Since its release a little more than a year ago now, it’s often seemed that Nintendo’s Wii U, a cool console that’s still struggling to connect with an adoring public, needed something—say, maybe, a pack of superheroes–to swoop in and elevate it, not just above the fray of the next-gen console skirmish, but to respectability. With the release of Super Mario 3D World and major first-party releases coming as early as next month, it’s clear that tiny dot on the horizon is, in fact, the cavalry. But let’s not lose sight of the heroes—specifically, the 100 cartoony heroes in Platinum Games’ The Wonderful 101—who’ve been buoying the party up all along.
And man, we do mean party. From the opening sequence that finds you dropped into the confines of a speeding tram rail under attack by the alien forces of GEATHJERK, it’s clear you’re in for a visual buffet. Or maybe visual assault is more accurate: The Wonderful 101 takes a mad Japanese morning-cartoon approach to delivering its action, with wild, splashy colors and a nearly constant stream of explosions and POW-riffic attacks overwhelming the screen. You may need super-powered eyeballs to keep up with it all.
As the title suggests, you, as the “1’ in “101,” are put in charge of managing a burgeoning team of personality-laden heroes who happen to have the helpful ability to combine into gigantic weapons—fists, claws, blades, whips–that do tremendous amounts of damage. They’re like the Wonder Twins on a triple-strength HGH cocktail, and it’s hilarious to see these l’il piles of heroes tooling around the level environments doing their thing.
This mass of heroes is actually the resource that fuels your attack, as the more of them you gather together during battle, the stronger you’ll be. The magic that makes it happen is the unite morph, activated by drawing a line or a shape on the Wii U Gamepad with your finger, the stylus or the right analog stick. The morph you get depends on the hero who’s currently leading your troops, which means you’ll be swapping back and forth as needs arise.
You won’t meet all 100 heroes, but the seven you do meet and hear speak are plenty entertaining, even if their personalities are Eurocentric stereotypes and their names are just slices on the standard color wheel. Wonder Red is the squad’s stoic stalwart. Wonder Pink is a whip-wielding minx. Wonder what would have happened if the creators had given screen time to the other 90-some heroes, who sure look like they deserve it—they’re wearing some of the most bizarre costumes you’ve ever seen, what with the nun habits, ninja gi and oversized hypodermic needles. Hypodermic needles?
The craziness of the costumes is reflected in the plot and the dialogue, both of which are over-the-top, even by Japanese disaster-film standards. Whether it’s the dopey catch phrases the heroes shout as they fire up their powers to dispatch foes or the gruff bravado of Commander Nelson, a character who recalls The A-Team’s Hannibal Smith, it isn’t hard to find something to chuckle at here.
Other aspects of the game are a little less amusing. Our superhero squad’s kryptonite isn’t green and glowing; it’s black with a touch screen. To say that the Wii U Gamepad’s unite morph recognition is iffy is like saying healthcare.gov has had some minor launch and operational issues. Things are okay at first—forming Wonder-Red’s fist and Wonder-Blue’s sword isn’t especially difficult, and these basic shapes will get you through a whole host of challenges. But when things get a little hairier, like when the enemies arrive sporting spikes and armor that require the tender mercies of more complex weaponry, well, you’re often screwed. When you’re asked, for instance, to form a whip by drawing an S shape, the touchpad’s line recognition routinely betrays you and you’ll end up with something else altogether, or, worse, nothing at all. In the heat of frenetic battle, having to fight the controller or fumble with the stylus for a more precise input isn’t just frustrating, it’s unfair.
That’s especially true given that this is a Platnum Games offering, which means you’re in for some fairly brutal difficulty curves right from the get-go, topped off with a decided lack of tutorial assistance. Combat traps you in arena areas with invisible walls, and advancing is really about pattern and weakness recognition. No matter how big or bizarro the enemy is, there’s a unite morph that can ice it if you’re willing to take the time to experiment and hone your timing. Your level score will likely take a hit in the process, but hey, that’s what reloads are for, right?
Unite morphs aren’t the only feature here to rely on the Wii U’s second screen. At various points, you’ll have to use the gyroscope to help you navigate the insides of buildings you apparently can’t see from the game’s standard isometric view. This takes a little getting used to, but ultimately comes off as a fresh and interesting use of the Gamepad.
Even with its control issues, The Wonderful 101 is a game you’ll want to experience despite its flaws. It’s one of the most stylish and unusual offerings in the still-growing Wii U library, a title it’s likely to hang onto even once that big-release cavalry arrives.
+ Sunny, comic book presentation
+ Frenetic, challenging action
– Fairly serious control issues hamper unite-morph formation
– That legendary Platinum difficulty can get a little annoying
– Can we meet the other 93? Please?
Platform: Nintendo Wii U
Developer: Platinum Games
Release Date: 9/15/2013
ESRB Rating: Teen
Source: Review code provided by publisher