Frustration and elation: The Wonderful 101

Wonderful 101 box artI finished The Wonderful 101 at the weekend, and I’m still not sure whether I enjoyed it or not. The game has a nasty habit of being utterly opaque and confusing, yet it offers up moments of sheer delight along the way.

For the first few hours of the game I was frankly lost. The basic idea is that you control a group of 100 heroes – the Wonderful 100 (the 101st is you, the player, cheesily) – and you can morph them into various shapes by drawing on the touch screen. At first you begin with just a few heroes and can only form a fist, but the number of heroes and the moves you can perform steadily increase across the game, so by the end you’ll be drawing screen-filling boomerangs and the like.

But to start with, it’s just bewildering. The game keeps throwing new moves at you and then expecting you to remember how to use them with little prompting. An example is when fighting one of the first boss battles, a giant robot. I struggled for ages to work out how to get across to its other arm to destroy some temptingly glowy blue orbs on its fist, but I was totally stuck. I ended up looking online for an answer, and the solution was to use a ‘Wonder-bridge’ – a concept that had been introduced only once, very briefly, about an hour previously in game time (and about three days previously in real time).

It took me AGES to work out how to get from one arm to the other.
It took me AGES to work out how to get from one arm to the other.

There are loads of instances like this where the game provides you with very little clue about what you’re meant to be doing. At first I had absolutely no idea how the fighting worked whatsoever – it was only by trial and error that I worked out that only the ‘lead’ hero takes damage and that the trailing heroes can be hit without depleting the energy meter. In another example, I died tens of times on the opening levels, utterly unsure of how to avoid enemy attacks, and it was only after I purchased the ‘dodge’ move that I could turn the tables (I’ve no idea why this move isn’t included in the basic move set from the start, as it’s almost impossible to play the game without it). Really, the difficulty curve is all wrong – the game is intensely frustrating and hard at the start, but by the last few levels you’ll be breezing through it thanks to more powerful moves and increased numbers of heroes.

Then there’s the controls. Drawing the morph shapes on the touch screen is a fun idea, but you quickly realise that it’s much easier and quicker to draw the shapes using the right thumb stick, and by the end I wasn’t using the touch screen at all. Drawing your attacks is a unique idea, but it also feels like a bit of a gimmick – the need to stop and draw your next attack means that combos never feel very fluid, and I can’t help thinking that using more traditional button combinations would actually have improved the game.

The cut scenes are frustrating too. Some of the writing and acting is very good, but almost without exception they drag on for FAR too long – perhaps as a result of trying to cram in so many characters. Plus some of the jokes really aren’t that funny – in particular, the gag about Wonder-Red laboriously giving everyone their full title every time he addresses them begins to grate almost immediately. Also, there’s an awkward adultness about some of the dialogue that jars horribly with a cartoonish game that’s designed to appeal to children – nob gags and cougar references really don’t belong here.

The colourful graphics really look sensational.
The colourful graphics really look sensational.

Then there’s the way that some boss fights can drag on for ridiculous amounts of time (clearly a homage to the epic fights in Dragonball Z), but this all too often ends up as irritating, as is the way that the gameplay style keeps changing throughout a level. Every now and then the game will ask you to pilot a spaceship or robot after a brief screen showing the new controls, and by the time you’ve properly worked out what you’re meant to be doing, the game has dumped that section and moved onto something else. The effect is bewildering, although it delights too: there are clear homages to Punch-Out!!, Space Harrier and the Neo-Geo game Viewpoint on several stages, and these brought a big smile to my face. God knows what an eight-year-old would make of them though.

I’ve been very negative about the game so far, but there are plenty of plus points too. For a start it looks… ahem… wonderful. Often there will be hundreds of sprites on screen at once, all bursting with colour, and the stages are brilliantly inventive. One moment you’ll be shooting down flying saucers from a rooftop, and the next you’ll have plunged inside a building to solve a puzzle – represented by the characters moving onto the gamepad screen. The bosses are utterly enormous, and fighting them really feels momentous and exciting. The trouble is that every time I found myself grinning away in delight, some big fat gameplay problem would rear up and smack all of the fun out of it.

I think the problem to an extent is that the designers made a game for themselves. This is no bad thing in itself: as Sir Gaulian often points out, games that have too much input from fans and publishers tend to lose their focus and individuality. But in this case, it feels like the designers made a game they wanted to play, including all of the nob gags and obscure game references, but then forgot to tell everyone else how to play it. The first few levels are a masterclass in how to bewilder and alienate new players (I was ready to give up on a few occasions), and the overly long cut scenes just feel like self-indulgence.

Overall this is a worthy purchase if you own a Wii U, as long as you’re prepared to put up with a stupidly steep learning curve and are willing to embrace the frustrations the game throws at you. However, it’s very much a cult game rather than perhaps the universally appealing classic that Nintendo needed or wanted. I’m glad I made it through to the end – in particular, one gag in the final battle made me laugh out loud – but I doubt many will have the patience to get this far.

[Penned by the Wonderful Lucius Merriweather.]