Games may not be toys, but they often owe a lot to them. Whereas Skylanders and Disney Infinity require actual toys to play, the The Wonderful 101, an action-packed Wii U curiosity from Platinum Games, feels more like playing with toys than either of them. With dozens of costumed characters to control, most with no defined personality traits, and a rambling plot that makes little sense and shifts gears on a dime, Wonderful 101 has the same illogical bent and opportunity for imagination as a child playing with action figures. In Wonderful 101 you control a brigade of up to 100 tiny superheroes as they protect Earth from invading robotic aliens called the GEATHJERK. The forces of the Wonderful 100 (you, the player, are the 101st, of course) come from across the world but remain anonymous – as their credo states, "their faces forever masked, their tombs forever unknown." (That's a weird reference to mortality in a game with unlimited continues.)
Only a handful of heroes have speaking parts, and they all make dramatic entrances at specific moments and with special new abilities directly related to whatever obstacle is currently in your way. These main heroes are more stereotypes than characters, from the California surfer dude who says "bro" a lot, to the female hero who wears pink and talks about make-up and shopping. Most heroes are nothing more than a character design and a brief bio, with an attack that mirrors one of the main seven heroes. With color-coded costumes, identical black masks and names like "Wonder-Red" and "Wonder-Green", the Wonderful 100 resembles a host of Japanese pop culture icons, from Ultraman to the Power Rangers to Jushin "Thunder" Liger, with a soupçon of Voltron teamwork mixed in.
Together you and these heroes spend many hours beating up aliens. Just as old brawlers like Final Fight would put up invisible walls until you beat down every thug on the screen, Wonderful 101 breaks battles into discrete and impromptu arena settings, closing off areas and forcing you to fight until every foe is dead. Those enemies are tough from the start, and it's up to you to figure out their weak spots, learn their patterns and strike at the right moment.
Unlike Pikmin 3, which Wonderful 101 superficially resembles, you can't split up your heroes. They always work as a group. There's a weak attack where they all rush an enemy at once, but that's only useful when breaking down trees and park benches for in-game currency. (The Wonderful 101 graduated from the "Man of Steel" school of city-saving, where you can still save the day despite turning half a city into ruins.)
Unite Morphs exploit the Wii U's second screen, as you trigger them by quickly drawing a pattern on the GamePad. You can also use the right stick to form that pattern with your characters on the TV, but this is less reliable. You can switch your team leader through these same Unite Morphs, or by pulling up a menu on the GamePad that displays the faces of every hero you've unlocked so far. The only difference between these leaders is the Unite Morph weapon they can harness, with seven total shared between all characters. It's hard to properly mash buttons with a stylus in your hand, and the touch screen occasionally misreads a finger gesture, so you might want to work on how quickly you can unsheathe the stylus from the GamePad's holster.
The biggest hang-up with the GamePad, however, has nothing to do with its integration into Wonderful 101, but rather that you can't throw it to the floor in a fit of anger the way you can a normal controller. You will want to do that, a lot, as Platinum's well-deserved reputation for difficult games is reinforced once again.
It can be frustrating at first, but battles turn into strategic set-pieces once you crack the combat, built around the successful juggling of Unite Morph combos, hairpin rolls and split-second blocks. The combination of pattern recognition, space management and lightning reflexes almost resembles a fighting game. It's not a particularly deep system, but The Wonderful 101 explores it in depth, with sprawling battles that require the use of certain morphs in specific situations. Boss battles combine these techniques with well-done Quick Time Events, as tight deadlines and the need to scribble a shape on the GamePad make them more interactive than merely tapping a button. Each cluster of fights is judged by how quickly it takes you to win, how many combos you used and how much damage you took. You are awarded medals based on your performance, ranging from "pure platinum" to "consolation prize." These don't have any in-game value, but it feels good to be recognized.
Still, the difficulty level is high, and the camera only complicates combat. There are always dozens of characters on screen, and the camera stays zoomed out so far that it's often hard to tell what's happening during any battle. Even though your leader is always highlighted, she or he can get lost within the rippling wave of miniature heroes, making it hard to attack or defend at the right moment. The makeshift battle arenas rarely fit entirely on the TV screen, and sometimes enemies lurk off-screen, waiting with a ranged attack that requires split-second reflexes to dodge. If you can't see the enemy as it prepares an attack, it can be almost impossible to time your defense.
Unfortunately Wonderful 101 doesn't treat its female heroes with much respect. The whip-wielding Wonder-Pink debuts with cheesecake poses, panty shots and S&M references that feel out-of-place for an otherwise kid-friendly game. She's catty, haughty and fixated on fashion, filling the stereotype of the sexy mean girl. None of the other women in the Wonderful 100 get a line, other than the non-fighting pilot of their flying headquarters. You'd think with 100 characters to play with Platinum could've given one role to another female hero, even if just to add the good girl complement to Wonder-Pink's bad girl.
Like most Platinum games, however, whatever issues might plague Wonderful 101 are glossed over with charm and an idiosyncratic vision. Sorting through dozens of heroes, picking out your leader and imbuing him or her with a personality feels like dumping your toy box on the floor and gathering up the ones you want to play with. The game's major characters have preset identities and points of view, just as cartoons will define the most important characters from a line of toys, but the large number of additional characters allow for ample creativity. You might be too busy double-teaming GEATHJERK with a giant sword and massive hammer made out of superheroes to craft an intricate back-story for Wonder-Clean, the 31-year-old crime-fighting dental hygienist, but the opportunity is there.
This review is based on an eShop download of The Wonderful 101, provided by Nintendo.
Garrett Martin was once a member of the Vainglorious 53, but you probably haven't heard of them. He edits Paste Magazine's videogame section and reviews games for the Boston Herald and other outlets. You can hear his blather at Twitter (@GRMartin) or at a variety of Atlanta-area bars.
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