Playing The Wonderful 101 for the first time on "normal" difficulty is a stressful, headache-inducing experience that, nevertheless, delivers a genuine thrill. This isn't a game that feels as if it's gone through hundreds of concept and development meetings, nor through a corporate machine of focus testing, but rather like a project with leadership that decided to channel their inner child and produce an experience that takes the insanity of action-hero comic book fiction and translates it onto the screen fully intact. It overwhelms the senses and then goes further, which makes it wonderful.
What's immediately charming about The Wonderful 101 is its style and storytelling, which in some senses recalls the wonder of fantastical silliness that used to be at the core of superhero lore. Just look at how screen portrayals of Batman have evolved from the technicolor '60s to the scowling, faux-complex approach of the latest movies. Action and superheros, with their powers and gadgets, have become rather serious subject matter, as if a man wearing a cape and flying around with his pants on the outside is worthy of evoking any pathos. The Wonderful 101 scoffs at that, and simply goes for a tale utterly ludicrous yet typical, combined with gameplay quite unlike anything else in recent years.
The tale of Wonder Red and his compatriots has its serious moments, of course, but they're wrapped in an extrovert's cloak and quickly exchanged for some epic set-piece battling. Over the course of a campaign that stretches beyond 12 hours, you become familiar with the core heroes not just due to their individual abilities, but by learning a little more about their status as walking stereotypes. There's the fat Green, always with food in his hand, the playful and unpredictable whip-cracking Pink, nonsense-talking ninja Wonder White and, with one of many nods to Nintendo as publisher, the young Wonder Black who's forever playing a Game & Watch handheld.
No gaming awards will be won for the script, though the game makers would in all likelihood be appalled if they were, but the idea of 100 normal people worldwide having powers, and eccentricities, works well. The most fun is to be had between Wonder Blue, the dude that wants to be an actor, and the excessively noble Wonder Red, who has a funny habit of trotting out the same lengthy introductions every time he meets a foe. There are a host of other characters that swoop in and out of the tale, including snotty young Luka who's forever causing trouble, while the GEATHJERK foes — invaders of planet Earth — seem like a fitting range of demented over-sized creatures.
It's all extravagant and ridiculous, which makes it perfect video game material. The madness of the characters and settings are perfect fits, as your battles move around the world in futuristic settings — a port in the skies and a volcano are standouts — and become increasingly fantastical towards the end. The bombast and splendour is off the charts and matched by the presentation. There may by the odd rough texture, but there's a lot to enjoy in the visuals, with a gorgeous Pixar-esque art style and — when the perspective is zoomed out, a handy option — attractive environmental detail. Corny voice acting adds to the atmosphere, and the soundtrack contributes with excitable orchestration.
What all of this frenzied activity does is carry directly over into the gameplay, which can be a blessing and a curse. A great positive for the design of this title is that, despite the fact that so much happens, the unlocking of powers — either pre-determined through story progression or purchased between missions — is gradual and sensible. Basic moves start off with team attacks and Unity attacks, and early levels show you the ropes while keeping you on your toes.
This game is, undoubtedly, fiercely difficult. Starting in Normal difficulty, as we typically do, we had to quickly drop down to Easy, which was still rather challenging. In the early stages your group is small, underpowered and lacking many tricks, and though you can gather civilians as temporary members by drawing a circle around them, the limited moveset makes early enemies a tough ask. We found that Easy gave a sweet spot that pushed our abilities — including some GamePad-hurling moments — while allowing us to steadily progress.
The upgrade system feels well implemented once you find a difficulty setting that suits you (there's also Very Easy) as you become more powerful and add new Wonderful Ones to your group. The core group arrive at key points with fresh Unite abilities vital to beating certain enemies and traversing environments, and within the first half of the game you have a relatively full moveset. The Unite Hand of team leader Red is commonly used, but each new power is vital for opening gates, climbing walls or swinging across gaps, while other abilities such as a hang glider aren't linked to a character but are just as important.
And so this title is, at its core, a constant learning experience. Comparisons have been made to Pikmin 3 which, for the most part, are off the mark, but this gradual sense of education is similar, and getting struck by enemies also scatters your group, forcing you to dash around gathering them up, and occasionally call them in with the Y button. You're always controlling, moving and attacking with one core leader, but the Unite powers and their effectiveness rely on the group being together, so a focus on team isn't lost. With progress you learn to dodge, block, and then to dodge and block while dishing out damage all at once, so building up the group, learning and buying new abilities and — most importantly — learning enemy weaknesses is a case of steady progression.
