The Wonderful 101 Remastered Review - Mob Mentality

  • First Released Sep 15, 2013
  • NS

The Wonderful 101 Remastered revives one of the Wii U’s most experimental games, but that doesn’t make it worth revisiting.

The Wonderful 101 is the latest in a long line of Wii U games to get a second chance at life on the Nintendo Switch. Platinum’s wacky Sentai superhero story was a true-blue made-for-Wii U experience: Using a combination of traditional buttons and hand-drawn symbols, you corral and control a mob of up to 100 characters who fight through beat-'em-up arenas, navigating reaction-based puzzle-platforming challenges and a litany of setpiece minigames. But something feels off about The Wonderful 101 Remastered. The seeds of Platinum’s best games are there--the snappy dodging and parrying, the clever writing and design, the demand that you hone the craft of controlling your characters--but it’s hard to appreciate them in a game that demands mastery over its complex mechanics without taking the time to properly explain how they work. Combined with new technical issues, The Wonderful 101 Remastered doesn’t just fail to make the generational jump, it forces us to question whether it warranted a second look.

The Wonderful 101 tells the story of Earth’s costumed global defense force, the Wonderful 100, who fight off an alien invasion. It’s a light, peppy romp across secret labs and cities under siege by aliens. Though there are 100 members, the narrative focuses on a few core, color-coded characters--trope-borne personas who exchange quips through their adventures.

Though the deeply campy storytelling creates some amusing moments, the story indulges a little too much in Sentai’s penchant for stretching out dramatic moments with sudden but ultimately inconsequential plot twists. Many a boss fight ends with you defeating your opponent and declaring victory, only for them to get up so you can beat them two or three more times. The jokes, good and bad, always overstay their welcome.

Thankfully, both the story and gameplay move at a very rapid pace. Levels jump from action to cutscene to puzzle to recurring setpiece minigames, including spaceship shoot-em-up sequences and Punch Out-style mech boxing. This is a game that’s supposed to move quickly and overload your brain with its massive scale, punchy wit, and great gameplay variety.

In theory, the blend of traditional action control and touchscreen gestures helps maintain that frenetic pace. You control a single member of the Wonderful 100 crew, who leads the entire group around in a mini mob of Pikmin-like pixel-people.

The team moves through each level, bouncing across platforms and fighting off waves of gigantic-looking aliens using the Wonderful 101’s curious, touchpad-controlled superpower, “uniting” the mob into giant weapons and tools for the leader. To build up your strength, you can rescue and deputize civilians into the Wonderful 100, increasing the maximum charge of your attacks. Like so many aspects of this game, the concept works well when you understand its mechanics, but it’s only explained in the broadest terms. It’s also used in puzzles, often without explanation, which creates unnecessary confusion.

Each of the core story heroes has a different weapon, which you summon by drawing a quick symbol, either using the right analog stick or the touchscreen in handheld mode. (Technically, you can also switch among the heroes using the second screen menu, which you can bring up picture-in-picture-style in the lower-right corner of the screen when you want it.) Each of the weapons has a number of uses in and out of combat. Wonder-Red, for example, summons a giant hand that can punch, but also turns giant gears and often grabs ledges and things in quick-time events. You also draw a large number of utilitarian abilities, like a hang glider, and contextual symbols for specific moments. Suddenly switching from thinking about pushing buttons to drawing shapes always manages to incite a small jolt of panicked excitement, whether you’re asked to do it mid-cutscene or to switch up your tactics during a fight.

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The mechanic still feels very clever, especially in combat. Once you get past the early-game grunts, each enemy has specific weaknesses to exploit: Learning how to hit enemies hardest and how to counter their attacks makes for fast, but very tactical combat. Though there are a limited number of enemies, each level brings new combinations and environments to make situations more challenging and keep the intensity up, even when you have the tactic down for a specific opponent.

Unfortunately, though, the drawing mechanic becomes a liability in the Remaster. If you play on your TV, you have to use the right analog stick to draw, which isn’t precise. Even with plenty of time, it can take two or three tries to get the game to detect the criss-cross “claw” symbol instead of the similar wavy “whip” sign. Drawing is much easier in handheld mode, since you can use the touchscreen, but the small screen makes it harder to tell what’s going on, especially when the camera pulls way out to accommodate a very large enemy. It can be tough either way, though, as the size of your drawing is determined by how many characters you have on your team. It’s pretty easy to get carried away and run out of runway.

That said, it’s hard to tell what’s going on no matter what. The camera constantly feels misplaced. It gets too close during platforming sequences, making it hard to see where you’re going, and pull back too far during combat, making it hard to keep track of the character you control among the mass of tiny heroes running around.

Unfortunately, the drawing mechanic becomes a liability in the Remaster.

And sometimes, the game is too clever for its own good. Outside of combat, many of the rules and visual cues for how to address its puzzles, which are almost always timed, are unclear. Wonder-Green, who carries a gun, destroys a water tank in an early segment to put out a fire. From that point on, you are expected to know that, when you see anything hot, you use the gun to destroy a tank to put it out. Many hours later, when faced with an oncoming lava flow during a chase sequence, I didn’t think to shoot an unmarked tank to cool it before I was killed. While there is a logic that connects these puzzles, it’s a stretch to assume that I would see fire and think “shoot tank to put out the fire,” especially without any indication that the tank would cool off the lava. Wonderful 101 is littered with these kinds of logical leaps, often in puzzles that need to be solved under pressure. There’s nothing more frustrating than charging into a situation full-speed and dying without any idea of what you did wrong.

Many of The Wonderful 101’s issues--unexplained mechanics, finicky drawing controls, and so on--are exacerbated by the less-than-polished state of the Switch port. Technical issues with the save system, hit detection, camera controls, and drawing all created enough doubt in my mind that, when I experienced a problem or got stuck, I wondered whether I was misunderstanding the game or if something wasn’t working.

Even if the technical hiccups get fixed in a patch, though, the Wonderful 101 doesn’t stand the test of time. Remastered or not, I constantly felt like there were missing steps or if I was figuring things out too slowly to keep up with the hyperactive story and its multifaceted gameplay. What’s more, the transition to the Switch, even with its touchscreen capabilities has only exacerbated the game’s core problems. There’s a great concept and the good combat mechanics we know Platinum can achieve in there, but you’ll need a lot of patience to find them.

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The Good

  • Drawing/beat-'em-up combat is fast and tactical

The Bad

  • Serious camera issues get in the way of basic gameplay
  • Under-explained mechanics frequently leave you questioning what to do
  • Unclear puzzles and timers don’t mix, creating frustration
  • Drawing mechanics do not translate well to the Switch, whether in docked or handheld mode
  • Numerous technical issues exacerbate the game's more obtuse aspects

About the Author

Mike Epstein played The Wonderful 101 Remastered for about 20 hours. If he joined a Sentai squad, he would want to be the green one. His code for The Wonderful 101 Remastered was provided by the publisher.