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The Wonderful 101 remaster is welcome - but console performance disappoints

Only PC and PS4 Pro can deliver a sustained 60fps.

The Wonderful 101 is part of a last handful of Wii U exclusives to get a remaster, this month landing on Switch, PS4 and PC thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign from creator Platinum Games. It's game that presents many challenges in migrating away from home turf. To begin with, it's famously built with second screen play in mind - not an easy fit for today's consoles. Secondly, The Wonderful 101 pushes the Platinum engine hard. Although targeting 60fps, frame-rates could collapse on the Wii U original - and unfortunately, these issues are still a problem on Switch, with even base PlayStation 4 falling short at points.

The thing is, this is a special game, well worth the remastering treatment. Released in 2013, The Wonderful 101 offered one of the most inventive uses of the Wii U's GamePad with the player using the bespoke controller for dual-viewing of the play area and for touch controls. The set-up felt fresh too. The player is tasked with saving the Earth from an alien invasion, taking charge of a bunch of heroes from The Wonderful 101, initially Wonder Red and Blue. Shapes are drawn on-screen via touch (or the right analogue stick) to change abilities. As the game progresses, more heroes enter the fray until you're in command of a huge cluster of characters with a range of different abilities, taking on ever larger and more dangerous foes. There's a brilliant comic-book style to the action, taking cues from cult classic Viewtiful Joe - and visually at least it translates wonderfully to Switch and PS4.

Before we start on comparisons, it's worth stressing the original host platform - Wii U - was something of a technical curiosity for its era. While its CPU couldn't match up to Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, its AMD GPU design was more more modern and in theory, more performant. The Wonderful 101 targeted native 720p, but so often fell beneath - but it wasn't clear whether CPU, GPU (or indeed both in concert) contributed to its highly variable performance. Switch delivers the expected upgrade, remaining at 720p in portable mode, while running natively at 1080p docked. The surprise is that both PlayStation 4 and PS4 Pro also operate at the same native 1080p figure, with no added enhancements on Pro. Visual features are a match for Wii U all round, though the bump in resolution delivers additional clarity, while PlayStation 4 machines enjoys a pass of anti-aliasing absent on Switch.

Platinum Games' engine isn't exactly renowned for scalability when running on PC. Resolution can exceed console limits and we've successfully run the game at native 4K, with ultra-wide resolutions also supported (albeit with a stretched HUD). However, there are only three general quality presets - low, medium and high - and nothing more granular. In the grand scheme of things, all consoles are essentially running 'maxed out' here on the high setting. HDR and v-sync are the only other selectables of note, while anti-aliasing is forced on by default. Those with high refresh rate displays are likely to be disappointed: The Wonderful 101 tops out at 60 frames per second, even with v-sync disabled.

Cover image for YouTube videoThe Wonderful 101 Remaster: Switch/PC/PS4 Tested - An Upgrade Over Wii U?
The complete Digital Foundry video breakdown for The Wonderful 101's PC, PS4 and Switch ports.

There's no getting away from it: performance is disappointing even in this remaster. 60fps remains the target on every console, but in 2013 this game just couldn't do it on Nintendo's last-gen spec. 30fps to 60fps was the general range, and so often through those first few missions frame-rates languish at 40fps for long stretches, with cutscenes dipping to the 30 mark. Much later on in the game, performance drops lower still. Remarkably, thee Switch version shows little actual improvement while docked, and in cutscenes, performance is actually lower than the original Wii U game by 10fps to 12fps. There's the indication that 1080p is too high a target for Switch, and that complex areas with lots of draw calls are CPU-limited.

The gap between Wii U and Switch closes in gameplay at least, but the fact that performance is still an issue at all is disappointing. Meanwhile, the results in portable play at least improve on docked play by a margin of up to 5fps. The native output is a less demanding 720p, which helps boost the frame-rate in action with lots of transparencies - despite the huge drop in GPU core clock and memory bandwidth. It's telling that the game still hits the same 23fps low point as docked play during the top-down view of the city, which suggests that processing so much geometry triggers a CPU bottleneck - rather than GPU. Portable play is broadly in the same space performance-wise then, but expect moments to run a touch faster.

For a much smoother ride, the PS4 systems - and obviously PC - are the best bet. Looking at base PS4 the general turnout is much closer to the mark: 60fps most of the way with some fluctuations down to 50fps in more hectic battles. Again it's the build-up of heroes in your party towards the level's end that really hammers the machine - but overall it's very decently optimised around 1080p. The worst case scenario in the levels I tested saw a drop to 40fps territory, but thankfully this is short-lived. Later levels may prove similarly challenging though. The solution here is to power past GPU limitations with PS4 Pro; yes, the lack of any additional resolution is frustrating, but the action is mostly locked to 60fps in the areas we tested. It's quantifiably smoother, and it seems that pure GPU brute force is the means to get the job done, putting the Pro and PC in pole position.

Cover image for YouTube videoBayonetta on Switch: The Definitive Console Release?
Still not quite perfect, but Bayonetta and its sequel see the Platinum magic translate more effectively to Switch.

While the Wii U's performance challenges aren't fully addressed, Platinum does at least make an effort to refactor the dual-screen presentation to work on modern day machines. Originally, the Wii U GamePad gave vital information via a kind of radar, to show any straggling heroes in the area. It helped with the minuscule size of these characters and it became almost essential to interpreting the chaos of the action. On Switch, PC and PS4, you have two options as a substitute for that second display. You can now either have a picture-in-picture, layering that radar view wherever you like over the gameplay. Or, if you like, you can switch to a dual-view mode, where the two screens are side-by-side with black space above and below. Again there's some customisation here, letting you adjust how large each view is - but overall, having it overlaid in the corner makes the most sense.

In porting over The Wonderful 101's control scheme, different solutions are applied on each platform. On Switch, you have the capacitive touchscreen while played portable, which you can use to draw shapes with your fingertip, to swap hero abilities. Docked users have to use the right analogue stick meanwhile, which does take a little practise to get right. Meanwhile PS4 has the option of a trackpad at the centre of the DualShock 4, which you can use to make similar gestures. It's rare to see the trackpad used in any meaningful way this generation, and it makes sense on paper for The Wonderful 101 to use it. The functionality is there, but in practise I found it too sensitive to trigger the right commands time after time. Ultimately I ended up using the right analogue stick for all three versions - but at least console users have options. As for PC, though keyboard and mouse support could have been more refined. You get WASD for movement, while mouse motions allow you to arrange your heroes into a formation for new abilities. It makes sense; but in our experience it was a struggle to get this mouse support working properly on our setup, where thankfully a regular controller could stand in.

As a remaster package, what we have here is a successful enough translation of the original game. Extras are bundled as per the kickstarter stretch goals - two extra missions starring Luka in a side-scrolling style, and a remixed soundtrack. And ultimately, despite some misgivings in performance, I think the remaster effort has been worth the long wait. The controls translate across to the other systems as well as could have been expected, while thanks to the PC version, we now have a rendition of the game that can be played on an open platform for years to come. It's a shame that Xbox One support isn't forthcoming (though the Kickstarter FAQ keeps the door open there) and it's clear that performance is still a sticking point, notably on Switch. Still, the big success here is that The Wonderful 101 is no longer locked to the long-abandoned Wii U format, and even with its issues, it now has a better chance to get the attention it deserves.