On an initial playthrough there are undoubted moments of frustration that flirt with opaque design. We had various points when the solution took a good time to present itself, and some battles that flirted with being unfair. And yet, with the option to jump around difficulty levels between missions, such complaints are eased against the context of the development team showing some mercy, and it's a title that did leave us feeling foolish on multiple occasions as we toiled and then figured out the puzzle to progress or defeat an enemy after taking a fearful pounding. Over the course of many hours the brain does engage with the wacky world of this title, and greater awareness of what abilities to use where — including bridges and other environmental objects — becomes more natural.
That's not to say all quirks can be ironed out with an easier difficulty or more practice. Some segments indoors — where the view is switched to the GamePad — are awkward and clunky, with the view being a fiddle to adjust and it can occasionally become difficult to grasp the environment from such a zoomed-in perspective; forming Unite powers in these areas can also be tough, as visibility of the shape being formed is unnecessarily tricky. Forming these Unite shapes is also a process of acclimatisation, with some being easier to quickly draw in the touch screen — though problems arise if you accidentally open a sub-menu and lose the input panel — and others being more reliably drawn with the right analogue stick. We alternated between the two, ensuring that the GamePad was a natural fit.
Beyond the touch screen gestures there are other relatively minor uses of the second screen, such as accessing a Quick Help guide on the fly or switching out the colour-coded "leaders". Each Wonder One actually levels up to a limited degree, and if you discover any favourites on your travels you can choose to use them as the lead, though cut-scenes and story sequences nevertheless revert to the main stars. It's a small touch that could be considered inconsequential, but alongside extras such as pins and information collectibles work to add additional breadth to the game's universe. Off-TV play and Miiverse integration are present and correct, but in truth the GamePad screen isn't ideal for this experience on its own; there's so much on screen, so much to absorb, that the real-estate on offer doesn't feel like enough.
The single player experience is the core component that defines the title, but co-op is available in the Wonderful Missions, ten-minute undertakings of varying difficulty that focus primarily on fighting the familiar mix of mechs from the main game. Up to five players can join in using the GamePad, Pro Controllers and Classic Controllers, and they're a fun way to pass time with some friends on the couch. In a similar manner to off-TV play making the chaos difficult to absorb, having multiple colour-coded teams running around on screen is conversely fun and baffling, so confusion and laughs have to make odd bed-fellows. The missions themselves have a good mix of minions and large boss-like creatures to take on, but this is very much a side-portion to the single player adventure — probably added at Nintendo's request, we'd speculate — and little more.
It's in single player that this title comes to the fore, however, and it feels like the approach to the campaign was simply "if it's fun, put it in the game". We won't spoil any of the major surprises here, but suffice to say that footage you've seen doesn't cover a lot of the Nintendo references and genre-bending that features. With a premise where heroes can unite to create forms and a futuristic world where the enemies employ enormous mechs of various shapes and sizes, you can be comfortable in the knowledge that PlatinumGames hasn't missed the opportunity to push its ideas. Whether creatively navigating through large stages, or engaging in Battle Royales with enormous bosses — with some quick-time sequences actually adding to the fun — there's terrific variety and eye-candy to absorb.
The fact that after a playthrough we retained all of our money, crew members and upgrades — we only found just over 60 of the Wonderful 100 — means we're also more than happy to play it all over again.
For this is a game that grows with more play. Early on we wondered whether the chaos was too much, we then grew to love it. In later stages we thought some of the encounters or environmental challenges were excessive, yet we found a way. By the end we wanted more, and abilities and attack combos that seemed inconceivable in the early running became natural. With expertise comes more to learn and enjoy, and such is the breathless, extravagant cinematic flair — where no level of insanity is too much — that the spectacle and set pieces are worth revisiting. Collapsing cities, ridiculously intimidating enemies and various over-the-top sequences are unforgettable, and most pleasingly this is a title that's happy to just be a ridiculous but sublime video game.
The Wonderful 101 can be overwhelming, and the initial impression can be that it's simply bombarding the senses too much, confusing both the eyes and the thumbs. The key is to play at the right difficulty level and accept its insanity, work with its peculiar logic and remain open-minded to its mechanics. In return it delivers an exceptional experience in which no scenario is too outrageous, no enemy too exaggerated or no set-piece too excessive. It's not perfect, with some control quirks, fiddly moments and a multiplayer mode that feels tacked on, but so much about this title is thrilling. There's simply no other game on the market with such a focus on ridiculous fun - this really is a must-have title for the Wii U.