Conventional logic when designing an action game would be to have the player assume the role of a powerful hero who can fight many enemies at once. Hideki Kamiya and the boys at PlatinumGames defied convention with The Wonderful 101; where you control many heroes who fight enormous powerful alien mecha.
Just by looking at this Wii U game, most people did not know what to make of it, shrugged and moved on. The Wonderful 101 never stood a chance at finding a sizable audience on the ill-fated and awkward Nintendo console. It’s a shame too, since it was easily one of the greatest games on the console, and stands as Kamiya’s best game that he directed at PlatinumGames.
By some miracle The Wonderful 101: Remastered got fully funded on Kickstarter, and PlatinumGames were free to self publish this previously Nintendo exclusive on other platforms. It stressed the Wii U to its utter limits, but a PlayStation 4 version could see Kamiya’s vision reach its full potential.
The Wonderful 101: Remastered
Publisher: Nighthawk Interactive
Platforms: Windows PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 (reviewed), (original version on Wii U)
Release Date: May 19, 2020
Players: 1-2 (local), Up to 5 (online)
Team-work is the heart and soul of The Wonderful 101. Wonder Red is eager to keep the team united at all costs in the face of an alien invasion. This plucky elementary school teacher is so pure of heart and truly embodies what it means to be a hero, that it’s admirable. He is self-less, slightly naïve, and always does the right thing.
Even though most parties interested in The Wonderful 101: Remastered will be in it for the action and gameplay, the story is surprisingly well-written. There is also a great deal of care put into the writing and performances of the characters. It is not exactly heavy material, but there is a pure earnestness to the scenario.
The most impressive aspect of the writing, is not how much heart it has- but just how genuinely hilarious it is. There are many sight-gags that come in rapid succession, and are timed perfectly to make even the most tired and cynical gamer bust out in a raucous laughter. Character conversations are especially pitch perfect, and masterfully directed to get the tone just right.
The Wonderful 101 is a very rare kind of game that you rarely see released. It may have some hints of previous Hideki Kamiya directed games in it, but overall there is nothing else like it. Like Devil May Cry was the first action game of its kind, so is The Wonderful 101.
The distant fixed camera system might frustrate the average modern gamer until after a moment of clarity. Not having to default your right thumb to the second analogue to constantly control your view, opens the possibility of The Wonderful 101‘s main game mechanic: the Wonder-Liner. You might even realize how circumventing camera control makes a better action game.
The more heroes there are on your team, the bigger your Unite-Morph weapons can potentially be; providing you don’t run out of energy when drawing it. The Wonder-Liner can also be used to save and recruit civilians for that mission to bolster your numbers, and pick your allies off the ground after a powerful blow.
On the Wii U, the Wonder-Liner was controlled on the touch screen game or right analogue stick to draw Unite-Morph weapons from the dozens of heroes on the team. On PlayStation 4, this is done primarily with the right stick but the touch pad is an option too, if extremely unreliable.
Wonder-Liner Unite-Morphs are most effectively executed with the right stick, regardless the platform. Despite how it may have appeared on Wii U, morphing weapons were less about drawing, but more like doing a fighting game-style input. This kind of gesture eliminates any kind of fiddling around with menus, making every weapon available with a single gesture.
The simplest morph is the sword, which is a basic straight line. This is excelled for clearing mobs of fodder enemies thanks to its wide slash. As the story progresses, more advanced morphs that have more complex shapes are acquired. Pulling off different morphs like the claws, hammer, and bomb in quick succession is a skill that will come over time while getting acquainted with combat.
First-timers coming into The Wonderful 101 are likely going to be completely bewildered, and will find the thoroughly unique gameplay mechanics a overwhelming. Despite it also being an incredibly challenging game to get good at, The Wonderful 101 is very forgiving and lenient with failure.
Newcomers coming in must adjust their expectations, since this is not the kind of game where you can easily pull off Pure Platinum ranks at the start. There are many abilities that are earned gradually as the game progresses that expand the move-set, and this is the way the game teaches the player.
There are over ten Unite-Morph weapons, and each has their own attacks and special properties. The system is finely tuned and when you understand how it works. It is less about the shapes themselves, and more about how it “feels”. You’ll be able to pull off some of the more complex Unite-Morphs without even looking; purely how it feels on the right stick.
This is when The Wonderful 101 will “click,” and suddenly so many combat options become open to you. Discovering what moves cancel what to juggle enemies into the sky and pull off multiple Unite-Morphs at once is incredibly satisfying. You’ll look cool doing it, and gain a greater appreciation towards the gameplay for demanding so much of you.
As if the endless combat potential wasn’t enough, The Wonderful 101‘s scenario is peppered with so many unique and one-time use set-pieces to keep variety high. Retro-style shoot-em-up sequences, the obligatory Space Harrier homage, platforming challenges, and even Punch-Out style boss encounters fill out the experience.
The core-mechanics have that signature high-level of polish that action games helmed by Hideki Kamiya are known for. Controls are very tight, and windows of opportunity to nail successful parries or blocks are narrow.
