Review: The Wonderful 101 (***** stars) (Part 1)

Games journalists: they have no idea how to play some video games. This is one of them.

The Wonderful 101 takes your jaded cynicism, knocks it out with sleeping pills, wraps it in a strait-jacket, then flings you off a twenty story building before you land on a giant pile of proximity mines. The Wonderful 101 takes you nostalgia on a wild roller coaster ride of craziness, with loops and gut-wrenching drops galore, only to stop after 10-12 hours – you’ll scream bloody murder to go on again, I assure you.

These insufficient metaphors cannot begin to describe the fun I’ve had playing, and replaying, Hideki Kamiya’s latest grand opus. I’m not sure what his games do to me, but they go above and beyond the call of duty (no pun intended)  in just being a pure bundle of entertainment. Most of all, they engage through their systems and complexities, stuffed to the gills with nuances that one can only learn through constant practice and effort. The rewards seem intangible, but the insurmountable situations and challenges Kamiya’s experience present in the post-game show a depth and mastery that comes from years of experience or natural talent from this director. What else can I say? I truly enjoy his creativity and his ability to make me smile. Repeatedly.

The Wonderful 101 is a video game of unparalleled joy and fun centered on the experience of (at least from an American perspective) the Saturday morning kids block (now, sadly, defunct). From animated shows to Power Rangers, I specifically work up early just to watch certain shows. Who could miss the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers every week as they fought aliens from space, doing battle against the enemies of Earth and righting the wrongs of the universe? Yes, these shows painted morality in broad black-and-white brushstrokes, but they contained such an innocence about them. Right and wrong were clear; honor and goodness always triumphed. Characters would face their own demons, sure, but they would emerge through the clouds of doubt with the help of their friends and mentors. Everything revolves itself in the end as our heroes triumph over enormously stacked odds through the power of friendship and dedication to a cause greater than themselves.

If we want to become more specific, Hideki Kamiya probably imagined The Wonderful 101 as a video game analogue to The Super Sentai Series. Clearly, this game wasn’t made for children; some jokes go a little too far for that crowd, but the adults who remember such shows should look on the game with fondness. The same stereotypes and archetypes emerge – the valiant hero, the rebellious friendly rival, the ditzy girl, people with foreign accents who speak awkwardly and spout catchphrases a whole lot – but all of it comes through as a total love letter to nostalgia. It recreates that sense of time and place without succumbing to its lesser qualities. In a phrase: it’s camp that knows it’s camp, and that’s a wonderful (har har) thing. I cannot possibly hate on a video game with such a self-aware and good-natured theme song, right?

I can’t tell you how stupidly giddy all of this made me throughout. The only game that, in recent memory, made me crack a goofy smile and a hearty laugh more often was The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Just by playing the game, I sensed the designers and creators alike displayed a heartfelt love for their childhood that just bursts through every crack and pore of the presentation. Bright colors flash throughout, and the designs all subtly evoke a future world that could only exist in video games. And man, that soundtrack really pumps you up! From what I can tell, the entire 5+ disc soundtrack was crafted meticulously using a full orchestra, highlighting every action sequences in the game with verve and dynamism; themes recur over and over again, continually ratcheting the tension higher and higher. The fights with Prince Vorkkhen (your “rival”) highlight this the most, as each battle with his team of Guyzoch Space Pirate increase the difficulty and the musical volume, eventually adding a full choir. The sense of progression boulders into huge momentum for the game. I mean, if any kid gets the opportunity to make his own thing, doesn’t he just love upping the stakes and pushing the boundaries further in his limitless imagination? Platinum Games does just that here.

You thought Bayonetta‘s conclusion, literally hurling a god into the sun, felt epic? That’s nothing compared to the absolute insanity at the end of The Wonderful 101, which takes the idea of giant robot space combat to an entirely new level – think Megazord times a thousand. A team of 100+ super hero creates a massive scale for most any boss, and the pacing on The Wonderful 101’s long Operations means they can slowly ramp up the stake in both spectacular action set pieces and game mechanics. Honestly, I’m hesitant to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t played it (especially since, at the time of this writing, the game’s less than a year old), but suffice to say that the last Operation blows your every expectation of Platinum Games’ over-the-top nature completely out of the water. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing; it’s incredibly hype, and I wished everyone could experience it.


Yeah, Megazord!

At the same time, such shows about super heroes and super kids spent a great deal of time explaining bizarro pseudo-science to impressionable young minds. Do they need to explain all this stuff? Not at all, but they do! How do those suits work, anyway? Why does pressing a button suddenly turn a teenage kid into a crazy ninja in a bright spandex suit that, with the help of his friends, can summon a giant robot to fight bigger giant aliens? Honestly, they don’t need to explain it, and yet those kinds of explanations that refuse to talk down to children gives them a sense of curiosity about the world. How do things work? Why? Fake universe give children the sense that they’re experts on something even adults couldn’t understand (or, more accurately, couldn’t care less about), and that sort of empowerment gives them an entry point into the universe at large. I know that was true of me, at least! The Wonderful 101 continues in that long tradition, explaining so many things and yet making it all up; truly, that’s just a nostalgic pleasure for me.

Part 2

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.