EDITOR's NOTE: There is also a podcast piece that goes along with this where Gagan and Brian provide an even more in-depth review of The Wonderful 101

Growing up in the 90s, few things impacted my childhood quite like The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. I had all the major toys, I saw The Power Rangers Movie a bunch of times as a kid, and you’re damn right, I bought the video games. Building my zords was a blast, but playing the video games? That always left a lot to be desired. If they weren’t a rudimentary fighting game, then they would be by the numbers side-scrolling beat-em ups. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I certainly had some fun, but the games never quite captured the raw joy of watching The Power Rangers. 

You’re talking about a kids show that had a colorful cast of superheroes fighting the good fight in the ultimate battle of good vs evil. There were giant machines that fused together into one badass machine, stylish poses, and the beginnings of Cool Guys Don’t Look at Explosions. People love crediting that to 80s action films, but I would contest that few did it quite like The Power Rangers did with their fireworks. Simply beating up bad guys in a video game isn’t enough to capture that feeling. You need a game that captures the style, the scale, and more importantly, the unapologetically atrocious dialogue that comes with it. In other words, you need a game exactly like The Wonderful 101.

In an industry filled with games about dread, vapid cynicism, or straight up chores, it’s a breath of fresh air when you get a game that celebrates pure, childish joy. Platinum Games have certainly built their legacy on making games with a certain brand of crazy, and that's what makes their games so entertaining in the first place. The Wonderful 101’s brand of crazy is a mixture of Saturday morning cartoons, the aforementioned Power Rangers, and pretty much any other show that was hoping on the Power Rangers craze. The Masked Rider, VR Troopers, Beatleborgs? Chances are you’ll find something in here that reminds you of one of those things.

It’s an insane celebration of the ridiculousness that was your childhood. The story is about the earth being invaded by aliens, which requires you and a super team of 100 superheroes to band together and save the world by guarding key statues that are part of the earth’s defense system named Mother Platinum, because of course it’s called Mother Platinum. You aren’t going to go up against an ancient civilization beyond your comprehension. You’re going to fight creatures with daft names like Geathjerks, Megangs, and I swear to you at one point something called a Gah-Goojin.

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The game features a plot line that has a bunch of running gags, and deliberately overblown dialogue to explain the silliest piece of technology found in the game world. Sure, some of these jokes will miss their mark. And at some point you’ll roll your eyes at the game because you think it’s just drawing things out, kind of like this review is. Maybe Platinum Games are actually saying something about the value of teamwork or maybe they're flipping the bird at those slick next gen games that talk more about their tech than their game. But then I always got the sense that both would completely be missing the point. This is pure insanity, and it certainly evokes it from beginning to end. All of this compliments a gameplay system that is unique in a genre that has become Platinum’s bread and butter.

If you have any experience with Platinum Games, you have a basic idea of what their games are about.. Usually they make beat 'em up action games (sans Vanquish) with a sense of style and a tough grading system. That much is still here, and The Wonderful 101 is definitely a beat 'em up, but to Platinum’s credit, this might be their most unique game in the genre yet. The idea is to give you the feeling that you are controlling one united team. You have primary control over one of the main characters, and then have another 99 characters follow you, giving you control of 100 heroes at a given time. Some of these heroes you pick up along the way during levels, and will only be part of the team for that mission. Other heroes you will find are permanent members of your roster, and have names like The Wonder Nurse, Wonder Santa Clause (because even the North Pole needs a hero), and even the game director Hideki Kamiya himself.

The game’s real trick is the drawing mechanic that is tied to the Wii U gamepad. You will draw shapes to create unite morphs with the right analog stick or the touchscreen. These unite morphs form the different weapons/creations in the game you will need to get through each encounter successfully. Drawing a circle creates Wonder Red’s unite hand, a straight line creates the Unite Sword with Wonder Blue’s trusty Valiantium Blade, and a zigzag makes the Unite claws. There is also a bomb attack that stops time, a whip, a powerful hammer, and a gun for more ranged attacks.

It can take some time to adjust to the controls, but ultimately getting into a grove shouldn’t be too hard, and the drawing mechanic slows things down a bit so you get enough time to draw the shape properly. Sometimes the game will register the wrong shape, but those tend to be rare cases. Ultimately, the standard moment to moment action controls pretty well.

