Japanese games used to dominate the western market. There was a time when Nintendo, Sega, and later Sony were the only names in mainstream games. As the PS2 and Xbox era matured Western games quickly overshadowed their Eastern counterparts and since then they have not been able to impact the market like they had in the past. In ways, Wonderful 101 is a beautiful reminder of why Japanese games are fantastic and at the same time why they will probably never have the impact in the west that they used too.
Wonderful 101 has its roots in a Super Sentai style aesthetic and narrative. A group of normal citizens transform into powerful Super Heroes called the Wonderful 100. Each individual hero has their special powers and weapons but when they come together and unite their powers multiply and lead to more powerful and effective attacks. The game starts you off with “Unite Hand” and “unite sword” but as the game goes on they add whip, hammer, bomb, boomerang, and more. Specific abilities are required throughout the game to defeat monsters and solve puzzles.
You activate these powers by drawing symbols on the Wii U’s Gamepad. The bigger the symbol, the more Wonderful ones are used in the Unite Morph and the more energy it takes from your power gauge. Battles that require a few different weapons to win become games of conserving energy while creating Unite Morphs big enough to do maximum damage. These combinations only last a limited amount of time and once they’re gone they require the player to draw another symbol and use more energy to re-build it. Energy is recovered a few ways but ultimately the players have to wait for their gauges to recharge unless they have unlocked abilities that allow them to charge up faster or have items they can use to replenish their energy.
The first half of the game slowly introduces you to enemies, characters, and weapons. Each new weapon is followed by a series of challenges that gets the player familiar with how it works. Due to this design that first half of the game moves slowly, and it doesn’t really show its full potential until the player has acquired all of the base skills. After that halfway point, and with the core members of the Wonderful 101 assembled, the game really begins by tossing enemies and puzzles that will require multiple unite morphs to accomplish. The true challenge and fun of the game begins at that point. Nearly every encounter after then will feature bigger enemies, more enemies, and constantly pushes the player to use a maximum amount of Unite Morphs.
The second half of the game is also where the gameplay starts to toss in levels that use a completely different gameplay style, almost mini-games. The narrative calls for the Wonderful ones to pilot spaceships and giant robots in various situations and like the other pieces of the game it first teaches the mechanics of the game and then tosses in Unite Morphs on top of those controls. This leads to Punch Out! style giant robot combat, a 2D game where the player has to dig their way out of a volcano, and number of other unique levels.
When the gameplay changes it’s always exciting, it always feels big, and while it doesn’t really use the skills the player has been developing through the game it gives an almost welcome break from the standard combat. It’s a chance to do something new and different that I found cleanses the palate from constantly drawing symbols on the gamepad.
Wonderful 101 isn’t a game that is designed for a single play through. The normal difficulty is much too hard for a novice player, the game almost requires the first play though on one of the easier difficulties in order to learn how to approach it. The entire experience is designed for players to master the mechanics and situations in order to get a better score and shinier trophy. This methodology is why the situations towards the end of the game involve so many different enemies that have different methods to defeat. The player has to memorize the way to defeat the individual enemies and adapt to them as the game seemingly randomly tosses them at you during the final levels.
However, I’m not the type of player who wants to keep repeating levels over and over again. Yet, the game anticipates this by making dying not really set you back in the level. Dying seriously affects your score, but continuing from a death puts you back where you were right before death with full health and energy. The game demands that you memorize everything in order to get better and better scores but also makes it as easy as possible to complete the game even if you are terrible. You could die a hundred times in a level and still complete it, never having to be sent back in time once. That feature is what makes this classically hard Japanese game far more palatable for someone like me who doesn’t want to play it for a hundred hours, yet it keeps the difficulty in place for the players who do want that kind of experience.
The story of Wonderful 101 is where the experience seriously lacks. Most of the dialogue, especially in the early levels, drags on too long and accomplishes almost nothing. In a fast moving game like this the narrative should connect the events together and justify their existence but Wonderful 101 spends long scenes on weird technobabble to describe what is going on, bad jokes and banter between the Wonderful ones, and a lot of cheesy superhero dialogue that has no purpose. Towards the last three hours or so I felt like I started to care about the characters and their situations but for every point in the narrative the stuck with me or affected me there were ten moments that did nothing to me expect prevent me from playing the game, and that’s exactly when narrative in video games fail.
Wonderful 101 is a quirky game that fully takes advantage of the Wii U Gamepad to offer a unique experience. While it’s slow to start by easing the player into the game it enables them to be far more proficient and get a richer experience in the second half. Unfortunately, almost nothing about the narrative or characters makes you want to care about what’s going on, but that doesn’t really hurt the experience of playing the game in the slightest. If you own a Wii U: Wonderful 101 is a no brainer. Even if you end up only playing a few levels it’s guaranteed to be interesting.