Enemy animations have large wind-ups and very distinctive audio cues to signify incoming attacks, even when they are off-screen. This makes so much of the action fairer, and your reflexes will be put to the test, making this a very spicy action game.
There is a subliminal logic to how enemies are color coordinated, and how certain Unite-Morphs affect each threat. This works both ways against the heroes as well; large cutting attacks from enemies won’t be stopped by a well-timed bouncy Unite-Guts, and only the Unite-Sword is capable of reflecting laser attacks. The quirks to the systems are numerous and a joy to discover.
When mastering The Wonderful 101‘s systems, it can become an easy game. This is a sharp contrast to when most people start out, and how dumbfounded they may feel when they are inundated with its unique and original mechanics.
It is intensely rewarding to experience such a new kind of gameplay method and to learn it. Becoming good at The Wonderful 101 is like the first time you discovered how to play a 3D game like Super Mario 64; your brain opens up and you realize so many knew possibilities you never thought imaginable.
Each stage is packed with secrets and extra heroes to recruit to the ranks. Much like Bayonetta, there are portals to extra challenge stages hidden through out each mission. Compounded with heart pieces to seek out, and the extensive shop that demands players replay stages to earn enough O-Parts to buy everything, there is never a shortage of things to do.
The theme of each location spans across the globe, promising that you’re going to see something striking every time and The Wonderful 101 delivers. Each mission will often have some unique gimmick that adds to the flavor of each stage.
From the ancient ruins being festooned with puzzles and secrets, to the precarious platforming on the jet themed level; there is never a moment wasted. The overall style and aesthetics are designed to make everything look small and toy-like, with a heavy reliance on tilt-shift depth of field.
This artistic choice extends to the character designs and modeling too, with every character designed to resemble a plastic figurine. Everyone is really glossy and shimmers with chunky specular highlights throughout to make them seem small, even when viewed up close.
The enemies are like enormous and clunky action figures, and are oafishly animated. Big bright colorful accents on them help sell the idea of them being like big toys that are inspired by what kids used to play with in the 80s. Sometimes pieces of them will break away to illustrate their simplistic toy-like construction, and other times they will combine.
Special care has been put into their motions and tells as they tussle with you and your 99 comrades. During the learning period of understanding the gameplay, the many enemy types will reveal many quirks in how they can be interacted with. There is often more than a single way to negotiate with the GEATHJERK forces, and a lot of the fun is discovering new tricks against them.
Prince Vorkken will fight the team several times through the journey. Battles with the Prince are by far the highlight of The Wonderful 101, since he functions like the player by having a team of 99 other boys to make his own Unite-Morphs. These are the greatest rival-battles since Dante fought Vergil.
On Wii U, the showdowns with the Prince would bring the console to its knees, buckling under the load of having hundreds of characters on screen at once. The Wonderful 101: Remastered on PlayStation 4 smooths that frame rate to a very even 60 frames per second. Experiencing these battles with such fluidity is transformative, and worth the price of admission alone.
This remaster has much faster load-times, which used to allow players to practice some moves in a training room with a few fodder enemies. These rooms are still present, but the load times are so fast that there is no time to get any practice in at all.
Other very minor changes are the addition of extra information on the mission at hand. This is a very small inclusion and might be helpful for newcomers who are likely to be overwhelmed with what the game throws at them. The Wonderful 101 does have many details that are likely to go over the heads of most gamers, and there is a guide section full of useful information.
Disappointingly, The Wonderful 101: Remastered is a very restrained remastering, with the biggest distinction is the higher resolution and smoother frame rate. Many of the old textures appear to be low quality, and some assets have some gnarly jaggies along their edges. It is an improvement over what was on Wii U, and it still is a very unique looking action game.
The Wonderful 101 is the kind of action game that does not truly begin until you have beaten it once. The first time through is like learning to ride a bicycle. You only get better the more you play it and by the time you begin new game plus, you’ll have all the unite-morphs to command.
Stages that you struggled with the first time will become much easier and earning pure platinum ratings will come naturally. This plays deeply into arcade game sensibilities where the addictive action is due to the player’s own personal growth and mastery of the tight mechanics.
The rousing and epic orchestral score is flawlessly executed, and is timed perfectly in every scene, heightening the sense of epic heroism. Hideki Kamiya is a man who truly knows how to play with his toys, and how to get the most out of video games as a medium by having music peak at the zenith of the track.
The Wonderful 101: Remastered is one of the greatest action games ever made. It is so confident in its design, and is meticulous with how deep its mechanics allow expression to unimaginable spectacle. It was arguably held back on Wii U specs, but on PlayStation 4 it is blindingly brilliant.
There is nothing else like The Wonderful 101; you can’t play anything else and get a similar experience. It is a rare and special kind of action game that demands the player to get to grips with a completely original gameplay style. After mastering it; you are likely to still make discoveries about the combat, dozens of hours in the post-game.
The Wonderful 101: Remastered was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a personal copy. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.