When I first got a WiiU, one of the games I was most anticipating playing was The Wonderful 101. I watched the Nintendo Directs and read up on everything I could find about the game. When it was finally released, I was saddened both to see the poor sales figures since I was hyped and wanted others to be hyped as well, and because I wasn’t able to pick up a copy due to limited funds. Finally though, in late November, my wife gave it to me as my birthday gift. I immediately started playing it, which is testament to how excited I was to have it (if you’ve been reading about my backlog, you’ll know this rarely happens).
You are Wonder-Red…and Wonder-Blue…and Wonder-Yellow and Wonder-Pink and Wonder-Clown and, well, a whole lot of other heroes…and temporary hero-ized citizens. You’ll control them all as a group, swapping out leaders fairly regularly. All of your heroes are actually ordinary citizens that Wonderize in order to defend the Earth from the brilliantly named GEATHJERK (Guild of Evil Aliens Terrorizing Humans with Jiggawatt bombs, Energy beams, Ray guns, and Killer lasers). I don’t care who you are, you have to get a kick out of that name.
The story to this game is really something else. At varying times it’s serious, tragic, and hysterical. That doesn’t sound as if it would be a range of emotions that would blend, but the writers do well in making it work. The narrative is told through numerous cut scenes will full voice acting, and can be further studied by reading the secret files you can find during gameplay. Speaking of the voice acting, it is very strong here and features many veteran video game voice actors (Batman: Arkham City, Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, etc…). As you work your way through the operations and missions the game throws at you, you’ll uncover more information and even have a couple of minor twists. None of these are anything groundbreaking, but do shake up the plot a bit. I must also say that the dialog is generally very funny in an absurd sort of way. This game may look like it’s for kids, but much of the dialog is aimed at adults.
At the beginning of The Wonderful 101, the Earth has already been attacked by the GEATHJERK twice in the past, and both times defended by the Wonderful Ones, citizens that gain super powers via a Wonder-Mask and Amulet. It has been 20 years since the last attack, but that all changes while you, as Wonder-Red (but in your guise as a teacher) are on a field trip with your students. The game places you right into the fray as you must rescue the children you’re accompanying, then advance along the group of buses as the aliens bombard you. After a few small battles, Wonder-Blue joins up with you. Besides setting the story up, this level also serves as a tutorial to the controls of the game. Once the the mission with the buses is complete, you’ll be whisked away on the Virgin Victory to be briefed by Commander Nelson. It’s at this point that you’ll truly begin the meat of the game.
Wow…I’m not completely sure how to describe this game. At it’s heart, it is an action game, so we’ll start there. As I said above, you control a group of heroes. They’ll all stay grouped together and move as one unit (though you can have some of them individually attack enemies). Your method of attacking is via the Unite Morph. This is a morph in which those in your group will form a weapon of some form, ranging from a fist to a sword to a whip (personal favorite) among other things. The more people on your team, the larger your morphs, meaning the more damage they do.
The morphs are initiated by drawing the shape either with the right analog stick or on the gamepad itself. For instance, to attack with a sword, you draw a straight line, the whip is a curvy line, the claws a zig-zag, etc…While having your primary morph, you can also draw another shape and press X, which will form the weapon and auto-attack for a few seconds. This mechanic works fairly well, but there are times that you will be trying to draw one morph and have the game interpret it as another. This usually isn’t a big deal, but during timed events, can trip you up.
There are seven primary morphs to attack with and your current leader depends on the morph you last drew. This is actually an important aspect of the game as you can unlock more combo moves for each morph by using it more often. Also, you will level up your heroes, adding vitality to your gauge. As an aside, you can swap out the primary color coded heroes with the lesser ones that join you along the way. Each has one of the seven morphs and will level up faster this way. In addition to the attack morphs, you can purchase others in the Wonder-Mart. These are varied, but some are almost a must. I can’t imagine even attempting more than a couple of missions without Unite Guts, which makes your group into a blob that can repel quite a few attacks and stun the enemy by doing so.
