RETRO REBOOT | The Wonderful 101 (Nintendo Wii U)

The utility of the Wii U will go down as one of the great mysteries of modern gaming. I think its Gamepad has some promise that could've overcome some of the more cumbersome elements, but the marketing left people scratching their heads. One of the criticisms at the time was some games that either relied too heavily on the dual screen and touch pad tech or too little. I say, for games designed AROUND it, it works remarkably well and can be quite intuitive. I still think the Wii U's exclusive games outclass most of the high-end offerings today when it comes to providing a unique experience. The Wonderful 101 is one of those that probably doesn't land as well as its concept would have hoped.

Developed by PlatinumGames and released for the Wii U in 2013, The Wonderful 101 was directed by Hideki Kamiya and lead production was headed by Atsushi Inaba (Godhand, Viewtiful Joe, Okami). It's a level-based action game where the heroes you control, known as the Centinels, battle against the threat of the alien invaders known as GEATHJERK. This odd name is an acronym for "the Guild of Evil Aliens Terrorizing Humans with Jiggawatt bombs, Energy beams, Ray guns, and Killer lasers". Perhaps it's an acquired taste brand of comedy, some stuff seen in Viewtiful Joe. I kinda like jokes like that in the short term. There's enough tongue-in-cheekness to go around in Wonderful 101, maybe too much for its own good.

The source of the Centinel's power is the technique known as "Unite Morph", which takes citizens you rescue and imbues them briefly with the power of superheroes. The more you have, the greater your powers become, and the easier it becomes to solve puzzles and break obstacles. Each of the seven main Centinels have a unique fighting style and weapon to aid you through the game and learning to use them effectively (or at least to earn a high prize at the end of each stage) saves many a headache.

Some aliens can only be beaten effectively with certain Unite Morphs. It keeps players guessing on the fly by providing different obstacles that can’t simply be flattened. Using the Gamepad and stylist to draw the designated shape can be a little iffy and unresponsive at times. Whenever I would try to draw the triangle for the hang glider, it would occasionally register as Unite Gun. Using items available in the Wonder Mart, it is possible to increase the speed of the Wonder Liner, so if using the right analog stick, this is a must. Missions can go on for a good 16 minutes on average, so the bulky Gamepad can get pretty weighty in the hands.

The Wonderful 101 runs at a pretty high frame rate despite having so many character models, as well as enemies, on the screen at one time. The camera remains a 3/4 isometric view throughout the game in order to ensure that you can keep your eyes on as much as possible while not taking away from the beautiful Blossom City. At times, it can be hard to locate yourself amidst the chaos and while you can zoom in closer on the action, it can really inhibit the view of the playing field. I couldn’t see enemies out of my field of vision winding up for their next shot and I would get blindsided a great deal, which only helped drive me bonkers.

PlatinumGames titles can all have a samey feel to them, so seeing The Wonderful 101 try something a little different separates itself from others. It can be fairly satisfying, but can teeter into overly self-indulgent. The touchscreen features to activate the powers (using the right analog stick is possible as well) is a clever idea, even though it's hampered by some laggy response and precision. The characters are fairly charming, but incredibly one-dimensional, and the humor runs its course fast. I was alright with Viewtiful Joe at the time, the style feels trapped in the time period that I have outgrown. Overall, if The Wonderful 101 was shorter, I'd feel more strongly about recommending it. I didn't bother with the Kickstarter-powered rerelease it got on the Switch, that probably irons out the mild counter-intuitiveness of using a stylus.   

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