Impressions: The Wonderful 101

Poverty and shame will come to him who neglects discipline,
But he who regards reproof will be honored.

Proverbs 13:18

Since I think it will take me a long while to actually finish The Wonderful 101, I’ll give you my impressions as I reach an approximate half-way point. I refuse to bring up spoilers, but trust me: I’ve played a lot.

Frankly, I thought I would love The Wonderful 101 at first sight. A game by Hideki Kamiya that, in a new way, sought to recreate that Saturday morning cartoon vibe that Viewtiful Joe represented? The ability to control a hundred heroes at once with a unique control scheme via the Wii U GamePad? A rather stiff difficulty challenge and curve that forces you to learn how to play? All of this sounds right up Platinum Games’ alley, and certainly worth a shot at the very least.

Now, though, I’ve tempered my opinion somewhat. I can understand why The Wonderful 101 sold so poorly: it’s not bad, just an incredibly unique beast that requires a lot, perhaps too much, wrangling to bring under control. The obviously child-like atmosphere turns some people off, while the admittedly adult humor (at times) goes towards the other direction. Like the Wii U itself, The Wonderful 101 doesn’t have an actual audience – it’s just the whims of Hideki Kamiya acting out what feels personally interesting to him.

So, at base, The Wonderful 101 really just bats like a glorified character action game in Bayonetta’s wheelhouse. Yes, you control multiple super heroes, but you’re really controlling one hero surrounding by an army you use to form weapons. The Wonder Liner function allows you to “draw” weapons into existence using your companions (called “Unite”), and remains the highlight of the system. In a sense, this actually improves such games with multiple weapons; instead of a weapon set-swap like Bayonetta, you just draw the weapons (there’s a whole lot of them) into existence and its moves come under your power immediately.

the-wonderful-101-e

It feels as weird as it sounds.

The game slows to a crawl whenever you make this weapons, meaning that you never lose control of the action via switching. The bigger you draw it, the larger power bonus the attacks gain too! Each of them has an assortmet of command moves you’d expect, from Dante’s classic Stinger to launchers to giant missiles of doom. I mean, what else would you expect from Kamiya?

On the other hand, these Unite functions (which also go into hanggliders and other weird stuff) operate on a limited regenerating resource, so using too many Unite combos will drain your meter fast; gathering batteries around the stage, then, becomes essential for clearing enemy groups quickly with the Unite weapons. It’s nice to see exploration (in a basic sense) integrated with the main combat system, and I enjoy looking around for stuff that actually helps me.

The other component which makes the system even more complicated, however, rests on your other companions. All your individual heroes can attack guys, and you need them to create Unite Morphs. If they get hit, they’re stunned for a limited amount of time until your main character touches them. Attacking enemies when they’re in the wrong form or state will also stun your team members, which means recognizing enemy patterns and the correct, puzzle-like pattern of eliminating them becomes the focus. You don’t want to lose your dudes/dudettes, and you want to counter the enemies in the right way, and you also want to watch out for enemies on screen, and you also need to look through the exciting particles effects livening the screen with flashes of color, and at the same time you want to dodge/counter/not get hit by anything.

Perhaps my biggest problem, and one that I imagine will rectify itself as a play more, is the INSANE AMOUNT OF VISUAL NOISE ON SCREEN. Bayonetta suffered from the same problem, but The Wonderful 101’s increased scale turns some fights into total chaos – wonderfully epic and fist-pumpingly awesome, but unbelievably difficult to decipher at first glance. I’m beginning to discern the difference between the important elements after at least 5-6 hours of play, but sorting through all of it isn’t exactly intuitive to new players. That goes for the “tutorial” as well, which pops up controller prompts for about two seconds before another one replaces it. Platinum Games don’t need tutorials, but that just struck me as somewhat ridiculous that the basic controls and elements were a mystery to me for a long time. Many of the elements here are quite new and require adjustments, as well as changed expectations, if you want to enjoy it.

If one thing really annoys me, though, it’s the quicktime events. They just aren’t clear enough in what motion they want you to perform. Oh, I’m turning my crew into a giant bow and arrow, so how exactly do I pull back? There’s no button prompts, so I suppose you’re guessing either way, but I just did not understand what to do. Certain functions of Unite Morphs pop up once (Unite Sword’s key unlocking properties, Unite Hand’s ability to turn switches, etc), and then they just expect you to know what to do. I like the lack of hand-holding, but The Wonderful 101 doesn’t reinforce the use of these mechanics enough to make them consistent for the player. Or, at least, that’s just my impressions from the beginning of the game to Operation 3 or so.

I didn’t expect to become so critical of a Platinum Games release, but stranger things have happened. A lot of these design decisions actually seem like strange oversights, and most are just a result of crafting chaotic, exciting actions sequences. I’m mixed, then, on whether I think they could be fixed or not. Again, I’m in the middle of the game, so presenting a final judgment remains impossible, but I may be totally wrong about all this. Maybe I was tired! Maybe I’m just frustrated at my inability to get it. Honestly, I find it hard to say without finishing the game and playing it more extensively. Probably someone with more experience should just straight-up tell me I’m wrong, and I’d love to be schooled on this.

Of course, all of this seemingly intentional obfuscation does hold a ton of depth underneath, and while the first few hours presented frustration, fun soon joined thereafter – at least for now. At a point for me, everything just clicks, the timing for counters make sense, and the whole ordeal turns into a total childhood joy that I have a hard time putting down in some spots, while struggling to enjoy it in others. I’d call it one of the harder games I’ve played in recent years, but there’s a tough climb to even begin playing competently. As such, I’d recommend playing it first; I can’t give a universal recommendation just from what I played.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • “The Wonderful 101 doesn’t have an actual audience – it’s just the whims of Hideki Kamiya acting out what feels personally interesting to him.”

    This seems to be a core design flaw. When anybody makes something for themself, they only have themselves to blame for a lack of audience.

    Good writeup.

    • Zachery Oliver

      Oh, I prefer when directors make games for themselves. They’re inevitably better and more interesting than something appealing to a wide audience due to a narrower focus. Like when I play Hideo Kojima games, they’re quirky and weird, but that’s because he’s in control of the whole project.

      Hideki Kamiya doesn’t really care, though, how much the games sells or anything on the business side of things (or PR, for that matter). He just makes games he’d like to play, and I think that’s why I like his stuff so much. I mean, that is why Bayonetta’s so fun to play – it’s just totally bonkers and well-designed to boot. I’m getting that same sense from The Wonderful 101 as I get deeper into it.

      • I think it’s good to a degree, though. You still need to consider “how does this play for others.” Game design without consideration of the player can seem a bit like masturbation.

        • Zachery Oliver

          A quote from Kamiya on this:

          “It was originally aimed at me… [laughs]. When I make games I never really think about who I’m targeting the game for. I just want to create something that’s fun and enjoyed by the audience. I still enjoy, even at this age, superhero themes and transformations. It was just pure creating something that I like and incorporating these other things into the game.”

          Enough of us “get it”, I think, to provide the man with a job.

          On the other hand, some of the greatest works of human achievement were completely self-indulgent exercises. Richard Wanger’s Ring Cycle is certainly one of those (yep, a 14 hour opera), and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake could certainly fit up there along with Moby Dick (which sold terribly poorly and was reviewed very negatively at the time of its release). Without their personal indulgences, those works wouldn’t exist. I guess I just like those sorts of works, delving into their mind and at least getting a taste for what’s going through their brains.