The Wonderful 101 isn’t a very good communicator. The game is the product of Hieki Kamiya, who has a history with Nintendo. His GameCube title Viewtiful Joe was a highlight of that console. And like that memorable title, The Wonderful 101 is every bit as loud and full of color and light. Unfortunately, it’s also far more confusing.
Like a kid who just got home from a monster truck rally after eating a family size box of Milk Duds, The Wonderful 101 is cute as hell, but equally incoherent in its rambling. There’s a signal inside the noise, though. Once you sift through the game’s frantic overstimulation and art to find the flow of action within, it’s possible to have a great time – just not one that’s going to make much of an impact.
The most wonderful U.N. Task Force around
In the future, Earth is a pretty nice place. Cities have become lush sprawls dominated by baby blue skyscrapers, elevated speedways, and vibrant park spaces. Sort of like a cross between The Jetsons and F-Zero. It’s not quite as peaceful as it looks though.
If the relationship between a game and the gamer is a dialogue, The Wonderful 101 is both fascinating and incomprehensible.
A coalition of alien races bent on invading the planet keep mucking the place up. G.E.A.T.H.J.E.R.K. – the Guild of Evil Aliens Terrorizing Humans with Jiggawatt bombs, Energy beams, Rayguns, and Killer laser – and its army of cyborg freaks are so dangerous that a special defense force has been created to tackle it. The Wonderful 100 (the extra 1 in the title is a winking reference to the player) are an international force of heroes tasked with protecting individual regions and teaming up to take on the biggest, baddest enemies.
At the beginning of the game, you’re put in control of Wonder Red, a schoolteacher with a tortured past connected to the Wonderful 100. The game follows Red on his first large-scale operation leading the combined forces of the squad. He, as well as his teammates like cocky pretty boy Wonder Blue and Transylvanian diva Wonder Pink, specialize in unique skills that combine all the members of a squad into giant weapons or tools. Wonder Pink, for example, can turn the hundred-person team into a giant, thorny whip, good for tearing the armor of GEATHJERK tanks. Wonder Green turns the team into a superhero-firing gun for long range attacks.
In theory, the setup is genius. The wonderful ones’ powers make for some versatile brawling against giant enemy hordes. Developer Platinum Games’ (Bayonetta, Metal Gear Rising) penchant for crazy stories and precision video game fighting should make these transformational antics a home run. But while the Wonderful 100’s fighting style sounds great in the abstract, using those skills on the fly can be woefully difficult.
Land of Confusion
Here’s how the player actually does all these wonderful things: On the field, you view the team in miniature from above. Team leaders like Wonderful Red gather up new fighters in the stages, both random citizens with temporary powers and Wonderful soldiers who don’t have special skills, but permanently increase the size of your team. The team follows the leader when you’re jumping over crumbling highways, but they can also be directed with the right thumb stick. By drawing shapes on the Wii U GamePad’s touchscreen, the Wonderful team powers can be activated. Drawing a circle activates Wonderful Red’s giant fist, a straight line Wonder Blue’s sword, and more. The larger the shape you draw, the bigger the weapon; the bigger the weapon, the better the damage.
When just fighting, these options create a wholly unique rhythm. Unlike the standard combo-driven fisticuffs in almost all 3D action games including Kamiya’s own Devil May Cry (light attack, light attack, heavy attack, etc.), Wonderful 101 lets you do many things at one. Draw a straight line, then tap X and your little heroes will turn into a sword, swinging away independent of the main squad, while you fire Wonder Green’s gun from afar. The strategic options are exciting, but the presentation regularly gets in the way of enjoying them.
Sometimes the camera is situated too far away to see how the bubble-headed robots are attacking. Other times, the camera’s pinned in a position where you have no idea where to go next to progress the stage. In one of the very first stages of the game, you have to hang glide across a gulf between three skyscrapers, but there are almost no visual cues to tell you where to go.
The camera and environment are only part of the problem. The game doesn’t even clue you in when certain skills are essential. Blocking, for example, is vital for knocking down enemies and leaving them open to attacks, but you have to actually buy the block ability from the store in the menu between stages. Even when you have the block skill in place, the screen is so crowded it’s often hard to see when an enemy’s throwing an attack that should be blocked.
Tongue tied, but charming
The Wonderful 101 is constantly throwing in confusing side activities as well. Bombastic monorail chases, running over crumbling surfaces, even reviving dead gardens Okami-style; the variety is welcome but hampered by presentation problems. For example, one early irritant is the baseball stadium. Occasionally, the Wonderful team has to go inside a building, and the action shifts to the Wii U GamePad’s screen. In a cramped foyer at the stadium, you have to figure out how to open a locked door. It’s a token attempt at using the Wii U’s two-screen set up. On the television you’ll see a giant baseball diamond surrounded by flashing lights, and on the controller you have a view of the foyer where you have to shoot a giant baseball. Problem is, the camera view on the controller is moved by the gyroscope so it’s hard to even see where this baseball is, let alone figure out what you’re supposed to do with it. The game doesn’t need to spell out how to solve a puzzle, but it does need to communicate clearly that a puzzle needs to be solved.
Once the puzzle is solved though, you have a fight that encapsulates everything that works about the game. A giant purple GEATHJERK general is sitting on top of an enormous canon in the middle of the diamond, and you have to pick up the bombs he fires and shoot them back. There’s one task to do, and slinging around the Wonderful ones to pick up cannon balls and fend off other little bots trying to get in your way can be blissful. And it all happens in such a weird, colorful place. It’s like you get to flood Fenway with Power Rangers, only not just the popular rangers, but the weird ones. The Wonderful 101 has a silly, fun heart but it’s too difficult to reach.
Video games are different from other art forms precisely because they’re a dialogue. A movie or symphony can speak to you, but you don’t get to speak back. By picking up a controller and playing, conversation takes place between player and game. A game only works as well as it can speak to the player, and The Wonderful 101 just doesn’t speak clearly enough. It’s fun, strange, and often beautiful, but it’s also more flawed than any other game directed by Hideki Kamiya. Platinum Games’ heroics are welcome on Wii U, but it’s hard not to wish for a hero with a clearer voice.
This game was played on a Wii U using a copy provided by Nintendo.
- Wonderful 100 shapes make for a fine twist on video game brawling.
- Beautiful cartoon world.
- Hilarious array of side characters.
- Poorly defined goals.
- Crowded screen makes combat confusing.
- Terrible gyroscope controls in some sections.