The Wonderful 101 is a frustrating game, a confusing maelstrom of aliens and superheroes that seems to punish players for all the wrong reasons.
The controls make no sense, the action is disorienting, and the camera is a mess.
Somewhere during the first two hours, something clicks. Everything changes. Control schemes that were once incomprehensible suddenly start to feel like natural extensions of your hand. The pitch of combat swings from dissonance to harmony. You find yourself switching powers and weakening enemies and losing yourself to the satisfying, exhausting rhythm of saving the world from space aliens.
Now let's try that again.
The Wonderful 101 is a delightful game, a high-octane romp through volcanos and stomachs that redefines "over the top" with its increasingly-majestic array of setpieces.
The controls make no sense -- until you start finding a rhythm. The action is disorienting -- until you realise who's doing what. The camera is a mess -- until… well, ok, the camera is always a mess.
Here's the shtick: you, as the player, are tasked with running a squad of superheroes called the Wonderful 100. That extra 1 in the title is you. Of course.
As the Wonderful 100, you have to protect the world from an army of marauding aliens named GEATHJERK, using your tokusatsu-inspired avatars to slash and shoot through a variety of prickly beasts -- monstrous tanks, shape-shifting pyramids, giant lizard swordsmen. Split up into nine different operations, each composed of two or three sections, The Wonderful 101 often feels like a Saturday morning cartoon, and if you've ever woken up early to watch Power Rangers and the like, this will feel like charted territory: the campy dialogue, the funny little flourishes, the miraculously-timed leaps and swings that always end with a costumed crusader taking down a cackling villain.
And, like in all cartoons, only a handful of characters matter -- your team might be called the Wonderful 100, but the six or seven core superheroes do all of the heavy lifting. Each of those core heroes has his or her own colour and special ability. Your leader, Wonder-Red, can guide the team into the shape of a giant fist, useful both for punching out enemies and turning knobs. Other mighty morphin' options include a sword, a whip, and a hammer, each mastered by a cartoonish caricature like the obese Frenchman who carries a satchel full of candy. In between action scenes, they all trade barbs. ("I came looking for combatants," says one villain, "not colour-coordinated cosplayers!")
To perform each elaborate transformation, you have to draw its corresponding glyph. For this you have two options: you can draw on the touchscreen of the GamePad or you can use the right thumbstick. If you think it might be a pain in the arse to look down and draw on the GamePad while you play, you're totally right. It's much easier, and much more comfortable, to pull off quick shifts and maneuvers with your right thumb.
The Wonderful 101 does use the Wii U's second screen in some other interesting ways; you'll have to use both screens to solve certain puzzles and challenges. One particularly memorable puzzle involves entering a cube and pushing it in different directions on the bottom screen while you watch it roll around on your TV.
You can also play the whole game on your GamePad, which leads to the question: how do you solve those two-screen puzzles when you're on one screen? This is a problem a lot of Wii U games will have to tackle, and The Wonderful 101's solution is admirable, but clunky: an awkward picture-in-picture mode that lets you see everything on the GamePad at once. It's not perfect, but it works.
The Wonderful 101 is an action game, yes, but it's also sometimes a fighter. And a shoot'em'up. And a side-scroller. And a giant robot simulator.
For most of the game, you will be either fighting through enemies or playing interactive cinematics during some of the game's many, many spectacular boss battles. That means encountering one of the gamer's most dreaded buzzwords: Quick-Time Events. While some might grit their teeth just at the thought of playing through QTEs, The Wonderful 101's scenes are tolerable because they are A) forgiving and B) goofy as hell. Characters will jump and twirl and come out of nowhere in spaceships to save the day, and as you guide them through one over-the-top action scene after another, it's tough not to smile at the cartoonish demeanor and scale.
The Wonderful 101's biggest flaw is that it is terrible at telling you what to do. It makes no attempt to teach you how to shape-shift on the fly or properly weaken the very-challenging enemies that GEATHJERK will send your way. It won't guide you through the occasional obscure puzzle. It won't tell you to buy those helpful dodge and block abilities in the shop, even though they're a must. (Buy them.)
Fortunately, there are helpful fan-made videos out there:
The camera is a severe issue. Unacceptable, even. It zooms in and out and back and forth with no regard for what you actually want to see, and during my time with the game, the limited field of view led to several unfair deaths. (Worth noting: when you die, at least in Normal difficulty, you pop right up where you left off. No real punishments.)
Still, once you get the hang of The Wonderful 101's bizarre rules and choices -- like, your controller vibrating when you're on the receiving end of a big hit instead of when you make one -- the game is rewarding, satisfying, and ridiculous. It's a tough game, and you'll have to spend a lot of time working on muscle memory if you want to master its mechanics, even at the easiest difficulty levels. It takes commitment.
But if you do pick up The Wonderful 101, and if you do put in the time and energy, you'll be rewarded with an insane adventure that, in many ways, is like nothing I've ever played before.