The Wonderful 101 is a game dripping with self-awareness. From the core homage/satire of Japanese Super Sentai shows to the cross-franchise nods to other games developed by Platinum, W101 is a game that revels in reference while still being devilishly unique. This is a game that starts at full speed and just keeps going. The tutorial level sees the main character literally exploding into action as a school bus full of children is attacked by aliens. The plot is basic: Save the world from the evil alien organisation GEATHJERK with your kitschy team of archetypal heroes dubbed “The Wonderful 100.” But this is a game with no pretence. It knows it has mined every trope in the book, and it doesn’t care. And with presentation and mechanical depth like this, you won’t care either.
Those expecting “superhero Pikmin” are in for a nasty surprise. While Pikmin isn’t afraid to pile on the pressure towards the end, it eases you into this by way of extended tutorial levels on a backdrop of pleasant, non-threatening greenery. W101’s learning curve is more like a wall you crash into. The first thirty minutes of any players experience are likely to be incredibly confusing as you scramble to make sense of the frenetic mess of bodies and hit effects that clutter your screen. “What even killed me?!” is a shameful feeling. Don’t be put off. Learning W101 is like learning a language. At first, your page is nothing but nonsense squiggles. But with persistence, the meaning that was always there begins to reveal itself to you. As the mechanics get clearer, you will realise how tightly controlled the Wonderful 100 really are. The primary method of attack is fusing heroes into huge structures called “Unite Morphs” that are then used as weapons. The structure (be it first, sword, gun or something stranger) uses heroes as a resource (more heroes=bigger morph) but is otherwise straightforward. On top of this, however, the player can create AI-controlled Unite Morphs and hurl surplus heroes onto enemies to overwhelm them in a mass attack. All of these techniques (and more) can be used more or less simultaneously. The result is that the members of your super-army can be as autonomous or as unified as you are comfortable with. W101 manages to be chaotic without being random.
Like other games in director Hideki Kamiya’s portfolio, there is a great deal of depth to the mechanics. You can get through the game just chipping away at your foes, but don’t expect to beat W101’s multiple unlockable difficulties without becoming a master at mixing and matching every skill in the book. After every level you will be graded for your performance, and you will not be judged kindly. But while death will hurt your end of level score, it never sets you back very far, so the player who just wants to beat the game without worrying about points is also accommodated. At a time when many games seem rushed, W101 feels like it was crafted with love. This shines most in the heroes themselves: while there is a core handful of main characters, every single member of the team is individually playable. What’s more, they each have their own costume theme, biography, and catch phrase. Character designs are simple, but iconic, proportioned like living action figures. Every level bursts with colour and vibrancy, rivalling even Nintendo’s first party offerings. The sound, too, is almost flawless. Voice acting is appropriately cheesy, but never phoned in, while a blaring orchestra and male choir cheer you on while you fight.
The game is not perfect, however. Because of the cluttered nature of play (fights may have over 200 characters on screen) the perspective is zoomed out to allow full appreciation of the battlefield. This means missing a lot of detail, and at later stages being overwhelmed by activity. The perspective is especially atrocious when the game starts throwing out platforming segments with perilous obstacles and drops. Then there’s the perennially controversial issue of QTEs. W101 is full of them. No doubt these sections are great to look at. Yet, they sometimes occur with such frequency and are so simple (Press B. Okay now do it three more times) that it feels like they are plugging a hole where more interactive content could be. When considering that there’s almost no penalty to failing the QTEs (you resume right where you left off) and that the failure animations are often unique and hilarious, you almost feel like a mug for completing them correctly. That said, W101 (fittingly) manages to poke fun at this convention too, and in a way that you can’t help but appreciate. To explain would be to spoil.
101’s biggest win is managing to meld barefaced cheesiness and real emotional investment. Just like the crazy, high-octane Sentai shows of yesteryear, W101 takes a wacky basis and builds a story and characters on it that you can easily find yourself caring about. The final act exponentially piles on the crazy, yet never feels like it’s truly jumped the shark. This is a game that will take you back to a time when you didn’t think Power Ranger spandex was embarrassing. Like a great holiday, W101 is an experience you can look back on with sublime fondness. Just like you don’t remember the mosquito bites, the itching sunburn and the food poisoning while perusing your beach pics, W101 is all in all so enjoyable that you can forgive its flaws.
Make no mistake: this game is hard and will not crack if approached casually. For lovers of character action games and/or Super Sentai shows, this game is a must-play. For anyone else who thirsts for a fast-paced, challenging and unique experience that will eat up as much of your time as you allow it to, I strongly suggest giving W101 a try.
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