No game captures the ebb and flow of a titanic battle between the forces of good and evil quite like The Wonderful 101. There are dozens of almighty scraps in PlatinumGames’ idiosyncratic action game, against enemies so colossal that even your 100-strong squad feels hopelessly outmatched. And the best moment in each of them is when Hiroshi Yamaguchi’s rousing battle theme, Tables Turn, kicks in. It’s the equivalent of Bill Conti’s Rocky score, at the moment our hero comes off the ropes from a pummelling and lands a haymaker on his opponent’s chin. The balance of power has shifted: the enemy might have had the upper hand, but now the fight is well and truly on.
The Wonderful 101 knows a bit about comebacks, then, and that includes its own. It wasn’t a success on release, even by the modest standards of the Wii U. Yet its reputation has grown in the years since – it’s not just Switch fever that meant PlatinumGames’ crowdfunding campaign for this remastered version smashed its modest target of £38,000, eventually reaching a total of £1.7 million. Seven years on from its debut, is this the ultimate version of Hideki Kamiya’s unique vision? Well, as far as the Switch version of The Wonderful 101: Remastered goes, there’s both good and bad news: this remains a distinctive, substantial and rewarding game, though technical hiccups and a lack of desire to address existing flaws take off some of the shine.
The original was widely misunderstood on release, and that’s only partly the game’s doing. It was frequently likened to Nintendo’s Pikmin 3, but such comparisons were misleading: The Wonderful 101 is very much within PlatinumGames’ wheelhouse: more character-action game than real-time strategy, even with you commanding a 100-strong army. But there’s so much more here. At times it’s a one-on-one brawler, at others an on-rails shooter. There’s platforming, puzzles QTEs and minigames besides. If variety is the spice of life, then The Wonderful 101 would rank alongside the ghost pepper on the Scoville scale.
This maximalist approach is in keeping with director Hideki Kamiya’s loving homage to the effects-heavy sci-fi serials of his youth, such as Kamen Rider and Ultraman. Its story pits your army of superheroes against an invading alien force, the wonderfully-named GEATHJERK (it stands for Guild of Evil Aliens Terrorizing Humans with Jiggawatt bombs, Energy beams, Ray guns and Killer lasers, for those taking notes) in a series of battles that take you from a ground invasion into the stratosphere and beyond. The characters are all larger-than-life archetypes, but the clichés are deliberate, and the whole thing is played with its tongue firmly in its cheek.
You control up to 100 of these heroes at once, gathered in a tight group around a single leader. Over time, you’ll recruit a series of special characters that afford you a range of abilities that let the group transform into giant weapons. Using the right stick or the touchscreen – though we wouldn’t recommend the latter – you’ll draw simple shapes to become a giant fist, a sword, a gun, a whip and more. It’s hardly second nature, but once you realise that many of these equate to the kind of brisk stick movements you use in other fighting games (simple lateral movements and quarter-circles, for the most part, will serve you well) the combos really start to flow.
Draw a larger glyph, and you’ll produce a more powerful weapon, though it’s not just slower to draw but also to wield. A laser blast or barrage of bombs might hit your comically-oversized sword before you’ve even started the backswing, forcing you to recover your stunned allies and start again. Alternatively, you can jab X to send a few of your group towards an enemy to chip away at them: with a large enough group you’ll temporarily incapacitate them, giving you room to (literally) bring out the big guns. Later, with the Multi-Unite ability unlocked, you can draw multiple weapons, sending a small group to auto-attack with a whip or sword while you ready a giant mallet to bop them over the head with. Like many of the studio’s other games, you’ll regularly be graded on how efficiently you fought, and how much damage you took.
Your weapons aren’t just for combat, either, as Kamiya and co. find increasingly inventive ways to use them in puzzles and set-pieces. The sword becomes a key and a pole vault; the fist screws open giant gachapon machines containing potential new recruits when you’re short of numbers; the hammer can protect you from an aerial bombardment or let you sink underwater. They make for more exciting QTEs, too: when you’ve been launched through the air and have a few seconds to draw a fist to grab onto a flying hydra’s wing, do you do it in a hurry or take your time and get a score bonus for drawing a larger circle?
