Platform: Wii U
Developer: Platinum Games
Platinum Games are adored for their uninhibited approach to videogame development, but The Wonderful 101 goes above and beyond anything we've yet seen from the veteran Japanese studio. This is Platinum at their most creative and downright reckless, a violently colourful jumble of unconstrained gameplay concepts and bizarre ideas crammed onto Nintendo's ailing console. It's a hectic brawler, but instead of a single character, you'll simultaneously control an army of heroes in an amorphous mass, often by doodling shapes on the GamePad screen with a fingertip. Regular attacks go hand-in-hand with ridiculous morphing insanity as your entire team becomes a fist, hang-glider or even delicious pudding to suit the situation. Hideki Kamiya's latest project takes inspiration from Viewtiful Joe, Pikmin, Okami, Bayonetta, Power Rangers and Cannon Fodder, yet feels absolutely nothing like any of them.
In fact, there's never been anything remotely like The Wonderful 101, and as with any mad experiment there are plenty of kinks in the formula. Platinum threw so many gameplay elements and concepts at the Wii U that not all of them could possibly stick, while there will never be a camera capable of keeping this lunacy in-shot. At its worst, The Wonderful 101 is nothing less than total chaos.
Once you're skilled and savvy enough to bring a little order to this chaos, however, you'll discover one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences of the year.
The Wonderful 101 is Hideki Kamiya's love letter to the superhero movies and Power Rangers-style TV shows of our childhood. All that stands between Earth and an alien invasion is a masked team of unlikely superheroes from all walks of life, including a Kabuki actor, Patisserie owner, obese French sniper and whip-wielding pink spandex wearing German temptress amongst 96 others. The Wonderful One Double-Oh (for you the player are the 101st) may be a clichéd bunch, but snappy and self-aware writing turns what could have been hackneyed drivel into both a parody and homage, making you laugh out loud both at some terrific adult humour and the sheer absurdity of the situation.
As you'd expect from a semi-professional crew of costumed pastry chefs, singers, retail workers and janitors (led by a well-meaning rookie), they're useless alone. Even in a small group, or having roped in some citizens off the street to act as temporary reinforcements, they're only capable of some practically useless regular attacks as they thrash out in a single amoeba-like mass, with players controlling the whole team via a single leader lost in a gaggle of hangers-on. The ravening alien GETHJERK, meanwhile, field a jaw-droppingly insane fighting force of enemy troopers, flying saucers, assault vehicles and enormous mechs, not to mention bosses that dwarf even the tallest skyscrapers.
Standing alone, The Wonderful 100 are helpless against such an implacable foe. But united, they form a single character more powerful than practically any other videogame protagonist in history.
Drawing simple shapes on the GamePad touchscreen or right thumbstick allows your team to unite into gargantuan weapons or tools; characters morphing into a single object wielded by your leader. Sketching a circle transforms your followers into a colossal fist capable of smashing through obstacles or brutalising enemies with simple combos. A line becomes a Valiantium sword that scythes through massed GETHJERK ranks or deflects incoming lasers. An L-shape turns your followers into a gun or SNES Nintendo Scope 6 to deliver long-range pain.
On the defensive side of things, enemy attacks can be deflected by huddling together into a wobbly pudding, or evaded by morphing into a spring or ball. Each skill, whether it's a rocket, tombstone or whip, packs both offensive and environmental applications, allowing you to cleverly use your skillset to manipulate the levels and unlock hidden features. Bolstered by a Unite Build ability that lets you turn your Wonderful fellows into context-appropriate objects like an arrow the size of a house, a handy bridge or a cyborg hydra's eyeball.
Combat is initially confusing and more than a little overwhelming thanks to a near-total lack of tutorials, and the fact that the camera backs away several hundred metres in an attempt to keep entire armies of foes and comrades on-screen. Once you've put in the practice, though, swapping between these empowering abilities sets The Wonderful 101 apart from any other brawler on the market. Because each Unite Attack increases in power depending on how many followers you commit, and idle team members can be tasked with automatically targeting nearby enemies with Unite Attacks of their own, what starts out as total entropy gradually reveals a razor-sharp set of underlying mechanics. Hideki Kamiya is famed for creating feats of controlled insanity, and he's done it again.
