That's not Masked Rider, Beetleborgs, Ultraman or the Power Rangers, it's The Wonderful 101! Platinum Games, known for MadWorld, Bayonetta, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and Anarchy Reigns, has released The Wonderful 101 to help put the Wii U on the map. The Wonderful 101 hopes to reel in customers in an area where the Wii U has been relatively lacking: console exclusives. While the catalog has been steadily improving, the Wii U still lacks the oomph Nintendo needs in order to formally compete with Microsoft and Sony. Will The Wonderful 101 be the superhero party to save the day for Nintendo?
The Wonderful 101 puts you in command of the Wonderful 100 (with you, the player, being #101), as the world is being invaded by the Guild of Evil Aliens Terrorising Humans with Jiggawatt bombs, Energy beams, Ray guns and Killer lasers (or Geathjerk for short). You control a large platoon of superheroes fighting as a single, cohesive unit in order to combat Geathjerk's alien hordes. These enemies range from cronies and tanks to large, Godzilla-sized creatures. 101's larger enemies are very much reminiscent of the colossal villains of the Power Ranger franchise. Your heroes have the ability to Unite Morph, which clusters a large number of your posse into massive weapons for your selected hero to wield. These weapons have an obvious Green Lantern influence to them due to the variety and magnitude the Unite Morphs have along with each weapon's usefulness. With the world on the line, can we count on the 101?
Coinciding with their Mighty Morphin' influences, each key member of the Wonderful 100 has distinct qualities matching archetypes of Japanese super squads. Wonder Pink is a short-tempered gymnast, Wonder Yellow is a bashful and large Russian man and Wonder Black is the young computer genius/addicted gamer. Of course, there are baddies who look and fight similarly to the Wonderful 100 sent by Geathjerk who eventually join your cause. Platinum Games originally intended The Wonderful 101 to consist of groups of Nintendo first-party characters. Obviously, this fell concept fell through, but its premise and influence still remain. Each main Wonder character allows the group to morph into a different weapon depending on the player's choosing. And Unite Morphing is a fundamental component of The Wonderful 101's gameplay.
At first glance, the gameplay screen of The Wonderful 101 is reminiscent of Pikmin. You have lots of little characters surrounding a lead character who all move as a collective unit. As expected, you can jump, dash, dodge and block similar to third person action titles. The inclusion of Unite Morph is where 101's gameplay becomes both intricate and hectic. In order to activate a Unite Morph, you must draw the symbol of the weapon/morph you desire onto the GamePad (alternatively, you can draw the symbol with the right analog stick). Forming a straight line will create the Unite Sword, a circle makes the Unite Fist, a rudimentary gun shape forms the Unite Gun and an S shape changes your group into the Unite Whip. The resulting effect is you have about eight or nine large weapons to use in eliminating the Geathjerk threat.
As interesting as they sound, the controls of The Wonderful 101 are actually extremely hit or miss. Once you reach the more complex shapes (not that a triangle or S should be considered complex), you will find certain Unite Morphs tend to be misinterpreted by the GamePad for other, unintended shapes. Nevertheless, The Wonderful 101 rewards you for mastering its combat system as you start chaining together various weapon attacks.
One thing The Wonderful 101 encourages is experimentation, and Platinum does not hold your hand through the process You will find yourself encountering new enemies who will continuously beat on you until you figure out their attack patterns and get out the right weapon for the job. Unfortunately, this resulted in the first quarter of the game being extremely frustrating in measuring the effectiveness of each Unite Morph against each aberrant enemy. This is exacerbated by the iffy GamePad's twitchy recognition system.
Nintendo has made a habit out of downshifting console graphics in order to prioritize innovative gameplay, and The Wonderful 101's visuals reflect this process. 101 does not attempt to redline the Wii U's capabilities. Instead, Platinum Games has implemented a unique approach to the colors of the character models, morphed weapons and backgrounds where everything seems to pop out to the viewer. This takes your attention away from the simple models and puts the focus on the aesthetics and colors. Unfortunately, many of the enemy models repeat a bit too much, but it's really a drawback you can overlook. A major saving grace to 101's graphics (and gameplay) were the inclusion of skyscraper-sized boss battles which were visually captivating. Unfortunately, the small size of your characters made it that much harder to pick particular ones out of the group for you to use.
On top of this unique phalanx of Super Sentai characters is a distinct level of charm interwoven through The Wonderful 101's storyline and cutscenes. Platinum Games does not attempt to hide the fact that they are parodying tokusatsu television shows and superhero canon. Instead, they undermine your expectations and make farces aimed directly at the player. For example, during the introduction of Wonder Blue (the egotistical braggart of the group), he floats in midair as the narrator rambles on about Blue's awesomeness. This explanation is given in the middle of an action-packed cutscene just as Blue comes in to save the inexperienced Wonder Red (the main protagonist). Blue continues to perform heroic poses during his freeze frame in order to listen in on the narrator's comments. As the narrator goes on and on, Blue keeps turning away from his poses and looks at the screen, showing his impatience and narcissism. Even with their own Nick Fury-esque mission commander barking orders from the Wonderful 100's flying base of operations, Platinum Games tries to reverberate fun, knowing that their players are well-versed in superheroics.
For those with a newly-reduced price Wii U system hoping for something unique, The Wonderful 101 is for you. It borrows from many tried-and-true areas of entertainment and gaming. 101 boldly shows off the capabilities of the Wii U and has quite a few ingenious uses of the GamePad. At first, The Wonderful 101 seemed like a flamboyant beat 'em up with a steep learning curve. A few more hours in, and 101 turned out to be a creative, stylish and extremely fun experience. Unfortunately, the Wii U's GamePad encountered the occasional hiccup throughout the campaign, resulting in unintended weapons being formed in the midst of heated superfights. Given its aspirations, it's no surprise The Wonderful 101 has some shortcomings, particularly in its controls. But 101 vastly makes up for these detriments in terms of ingenuity, creativeness, flair and outright fun.
This review is based on a retail copy of The Wonderful 101 for the Wii U purchased for review.