A disappointing remaster of a flawed game.
PlatinumGames’ mastery over the action games genre is known in all corners of the industry by now, and while the likes of Metal Gear Rising and Bayonetta 2 get countless plaudits for being some of the best games in the genre, one game from the developer’s portfolio in particular often gets overlooked. That game is The Wonderful 101, a 2013 Wii U title that never quite got its time in the sun, and also failed to make any impact from a commercial standpoint.
Thanks to a surprising crowdfunded campaign though, The Wonderful 101: Remastered has become PlatinumGames’ first ever self-published game, bringing the unique action experience over to current-gen systems and PC, and in the process, gives those who never gave the game a chance nearly a decade ago another opportunity to see what it’s all about. The million dollar question here, of course, is this- does The Wonderful 101 do anything meaningful with this second chance?
"What we have here is a game that isn’t the easiest recommendation- but one that a limited number of people might still find plenty of enjoyment in, should they be able to look past its deficiencies."
The answer to that question isn’t as straightforward as you might think. In giving PS4, Switch, and PC players the chance the play (or replay) the game, this remaster makes sure that people get to experience one of the most unique games industry legend Hideki Kamiya and Platinum have ever made- which is a good thing, of course. At the same time though, it also lays bare many of the game’s biggest flaws once more- the same flaws that were as much of an issue in 2013 as they are in 2020. What we have as a result, then, is a game that isn’t the easiest recommendation- but one that a limited number of people might still find plenty of enjoyment in, should they be able to look past its deficiencies.
Like all games made by Platinum and directed by Kamiya, The Wonderful 101 is bashful, cheesy, and ridiculous- and well aware of it. Its central conceit of a group of superheroes warding off an alien invasion is not the most original thing in the world, but it uses that premise to great effect, with charming characters full of personality, gags and jokes that almost always lead to at the very least a chuckle, and above all, in true Platinum fashion, an incredible sense of style. The world created here isn’t the most complex or deep, but it’s established and sold effectively. You might not always care about what’s going on in the story, or what happens to the characters, or who betrays whom, but you’ll always be happy to at least be along for the ride.
The main attraction, however, obviously isn’t the story. The main attraction is the combat and the action, which isn’t surprising at all for a Platinum game. And it’s here where the cracks begin to appear. The Wonderful 101’s fresh take on the action genre was well worthy of praise back in 2013, and it still is in the remaster – there’s still not a lot else like it on the market – but once again, the execution of the concept leaves something to be desired.
"The world created here isn’t the most complex or deep, but it’s established and sold effectively. You might not always care about what’s going on in the story, or what happens to the characters, or who betrays whom, but you’ll always be happy to at least be along for the ride."
The camera, for starters, can be a huge pain at times. Given how the camera is usually zoomed out during combat, it can be hard to keep track of your group’s leader- in fact, it can be hard to keep track of a great many things amidst all the on-screen chaos. When multiple enemies are attacking you at once, keeping an eye on all of them and being aware of the different attacks that different enemy types might hurl your way isn’t always the easiest task- and it doesn’t help that all too often, attacks can come at you suddenly from off-screen enemies, giving you almost no time to react or defend yourself.
The camera was an issue in the Wii U release as well, but surprisingly, something that actually works worse in the remaster is the central mechanic of drawing. The Wonderful 101 requires you to draw basic patterns on the screen to essentially transform your group of heroes into various kinds of weapons, including giant fists, swords, guns, whips, and more. You can draw using the touch screen, or with the right analog stick, but both options present problems.
Drawing on the touch screen is obviously a lot easier, but since you now have to use your finger instead of a style, it can feel a bit awkward to get your hands off the Switch’s buttons in tense moments to draw patterns on the screen. There’s also the fact that if you want to play the game with your Switch docked, drawing patterns on the screen isn’t an option. That leaves you with using the right analog stick, which is much worse. Not only can it be very inaccurate, the game also tends to read your inputs wrong at times, confusing one for the other and thus giving you weapons you did not want to equip. During frenetic combat sequences, this can lead to frustrating situations.
"I was hoping – as I’m sure many others were as well – that Platinum would have taken this chance to sand off the game’s rough edges to help it shine the way it originally should have on the Wii U, but unfortunately, that isn’t the case with this remaster."
When it does work, it works very well. At the best of times, combat in The Wonderful 101 is punchy, flashy, and stylish. Figuring out what enemies’ weakness are and juggling multiple enemies at the same time can lead to thrilling fights, and when you’re in that perfect flow of dodging, attacking, and seamlessly switching weapons (when the game lets you, at least), combat feels blissfully exciting. I only wish these moments – which is clearly what the game was designed around – weren’t let down by the frustrating issues I talked about earlier.
The fact that these issues still exist in a remaster of a seven year old game is all the more disappointing. I was hoping – as I’m sure many others were as well – that Platinum would have taken this chance to sand off the game’s rough edges to help it shine the way it originally should have on the Wii U, but unfortunately, that isn’t the case with this remaster.
Another example of old issues that should have been ironed out but still persist in the remaster is how frustratingly obtuse the game can be with puzzles and set-pieces at times. The Wonderful 101 doesn’t use visual language very well, and quite often fails to properly communicate to the player what you should be doing in a situation. For instance, insta-death sequences might require you to use a very specific weapon on a very specific object in a very short window of time, but the game doesn’t give any indication of what you’re supposed to do, frequently leading to frustrating fail-states. Of course, through a lot of trial and error, you do start to pick things up yourself, but these moments always feel like an unnecessary blemish. Simple QoL improvements in the remaster could have easily ironed out these moments, but such improvements are nowhere to be found.
"Simple QoL improvements in the remaster could have easily ironed out these moments, but such improvements are nowhere to be found."
There’s a lot that you have to forgive in The Wonderful 101, and a lot that you have to tolerate. If you have enough patience to put up with its many flaws, you’ll find the seeds of slick action game with some inventive ideas- but it’s understandable that a lot of people won’t have that kind of patience. Back in 2013, The Wonderful 101 was a flawed game, but one with some really good ideas. It’s still that in 2020- but seven years later, I was hoping it would be a lot more.
This game was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch.
Likeable characters; Charming, silly humour; When the combat works, it works like a wonder.
Frustrating camera issues; Drawing patterns can be awkward on the touchscreen, and woefully inaccurate with the analog stick; Lack of clear visual language makes many puzzles and set-pieces very obtuse.
Back in 2013, The Wonderful 101 was a flawed game, but one with some really good ideas. It's still that in 2020- but seven years later, I was hoping it would be a lot more.