Armed with these versatile attacks, The Wonderful 101 delights in whipping players through what can only be described as exponential escalation. Every new encounter or boss battle is bigger and more inventive than the last, whether you're destroying a mechanised three-headed dragon in flight by possessing one of its eyeballs, or leaping into an enormous mech duel that resembles an interplanetary game of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. Some sections use the GamePad touchscreen in innovative ways, providing a new perspective on the action or well-paced distractions. Crucially, The Wonderful 101 is always fun; big, over-the-top, colourful fun that never backs down from topping rampant silliness with even more retina-shredding, finger-cracking outrageousness.
There's always something twice as enormous, doubly silly and more infinitely more creative to discover and beat down with all due prejudice. If you were impressed by Bayonetta's visual flair and oversized bosses, you ain't seen nothing yet.
Many pundits were concerned about whether The Wonderful 101 would following some in-development comments from Hideki Kamiya, but they needn't have worried. Beyond 25 lengthy missions that provide a handy dozen hours of play, you're encouraged to revisit earlier levels to discover a host of secrets, extra characters and hidden environments that you missed the first time around. Doing so also rewards you with persistent currency to spend on a wealth of new upgrades, morph powers and equipment, constantly arming you with more tools to improve your rankings on each stage. Throw in unlockable 5-player multiplayer missions and you've got a seriously weighty proposition.
Unfortunately, while The Wonderful 101 is wonderful in the main, several unavoidable problems come with the territory. Platinum's trademark hectic action demands millisecond-perfect precision that the GamePad just can't keep up with. It's not the hardware's fault, since drawing shapes is surprisingly intuitive especially when you use the twitchy right thumbstick, but the whole concept of having to doodle instead of pressing buttons takes valuable time you'll rarely have. Blocking (Unite Guts) feels loose and slow, while the finicky Unite Build skill often fails to trigger even if you've , causing hear-tearing defeats in the most inopportune moments. Plus, whoever thought that putting a pause and MiiVerse button on the touchscreen deserves to be ritualistically flogged - you can't avoid accidentally pressing them during tougher fights.
This extra gameplay dimension also gives you yet another thing to think about in what is already a crowded and confusing experience, leading to some aggravating moments when the game outpaces its quirky controls. Not to mention the camera, which periodically fails to frame the action effectively. Getting hit from offscreen is always frustrating, and this is perhaps the only Platinum-developed game that sometimes makes you feel cheated by forces beyond your control.
The Wonderful 101 is also blighted by an overuse - if not shocking abuse - of knockdown and stun-lock attacks. Almost every regular enemy attack stuns your leader on contact or knocks them flat on their back, taking you out of the fight until you're hit by the next one. Worse, even if you dodge or evade, most attacks will cause your followers to scatter and remain stunned for what feels like an eternity. Since Unite attacks can only be triggered if you have the manpower, this inconsiderate design decision turns most boss battles into waiting games as you run around reviving your useless legions instead of pressing the attack.
Thankfully most of The Wonderful 101's issues can be circumvented with skillful play, and just being better. That's the Platinum way: you can always succeed, if not dominate, so long as you're good enough. A hardcore philosophy that feels a little odd on Nintendo's friendly hardware and hidden behind those adorable visuals, but right somehow, more like the classic Nintendo games of yesteryear than anything they've released in years.
You could even argue that Platinum have out-Nintendo'd Nintendo. And you'd be right.
- Riotously creative and imaginative; savagely colourful
- Innovative new gameplay meets trademark responsive Platinum brawling
- Constantly escalates; bigger, newer, crazier
- Hilarious snappy dialogue and sense of humour
- Sensory overload, quirky controls and suffering camera can lead to intense confusion
- Far too many frustrating stunlock and knockdown attacks
- Some deaths or failures feel unfair and beyond your control
The Short Version: Platinum unleashed their full creative force on The Wonderful 101, holding nothing back, and the lunatic density of its layered gameplay systems sometimes threatens to overwhelm. Thankfully raucous fun factor and Kamiya's trademark tight design conspire to create a modern classic on Wii U, so long as you're willing to master it.