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Putting together the correct shapes can be an empowering feeling, and you certainly get the sense that you’re controlling a larger team as opposed to a singular character. The combo system doesn’t have many elaborate dial ups for a bunch of combos. The A button uses your unite morph to attack (think heavy attack), and the x button does a team attack (think light attack).The nuance of the game comes from figuring out which of your unite morphs is better suited for a certain enemy. You’ll get obvious examples where the game tells you the answer, such as a robot covered in spiked armor that requires you to use the whip to rip the armor off before you can do damage, but plenty of the enemies require you to experiment on your own to figure out the quickest path to success.

Boss fights are the highlight of this frenetic action. You’ll need to figure out what you can dodge, what you can block, and which of your powerful unite morphs is the proper counter attack for your foes. The best example is an enemy that can pull off all the killer moves you can, providing a boss fight that is intense, chaotic, and borderline messy if you don’t get a handle on the many game systems at play. But if you do? You’ll be turning into a rocket one second, transforming into a tombstone to slam your foe down, changing into jelly to block a counter attack, and then wailing on him with a unite sword, while you task the rest of your squad to attack with a unite hammer.

When Wonderful 101 is firing on all cylinders, there isn’t a beat 'em up quite like it. Switching fluidly from weapon to weapon is a must, and the game does a good enough job with its built in fail safes to make that task easier. The enemies themselves are appropriately aggressive, and will come at you from all directions, punishing many of your mistakes as you chip away at large health bars and try to figure out the best approach. This can make the game feel like trial and error, but the checkpoint system is pretty forgiving. Death simply means you get respawned at your last encounter with the enemy health bar exactly where you left it.

Simply making it to the credits isn’t a difficult task. As in the case of most Platinum games, the difficulty really comes from Platinum’s strict grading system. True mastery of the game comes from being able to handle all these scenarios as quickly as possible, and without taking any hits, but the more conservative crowd will be able to make it to the end on pure will power alone. Other highlights in the game include a delightful Punch Out reference, a Dig Dug-esque maze sequence, an on-rails shooting segment where the canon is entirely built of your teammates, and an end game addition to your arsenal I have no desire to spoil.

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Unfortunately, not all of the alternate segments hold their own. Often you’ll find encounters where the game asks you to directly look at the gamepad screen, while also being mindful of what is happening on your TV. The controls for these segments never really feel tight. The fact that you’re never tasked with doing anything challenging can come off as a balancing move, but it really shows they had to dial things back just to make this work, and what they end up making you do often feels more like a chore that brings the pace of the game to a halt.

Shoot 'em up levels show up frequently all the way to the game's climax. Some of these levels are fine in their own right, but others simply miss the mark, usually requiring you to battle camera angles that either impair your vision or force you to process information far too quickly for what the game is asking you to do.

The camera itself is actually a drawback in the standard action as well. The game uses a fixed camera, and in most cases that is a non-issue. Usually the camera will show the entire field of combat. Other times, however, you’ll get moments where your enemy is blocked off-screen or you'll be presented angles that mess with your ability to draw the shapes necessary for your powers.

While The Wonderful 101 has many one-offs in an attempt to feel varied, you are going to have moments where you grow tired of the game's willingness to regurgitate segments, be it the shmup levels or even the game’s best boss fight. Third person beat 'em up games have included reoccurring boss fights since the original Devil May Cry, and some of them happen to be some of the all time classics in the genre. I am, however, a little sick of that trope as far as game design is concerned. Twice? Cool with that. Three times? I can dig it. Four times? Dial it back some, please.

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Ultimately, the game has its fair share of drawbacks by the time you hit the credits sequence. Heck, you might even think the game was a little too long and, as a matter of fact, one specific chapter could be cut from the game outright, and it would be a better experience for it. But the moments when the gameplay clicks can be cathartic when you’ve figured out the perfect combination to deal with an enemy. A game this different is the type of experience you expected the Wii U to deliver when they announced the gamepad in the first place. That it comes with an aesthetic/setting that is inspired, unapologetically cheesy, and perky all to the way to the end should be celebrated.

 

Final Score – 8/10


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