With the action flowing seamlessly into cutscenes and back, it constantly keeps you on your toes. But The Wonderful 101’s kitchen-sink approach to game design leads to moments of indiscipline. One problem is that it doesn’t explain itself properly – the tutorials still aren’t quite fit for purpose, meaning it’s easy to miss important details. The Unite moves for blocking and dodging have at least been made much cheaper to buy from the in-game shop, but you could go the whole game without realising that certain pickups can be mixed together between missions to produce restorative items – or even a credit card that can give you early access to one of the more expensive buffs.
It’s tempting to say it wouldn’t be quite the same game without these quirks, but some will really test your patience. Take, for example, the sequence where you have to negotiate a safe route across curved platforms for 100 people on a ship that isn’t just falling apart but slowly spinning, without being able to adjust the camera from its fixed isometric perspective. The camera is a nuisance in a number of places, in fact – it doesn’t always frame the action neatly, sometimes leaving enemies obscured by scenery. You’ll find yourself being hit by attacks you couldn’t have seen coming because their windup started off-screen. The need to free up the right stick to draw Unite moves, meanwhile, results in you have to hold a shoulder button while moving the stick to rotate the camera, which makes one interior maze sequence a clumsy chore.
For all that, its reputation as a difficult game isn’t warranted. The Wonderful 101: Remastered is easily one of PlatinumGames’ more forgiving titles. It’s hard to play well – you won’t be getting too many Pure Platinum medals on your first attempt – but it’s not an overly punishing game, and you’ll rarely need to use a continue. There are a range of equippable items that act as difficulty modifiers, too: you can convert excess health to Unite energy, or vice versa, or increase the damage your Unite attacks do, at the cost of depleting the gauge quicker. A single-use item even lets you call in aerial support if you need help during a boss fight, albeit with a score penalty for doing so.
And when it gets going, and you acclimatise to the combo system, hitting enemies from multiple angles and chaining attacks as you smoothly segue between different weapons, it feels fantastic. You might rip off an enemy’s armour with a spiked whip, then launch it with a sword before peppering it with bullets. Or you might slow down a shielded enemy with a temporal bomb, giving you time to pry open its carapace with a pair of adamantium claws. It’ll remind you of Bayonetta and Viewtiful Joe by turns – and it tips its hat to a few other games besides – but in truth, it’s not quite like any other character-action game you’ve played before.
With so much going on, the action can get a little too busy in handheld mode, with your diminutive heroes little more than specks on the Switch’s tablet display. PlatinumGames’ picture-in-picture solution to the dual-screen sequences in the Wii U version isn’t ideal, either – though it allows for some of the original’s most creative flourishes to be included, and you do at least have the ability to resize and reposition the overlay. Surprisingly, the performance seems slightly worse in docked mode – though you won’t have to squint quite so much, there are more obvious dropped frames when the action really hots up.
It’s a relatively small price to pay for The Wonderful 101: Remastered’s untrammelled ambition, however, and when the game reaches a degree of operatic silliness that makes the average anime look tame – which it does in most levels – you’ll probably feel the trade-off was worth it. These battles start huge and only escalate from there. It’s not a game that goes to 11; that’s it’s default setting.
Marrying astonishing spectacle and overwrought drama, The Wonderful 101: Remastered is one of the most memorable action games you’ll ever play. Its delirious excesses come with a price, and it’s one that’s at little harder to forgive this time, with the original’s flaws remaining untouched, and a few compromises made to accommodate the Wii U version’s dual-screen set-pieces. But for all its minor frustrations, it’s a game that rewards patience and perseverance. Grit your teeth through its control quirks and camera foibles and relish the giddy spectacle of a game that doesn’t know when to stop.