The Wonderful 101 review
Give it a big hand!
What a title - and The Wonderful 101 knows it. Every loading screen displays the logo prominently, and each time a different member of the voice cast gives it their all: "The Woonnnnderrfullll ONE-OH-ONE!" The first time the game loads, the attract screen talks of the Wonderful One Hundred, before it flips around and flashes an irresistibly cheesy grin: "I knew we forgot someone... YOU!"
Platinum Games' Wii U debut is a thrilling game, the kind that has so much energy and variety it can leave you open-mouthed. In style, it's a love letter to classic children's television. The presiding spirits are shows from Britain and Japan: Captain Scarlet, Thunderbirds, and of course those Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers.
These shows aren't bad, but that they're the kind you look back on with amusement; to an adult's eye, the wires and costumes and tight budgets are all too obvious. This feels like the driving impulse behind The Wonderful 101, which fetishises every aspect of its inspiration. It is, on the one hand, about superhuman feats of derring-do in OTT settings, and then it is also a story full of daft names, running gags and deliberately overlong explanations of how fantasy technology works. Is there a meta-theme here - the Wii U exclusive thumbing its nose at the slick entertainments of the next generation while flying by on wires, looking fabulous? You'd like to think so.
The main play in The Wonderful 101 comes through its combat system, which showcases Platinum's strengths as well as a key weakness of the Wii U hardware. Everything ties into the gamepad's touchscreen, and it works 90% of the time. You control a variously-sized group of Wonderful Ones that move around in a loose circle, and you fight against the chunky Geathjerk aliens by forming your team into shapes: draw a circle to form a fist, a vertical line for a sword, a sideways L for a gun and so on. Time slows down while you're drawing on the gamepad and when you click A to confirm the shape, it zooms right back into the action - and if you're executing correctly, both weapons can be on-screen at once. All of this ties into a power bar composed of batteries, which recharges fast. When it's empty, you're temporarily defenceless.
Morphing is The Wonderful 101's killer move, and it's nearly brilliant. What lets it down is the touchscreen, which is fine with a stylus but - let's be practical here - you can't comfortably play The Wonderful 101, which uses every button the gamepad's got, while holding one. The least inconvenient option ends up being your index finger. The gamepad's almost up to it, but not quite, confusing weapons like the whip and claw and often losing your attempted shape halfway through. As the number of weapons increase and you start switching between them mid-combo, this gets frustrating.
Platinum has, at least, built in several failsafes. The first is the ability to draw with the right thumbstick, which is particularly useful for triggering level elements but doesn't quite have the precision you want in the heat of battle. Another is found in several of the custom parts you can buy and equip, which mitigate aspects of the fighting system - allowing you to slow time after a dodge à la Bayonetta, for example, which I found incredibly useful for starting combos. But this game fundamentally depends on fluid weapon-switching and so, despite the fixes and tweaks, the lid never quite fits perfectly.
This is a third-person combat game unlike anything the masters of the form at Platinum, or anyone else for that matter, have made before
This is no reason to give up on the Wonderful Ones - not least because this is a third-person combat game unlike anything the masters of the form at Platinum, or anyone else for that matter, have made before.
Your grouping of Wonderful Ones gets bigger throughout each level as you encircle and temporarily deputise civilians, and the whole lot follows the leader, who changes as you switch weapons. Weapon attacks are on the A button, and work alongside a permanent core moveset; pressing Y pulls the whole group into a tight circle to avoid damage and dash forwards, while X sends a bouncy line of Wonderful Ones shooting straight ahead, who will then latch onto and attack anything they hit, like Pikmin. L performs 'Unite Guts' which turns the group into a jelly that bounces back enemy moves, while R is a dodge in the form of a spring. Later, you'll be able to turn into a rocket and blast off, then morph into a tombstone to slam down on enemies. Soon your little group is constantly switching from shape to shape.
It's much more streamlined than something like Metal Gear Rising, but it operates on similar principles of large and small cues, remaining a stern taskmaster. One unusual factor is how you take damage; only the leader of the group getting hit affects the health bar, but any Wonderful Ones hit are sent flying, stunned. They'll return of their own volition eventually, but can be touched for an instant revive. This is key because they're not just a defensive cushion; the size of your shapes depends on how many heroes there are.