Okay, so the bulk of the gameplay has you moving through a given area in a rather linear manner (though it pays to explore a bit to find some secrets and new characters) and engaging the enemy as they appear. Enemies escalate in difficulty as your progress, but it’s more than just them having more life or packing more of a punch. For many enemies, you need a specific strategy to harm them. As an example, an enemy that is covered in blue spikes will hurt you upon attacking it if you don’t first use the whip to remove the spikes. This is a lesson you learn early on. Another enemy will shell itself up and require you to use the claws to pull it open so you can continue attacking it. This is a clever mechanic, but can sometimes grow tiresome after fighting the same enemy with the same strategy for the third time in one Mission.While that is how you will play most of the game, there are times that other gameplay types will be utilized. After just a few missions, you will have to take control of the Virgin Victory and steer it through the city while blasting the enemy you’re chasing. You will also have a few areas that are more akin to an R-Type or Gradius game. To avoid spoilers, I won’t reveal the biggest surprise (in my opinion), but at one point, you engage an enemy in a manner that is clearly a shout out to an NES classic, right down to the enemy animations during the battle.
I have mixed feelings on the change-up of play styles. On one hand, I appreciate that Platinum varied the game to keep interest high and avoid tedium, but on the other, it was jarring to be thrown into something and have to adapt to completely new controls. I would find myself getting frustrated at this because the game doesn’t let up on you in these sections. This is a hard game, which is fine during the regular missions, but frustrating when trying to learn new controls without dying (on an unrelated note, I died a lot).
That leads me to what is the biggest strength and biggest weakness of this game. It is unlike anything you have ever played before, which means that you will have to really commit yourself to the game to get everything out of it. Now, that’s generally a positive thing and I have no issues with a game making me work. The weakness here is that the game doesn’t always give you enough information to be able to get everything out of it. Example: On the results screen, there is a line for enemy recruits. Now, during a couple of sections of the game, you can pick up a device that brings any regular enemies on screen to your side. My assumption was that this was the only way to make them join you. It wasn’t until after I had finished the game that I learned that if you draw a circle around a dying enemy emitting a purple light, it would save them and they would join you. I literally completed the entire game without knowing this. I’ve played through some operations since and had many of them join me. Why wasn’t this explained at some point? This was also the case with not knowing that my team could pick up most dazed enemies and throw them for massive damage (you don’t even have to strike their weak point :D ) by drawing a circle around them. This is explained nowhere in the game and these are only two examples of this happening. I actually learned most of this by watching YouTube videos, which I sought out because I just felt I was missing something, and, as it turns out, I was.
In many ways, The Wonderful 101 is a throw back to the challenge of NES games in a number of ways. Firstly, as I stated above, it is a very difficult game and doesn’t baby you. But, making it even more like NES games, it’s often full of trial and error moments. I recall one section where I died nearly eight times, all in quick succession, because I literally had no clue what the game wanted me to do to advance. As it turned out, I had to Unite Gun and shoot at a large rock, but that wasn’t very obvious and I only figured it out because I was randomly attempting actions in an effort to move on. This happens quite often and can be jarring when you’re trying to finish a mission.
So, with all of those complaints, you have to think I hate this game, right?. Actually, no. I loved it. Sure, it has its flaws, but when you finally master those areas that were frustrating you, it’s a pure joy. I had a blast with it. For every frustrating part of this game, there are a dozen that are enormously entertaining.
Like I said at the beginning of this blog, you have never played a game like this before, and that will turn some people off. For far too many people, it’s just not reasonable to ask them to learn how to play a new game. Too many expect games to fall into existing genres that they already have experience with. After having played it, I can see why this game sold so poorly. It has a high barrier of entry and isn’t easily marketed. I’ve completed the game and still have trouble describing it to people. I don’t even think I’ve done it justice in this blog post, but it truly is one of those games you simply have to experience to know if you’ll enjoy it or not.
Oddly enough, The Wonderful 101 is almost a micro-cosm of the problem with selling the WiiU. It’s the experience that sells it (well, and quality games, but that’s another post), not words or ads. My bottom line is that you need to commit yourself to this game. You will get frustrated from time to time, but if you stick with The Wonderful 101, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most enjoyable and unique games to come out in a long, long time.