At first glance, The Wonderful 101 looks like nothing more than a flurry of bright colors frantically clashing against each other until everything explodes. In fact, that’s exactly how it feels to play the game at first. But as you put more time into it, the game’s many intricacies begin to surface, and what once seemed random and hectic becomes orderly and manageable.
What Is It?
Earth has been invaded by the Guild of Evil Aliens Terrorizing Humans with Jiggawatt bombs, Energy beams, Ray guns, and Killer lasers, or GEATHJERK for short, and it’s up to the Wonderful 100 to stop them by joining hands in a line and transforming into various mechanisms of destruction.
The story is as ridiculous as it sounds, but it serves to provide a constant stream of opportunities for crazy, fun scenarios, which are primarily played out in the form of a combo-based beat-em-up, a la Bayonetta or Devil May Cry. The Wonderful 101 is even more fast-paced and hectic than those games, however, because you control up to (and sometimes more than) 100 characters at once. You have direct control over one of these characters, and the others follow in a mass of colorful bodies and act as an extension of the leader.
Instead of stringing together attacks by hammering buttons in a certain order, like in other games in the genre, you use the gamepad’s touch screen to physically draw the next attack using your mass of Wonderful Ones as the line. The shape of the drawing determines the type of attack (i.e. a circle for a fist, a straight line for a sword, an L for a gun, etc.), and the size of the shape determines the strength of the attack.
The primary combat mechanic is to use these Unite Morphs to exploit the enemies’ various weaknesses and combo them together for maximum carnage in the shortest amount of time. You’re rewarded with medals for each smaller area throughout a larger mission, then ranked at the end based on an aggregate score.
Why Should I Care?
The implementation of the touch screen during fast-paced combat adds a physical intensity that a normal controller can’t emulate. It’s not like a motion control game that requires full arm gestures, but the act of trying to draw shapes accurately and quickly while still pressing buttons and moving your character around requires much more physical dexterity than pressing buttons alone.
If you’re not dexterous at first, you’ll need to work on it to be good at The Wonderful 101. In addition to drawing a Unite Morph then hammering the A button to use it, you can draw up to four additional Team Morphs at a time to automatically attack the target for a few seconds by drawing a shape and pressing the X button. The window of opportunity to attack at full force is usually pretty small, so you’ll have to draw like a madman to take full advantage of it.
As you progress through the story mode, more Unite Morphs become available. They all have specific uses, such as the claw’s ability to pry open doors and the whip’s ability to remove spiked plating from enemies or other surfaces, but they’re all effective as regular attacks as well. Learning the weaknesses of the enemies is a major facet of the gameplay, so all of the attacks are worth using throughout the course of the game. You won’t be relying on one or two to defeat every enemy.
Drawing some of the attacks can be frustrating at first, especially since you’re always being asked to draw them so quickly, even though the action slows down as soon as you touch the GamePad screen. But after awhile, drawing the shapes becomes second nature, to the point that you don’t even need to look down at the gamepad screen to do exactly what you want.
This kind of effort and time commitment from the player in service of mastery feels like an old-school approach to game design, which isn’t surprising in a game from Platinum Games, the same minds behind games like Viewtiful Joe and Bayonetta. It’s refreshing, if a bit jarring at times. The game teaches you the basics every time a new gameplay element shows up, but it doesn’t show you the nuances as they come up. This can lead to some frustrating moments as you’re given one or two seconds to figure out how to avoid an attack, for example. But in a game focused so much on replayability, this only becomes an issue on the first try.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
There’s more depth of content in The Wonderful 101 than I could possibly delineate in a review. The many boss fights are sprawling and fantastic, each going on for twenty minutes or more, changing dramatically several times within each fight. One particular boss fight features a spot-on replica of a classic NES game, though it’s about as hard as the final boss in that game. Another section of a level plays out similarly to the speeder bike level in Battletoads, and you even control a small space ship in a bullet-hell shooter level.
But most of the game plays out as a beat-em-up, and much of the fun is in discovering how to play such a unique take on the genre and how to get better at it. Some of it just takes time because it relies on a kind of muscle memory that we’ve never applied to games before. If you’re looking for a quick thrill that leaves you satisfied after the credits, then don’t even think about playing this game; you’ll just be left disappointed.
In fact, playing through Story Mode on Normal difficulty feels like training for the real game. The whacky story and crazy action sequences are enough to propel you forward, but all the while, the game makes you feel like you’re always coming up short. This game is difficult, but not in a punishing way. Losing all of your health will take you back to a very generous checkpoint, sometimes not losing any progress at all, even against the health bar of a boss. But each death lowers your ranking for that mission. Thus, I received the lowest ranking possible on about half the missions on my first playthrough.
But by the end, I felt so comfortable with the gameplay that I couldn’t wait to go back to the earlier missions with all of my new Unite Morphs to dominate the enemies that I had failed so miserably against the first time. And after that, the game offers a Hard Mode that doesn’t rely on cheap tricks to up the challenge. The enemies have the same qualities as any of the other difficulty settings, but there are more of them, and the more difficult enemies from later in the game even appear in the first mission on Hard.
In addition to rankings for each missions, there are 101 achievements that unlock new characters with altered versions of regular attacks (such as an ice whip or multiple guns), 118 figurines to collect throughout the levels, text files that give background to the world, hidden arena missions to be found in each level, and extra abilities to be bought in the store with in-game currency. On top of that, each of the 100 Wonderful Ones can be leveled up individually, which grants a small health bonus for each one that reaches max level.
One playthrough of the Story Mode alone took me about 20 hours to complete, and that was just barely scratching the surface. There are six Wonderful Missions to complete as well, which can be played with up to five friends locally. I wasn’t able to try the multiplayer mode, but it’s a nice feature to include, even though it seems like it would be insanely hectic and hard to follow.
The Wonderful 101 is a game to savor, to peel away the layers of complexity until you feel comfortable, then keep peeling until you get good, then peel some more. The process can be frustrating and even infuriating at first, but the satisfaction of seeing your progress is totally worth it.