Developer: Platinum Games | Publisher: Nintendo | Played On: Wii U | Price: $59.99 | ESRB: Teen [Alcohol Reference, Animated Blood, Fantasy Violence, Suggestive Themes]
I’m going to skip ahead to the important bit: If you have a Wii U, you should buy Wonderful 101.
The reasons are simple: it’s a great, fun game, with a long story campaign and lots of replay value. But, of course, this game is anything but simple. It’s brilliant but flawed in ways that are impossible to ignore. In fact, some of these flaws are so overt, so difficult to miss that I’m starting to think that the game’s lead designer, Hideki Kamiya, included them on purpose in an effort to troll gamers—but more on that later. Regardless of why they’re there, Wonderful 101is one of the most unique and continually fun experiences I’ve enjoyed in quite a while.
In Wonderful 101, players take control of an ever-growing mass of superheroes, who move and attack as one, combining their bodies to create powerful, gigantic weapons called “Unite Morphs.” By drawing different shapes on either the GamePad’s touchscreen or with the right analog stick, players can create different kinds of Unite Morphs ranging from fists to swords to hammers and bombs that slow down enemies. As new characters join your game, and thus open up more Unite Morph possibilities, you get new shapes to draw to incorporate them into your attack strategy.
It’s impressive how many different shapes and combinations players can choose from, though I was frustrated quite a few times when trying to draw one shape and the game thinking I’d drawn a different one. Because different enemy types are vulnerable to certain weapons, it’s key that you have the right tool for the right job.
Fortunately, when you start to draw a shape time slows down, providing some breathing room to get the shape right, and mitigating the damage from when you get the shape wrong. The mechanic is very strange at first, since drawing different shapes while in the heat of battle doesn’t feel natural at all. In fact, when I first started playing, I straight up hated it. That’s because the game does a poor job of giving tips and tutorials for dealing with what’s essentially a totally unique control system that’s never really been done before. I encountered the same kind of issues when I played Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, and we all know how that turned out.
But, unlike the nigh-impossible motion commands of Steel Battalion, I started getting the hang of switching Unite Morphs on the fly. As I got better at creating new weapons while commanding group attacks, my feelings about the game swung back the other way entirely.
Wonderful 101 is rewarding because it offers just enough information to get you started, leaving lots of discovery up to you. It’s not easy, but it’s satisfying to beat an enemy through experimentation, and trial and error. Simply exploring the world around me and trying new strategies against enemies made me feel like I was experiencing something brand new; kind of like when I’d first tried playing video games when I was a kid.
For replay-ability, beating the game on normal unlocks hard mode, and you’re scored on your performance at the end of each mission, meaning there’s always an incentive to go back and try to do better.
Interestingly, despite offering a totally unique gameplay mechanic, Wonderful 101’s story and style rely heavily on past cultural events. It’s sort of like if you took all of pop culture from the last 25 years or so, stuck it in a blender, and poured out the results, you’d be left with Wonderful 101.
The Wonderful One-Double-Oh is comprised of heroes from all over the world. Powered by Centinel Suits, which grant them strength and invulnerability, together they’re fighting back against the invading forces of GEATHJERK, or the “Guild of Evil Aliens Terrorizing Humans with Jiggawatt bombs, Energy beams, Ray guns, and Killer lasers.” What ensues is a completely insane adventure spanning the globe, the internal organs of an alien named Vorkken, and a robot made from buildings that houses the soul of a woman named Margarita.
It’s weird. But it’s great.
There are heavy influences of superhero stories: Power Rangers, Voltron, even the old Thunderbirds television show. The majority of the game tackles each new scene with a humorous, tongue-in-cheek attitude, and pulling off that rare feat of simultaneously making fun of the source material while reverently recreating and paying homage to it. The result is several moments of genuine comedy peppered into the excitement that comes with epic monster fights.
Pop-culture references include the aforementioned intellectual properties, as well as Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and more. But there are plenty of references dedicated to the excellent legacy of video games that inspired Wonderful 101, like extended shoot-em-up sequences, Star Fox-esque ship combat, and a few boxing boss fights ripped straight from Punch-Out.
Above all, though, one game—Treasure’s legendary Gunstar Heroes—stood out to me as a direct inspiration for Wonderful 101. While the two titles don’t play too similarly, they seem to share a spirit of playfulness and a deep, ridiculous backstory and universe that I rarely see in other games. I think Wonderful 101 could even be considered a “spiritual sequel” to Gunstar Heroes, and for that it’ll always hold a special place in my heart.
As for the game’s flaws, I’ve mentioned a few already—it’s lack of meaningful explanation to players and difficult-to-grasp gameplay mechanics, for instance. But there are some design decisions that are so completely baffling that they simply have to have been made to consciously piss off the player, a sort of in-joke that only the savviest of gamers will get—at least, that’s what I’m telling myself.
Most infuriatingly, there were several portions featuring characters talking to each other during in-game combat. While that may not seem like a big deal, no characters ever spoke without giant heads and text boxes taking up lots of valuable screen space, making it nearly impossible to play. There are also lots of extended platforming sections. Again, on their own, they shouldn’t be a big deal, but players control a mob of heroes at least 20-strong for the bulk of the entire game, with the commanding character lost in the middle of a mass of little bodies on the screen. That made landing jumps way trickier than it ever would’ve been in a regular platformer, leading to plenty of retries and do-overs (and cursing). Then there was the inordinate amount of repetition: of fights, of character animations, and jokes and one-liners.
Thankfully, these problems never detracted too much from the game experience to where I didn’t enjoy the bits that worked. Furthermore, the rest of the game was made with such care and attention to pitch-perfect parody and post-modern homage that I have a hard time believing the aforementioned flaws weren’t done in order to screw with players; I can definitely see the developers going that extra mile in parodying the most irritating conventions of other games. Even the game’s last mission/epilogue is something of an altered retread of the first mission, presented to players without a hint of explanation or context. I started wondering if I’d lost my mind.
Ultimately, whether intentional or not, Wonderful 101’s flaws should be overlooked—or possibly embraced as part of the joke—because of how amazing the rest of the game turns out to be. Where else will you pilot a giant mech riding a spaceship like a surfboard out of an erupting volcano? In what other game will you team up with a character named Wonder-Toilet, who’s not even half as weird as some of the other characters who appear down the line? What other game on the market today is like the Wonderful 101? None, and if you have a Wii U, you should get it, and challenge your preconceptions about what a video game can be.