It’s a Not-So-Wonderful Life

As Nintendo tried to get everyone hyped up for the release of the Wii U, few titles intrigued and excited players more than The Wonderful 101, long known only as “Project P-100.” Much like several other titles that were supposed to arrive during the system’s launch window, however, The Wonderful 101 experienced countless delays and technical issues during the final stages of development. As it slipped further and further away from its original release-date projections, its relevancy in the Wii U’s lineup became more and more diminished.

Now, instead of a title that helps champion the Wii U’s cause from the start, The Wonderful 101 finds itself as a lone new IP drowning among more established Nintendo franchises slated for the console in the second half of 2013. After finally getting my hands on it, though, I found that while it doesn’t totally overcome its well-documented development difficulties, it doesn’t get swept permanently beneath the waves, either.

As the game begins, Earth has come under attack for the third time from a group of alien terrorists known as the Geathjerk. The invaders are powerful, but the Earth’s premier defense team, the Wonderful 100, have always quelled the threat before. This time, however, they can’t make a dent in the Geathjerk’s offensive onslaught individually, so they must come together and unite into fantastic objects and weapons to help subdue the otherworldly threat and send these space invaders back from whence they came.

On the surface, The Wonderful 101 is exactly what the Wii U needs. Its vibrant art style is a throwback to the work director Hideki Kamiya and producer Atsushi Inaba did together on Viewtiful Joe, and it stands out from the realistic first-person shooters and action-adventures continually flooding the market. The humor and story falls directly in line with what you’d expect from Platinum Games, and the voice acting only helps carry this across, with some solid performances from veterans like Tara Strong as Wonder-Pink and Roger Craig Smith as Wonder-Blue. What’s more, the core concept of 100 (relatively) normal people coming together to do extraordinary things and become heroes is a message that gamers of all ages can get behind.

But ideas and concepts can only get you so far. At the end of the day, it all comes down to execution—and this is where The Wonderful 101 falters. As aesthetically pleasing as the game may be, its controls—which force players to use the Wii U GamePad for several features—are a far tougher opponent than any of the alien Geathjerk.

The Wonderful 101 is really meant to be played with two screens, but it’s technically capable of Off-TV Play. Unfortunately, because of the horrendous camera—which is usually either too close or too far out to be effective—you can hardly see anything on the tiny screen to actually advance. During the handful of indoor sequences when the game abruptly shifts to a first-person perspective, you might as well be blind. GamePad-only play also disables the drawing capabilities of the controller, so you then have to trace all the symbols that have your Wonderful Ones unite by using the right analog stick and an invisible cursor, which is far too sensitive to be used in any capacity in this game. Basically, you’d have to be a glutton for punishment to even attempt Off-TV Play here.

When you do play on your TV, it’s quite the opposite. You can use the GamePad to draw the necessary shapes to make different offensive forms like massive fists, swords, guns, whips, or hammers, or you can use it to change the environment around you or temporarily recruit ordinary citizens by drawing a circle. While the right-analog-stick method is too sensitive during Off-TV Play, drawing on the tablet isn’t sensitive enough—it’ll either give you the wrong weapon or completely ignore what you’ve drawn altogether.

The worst part? The pacing during the action sequences is all out of whack. Having to draw on the GamePad isn’t nearly as quick as pressing a button, yet many of the combat situations require those split-second reflexes. For much of the game, especially early on, you’ll be dealing with a horrendous learning curve. Battles will drag on and on, and levels will become akin to marathons with very little payoff—you’ll get pummeled by the Geathjerk when trying to draw lines while running around like a chicken with its head cut off.

At times, though, these marathon battles are worthwhile—and that comes when you finally get to the chapter boss. These behemoths are truly terrifying: They fill sports stadiums, consume skyscrapers, or plug up volcanoes, and they definitely put the weapon forms you acquire to the test. But unlike the missions that lead up to these encounters, you actually have a great sense of accomplishment when you topple one of these kaiju-like beasts.

And that’s the essential problem with The Wonderful 101—it doesn’t live up to its full potential, and a large part of that comes with being on the Wii U. A regular controller and simpler method of switching forms would’ve been far more effective than shoehorning features into the GamePad, and a shorter buildup to the boss battles would’ve been preferred. Players with the patience to work through the bugs and pacing problems should leave at least somewhat satisfied, but The Wonderful 101 could’ve been a true gem if Platinum had more time to polish the experience and figure out how to properly work with the Wii U hardware.

Developer: Platinum Games • Publisher: Nintendo • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 09.15.2013

A horrendous learning curve, poor story flow, and shoddy controls take away from what could have been a superstar new IP for Nintendo. Instead, only players who can look past the bugs and pacing problems will be satisfied in the end.

The Good Humor and style befitting the pedigree Platinum Games.
The Bad The touchpad drawing gimmick gets in the way of the flow of gameplay.
The Ugly Wonder-Green’s stalkerish obsession with Wonder-Pink.
The Wonderful 101 is a Wii U exclusive.