It takes a while to master this style of movement and morphing, but in action it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in games. The Wonderful Ones clack together into brightly-coloured swords, whips, guns, fists, bombs, claws, and hammers, with a single hero hefting these gigantic weapons around. There's never been anything quite like this, and there's no better example of it than the fights between Wonder Red and Prince Vorkken, his alien doppelgänger.
In the best tradition of director Hideki Kamiya's games, Vorkken has all of your moves plus a few extra, and the many fights you have against him are simply sensational: two small groups crashing giant fists against each other, switching between swords and whips and bazookas, before a good strike hits and sends one side scattering, which quickly gathers itself for another go. These battles are magnificent: intense, surprising, challenging, and eye-popping in action.
The more usual Geathjerk aliens are a diverse bunch, ranging from the tiny bobble-headed goons you knock about in the loading screen to gargantuan death-machines larger than several screens. Huge robots, flying saucers, giant scorpions, shield-wielding T-rexes, armoured turtles and a few re-skinned Bayonetta enemies pile on in ever-increasing numbers. The way they work together is ingenious and capable of clever responses to your tactics, not merely predicting the player, but countering back. That kind of thing only comes from designers with this level of experience.
The meat of The Wonderful 101 is the combat, but there's a huge range of one-off sequences outside of this. There are shoot-'em-up sections channelling Kamiya's beloved Space Harrier, Punch-Out boss fights, a delightfully tactile side-scrolling maze reminiscent of Dig Dug and so many more. I said at the start that this is an exciting game, and it really does get your blood pumping; one mission ends with you piloting a giant mech, having a fistfight with another robot, and then air-surfing out of the exploding volcano on a spaceship as your doomed opponent gives chase.
A lot of it's in the music, too; it's time to recognise that Platinum simply does the best gaming soundtracks around. The Wonderful 101's main theme, with lyrics by Kamiya himself, combines a childish glee in heroism with an irresistible male chorus line chanting of derring-do. The 'heroic' theme, which plays during climactic moments, makes you want to take off into space and punch a planet.
For eight-year-olds, this might be one of the best games ever made. That's why it's so disappointing that Platinum has included content that isn't suitable for children, and ended up with a 12 rating.
Most female characters are introduced with ass and boob shots, which I can just about get over - with these character models, such assets are basically triangles anyway. There are sub-surface sexual tensions, too, particularly with the 101's base, the Virgin Victory, and its pilot Alice, but these will arguably sail over the heads of children. The mind-boggling inclusion is a female boss whom the Wonderful 101 refer to as a 'cougar' and who makes several jokes about the size of Wonder Blue's penis.
I'm not the morality police, so take this as you will; that boss is such a minor part of the overall experience, and yet it ruins the gleeful innocence of a game that would otherwise be perfect for children. I would love to pass The Wondeful 101 on to my eight-year-old nephew, but I don't want him asking his mum what a cougar is. This is not edgy, or clever, or cool. It is Platinum cutting off its nose to spite its face for a joke that isn't even funny.
This is a joyous game, with more imagination in each level than most games muster in their entirety
But despite some missteps, this is a joyous game, with more imagination in each level than most games muster in their entirety. I remember piloting a mech and having to use the touchscreen to trigger a super-laser, then looking down; the gamepad's display showed the Wonderful Ones in the cockpit, hammering buttons. There are many more moments like this, but why spoil them?
The Wonderful 101 has issues, especially with the gamepad, but it's also a beautifully engineered, original idea that looks gorgeous in motion. It's gigantic, too, with my first campaign run clocking in at 15 hours. Beyond that lie Hard difficulty, a long series of Wonderful Missions dedicated to the combat system, and such a depth of unlocks that I've barely scratched the surface.
The Wonderful 101 makes you feel nostalgia, not so much for the TV shows or games it references as for memories of waking up at 7am on the weekends to watch shows and spending the rest of the day acting out the heroics. That's why the occasional intrusion of an adult tone is so discordant. This is a love letter to childhood innocence, to that age where truth and justice and awesome costumes seem almost real, as well as the coolest things in the world. In that light, picking at it seems churlish, because The Wonderful 101 doesn't make you feel like a hero; it makes you feel like hundreds.