The Wonderful 101: Remastered Review — Strength in Numbers
PlatinumGames’ 100-hero action game gets its much deserved second chance.
In 2013, PlatinumGames released The Wonderful 101, and it almost seemed doomed from the start.
It was an experimental action game coming from a studio that, while highly respected, wasn’t known for producing titles that broke the bank. On top of that, the game was a Nintendo-published exclusive to the Wii U, a console that was struggling to find its footing and unfortunately never did. Critically, the game fared well. Commercially, it bombed.
But for the few people The Wonderful 101 did reach, it struck a chord. Its gameplay premise was — and in many ways still is — pretty unique, its characters were colorful and charming, and its story was delivered with a presentation and sense of humor so earnest that it would be hard for anyone not to at least crack a smile at.
There was a good game here, albeit rough around the edges. A cult classic that fans and PlatinumGames both believed needed a second chance, especially now that the studio is much more of a household name thanks to its work on NieR: Automata and Astral Chain in the years since.
Flash forward to 2020, and The Wonderful 101 received just that. Taking matters into its own hands, PlatinumGames crowd-funded and self-published The Wonderful 101: Remastered through a Kickstarter campaign, giving it a shot to find a larger audience nearly seven years later, this time with versions for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC via Steam.
By and large, The Wonderful 101: Remastered is the same game from 2013, but comes with a few notable adjustments and updates to make it work on modern platforms, as well as to make things a bit more approachable overall to new players. The remaster doesn’t fix every complaint the original Wii U version may have had, but the quality of life changes it did bring are welcome.
Up front, load times have been heavily reduced from the Wii U, drastically cutting back on the downtime spent in the loading screen’s training area, and getting you into missions much, much quicker.
The game runs at 1080p on all platforms (bumped up to 2160p on PS4 Pro, and dropped to 720p undocked on Switch) and targets a 60 fps framerate. It doesn’t always succeed in hitting that mark, though, dropping in sections where there’s a lot happening on screen. The Wii U version had the same problem. But to the remaster’s credit, it’s much less severe, and hardly an issue when it does occur.
Difficulty has also been rebalanced when it comes to the easier options, tuning them to be a bit more relaxed for anyone picking up the game for the first time, while keeping the normal and up difficulties intact. Controls for special gameplay sections can be viewed again by clicking in the left stick, whereas they disappeared for good as soon as you hit the A button in the original. And the game now offers hints for certain puzzles and fights where it wasn’t communicated effectively what players needed to do the first time around.
Finally, to compensate for the loss of the Wii U Gamepad, The Wonderful 101’s picture-in-picture display option is now the default for puzzles and mechanics that made use of the second screen. That display is customizable, too, allowing you to change the size of the second window and drag it to any part of the screen as needed, or put both displays in an even dual-window view altogether.
The Switch also adopted the Wii U Gamepad’s touch controls in portable mode, allowing you to draw out Unite Morphs on the Switch’s touchscreen, should that be your preferred control method for that mechanic.
Now, onto The Wonderful 101 itself.
In a set up inspired by Super Sentai in Japan or Power Rangers here in the West, the game puts you in control of the Wonderful 100 (pronounced “One-Double-O”), a superhero task force sent in to protect Earth from an imposing alien army known as GEATHJERK (an acronym for Guild of Evil Aliens Terrorizing Humans with Jiggawatt bombs, Energy beams, Ray guns and Killer lasers…I kid you not).
Rather than controlling just a single character at a time, the game lets you play as a team of up to 100 heroes at once from an isometric viewpoint. By finding Wonderful Ones hidden throughout the game or recruiting citizens to lend a temporary hand, you use abilities called “Unite Morphs” to fight off aliens often far bigger than you, solve puzzles, and take out GEATHJERK’s ranks one-by-one.
Unite Morphs are activated by using the right stick to draw basic shapes, which will cause team members to quite literally form together to create a weapon based on what you drew, with the size of it and the amount of damage it can deal dependent on the number of members in your group and the charge of your Unite Gauge in the top left of the HUD.
It’s a highly creative way to approach combat, but summoning the Unite Morph you need isn’t always as easy as it could be. The Wonderful 101 moves at a breakneck pace and requires quick thinking as a result. Gameplay goes into slow motion to give you a second to draw the shape you need, but it doesn’t always register, which can be frustrating when you see a mechanical fist about to drop on you as soon as you let go of the stick or when you see your Unite Gauge drain because one Morph keeps getting confused for another.
There are several main Unite Morph abilities that you will use heavily throughout the game, which are introduced gradually through an ensemble cast that stand front and center at the Wonderful 100 and serve as the stars of the story. Wonder-Red, for example, is a stoic young leader that can summon a giant fist to punch through enemies; Wonder-Blue is a sword-wielding hothead with authority issues; Wonder-Green is a skilled, but spoiled, sniper; and Wonder-Pink is a bubbly, but short-tempered diva with a whip.
Each character’s ability is based on their weapon, and can provide their own unique advantages in combat depending on what’s in front of you. Facing an armored enemy? Wonder-Pink’s whip can yank their shield away. Airborne foes? Wonder-Green can shoot them out of the sky.
Each cast member also has their own distinct personality, which shines through even more in their character models thanks to the game’s toy-like art style and exaggerated movements. They all have their own backgrounds and reasons for becoming a hero, too. Some are tucked away in the game’s character files, while the layers for others are progressively peeled back as the story goes on, offering some surprisingly touching moments in a game that otherwise presents itself as unbridled fun.
The Wonderful 101 unabashedly tries to throw everything it has at you every step of the way, and that’s made perfectly clear with the first operation. By the time you complete it, you’ve already fought off hordes of GEATHJERK soldiers, met Wonder-Green and learned his Unite Morph, fought more aliens and the stage’s boss inside a baseball stadium, chased the boss through a Star Fox style rails shooting section as he tries to get away on the back of a mechanical two-headed dragon, fought that dragon (and him again), then put on the finishing touches with some of the most stylish quick-time events out there, all set to an incredible theme song that’s been re-recorded with an orchestra just for the remaster.
It’s great, and every operation carries its own variation of that formula, some definitely to more success than others. But that aforementioned breakneck pace can be a double-edged sword.
The Wonderful 101’s story is spread across nine operations, with all but one being broken up into three sections. The first two sections usually consist of the standard action combat, with a gameplay twist or two thrown in there along the way to keep things interesting. The third, meanwhile, is always a grand spectacle of a boss fight. It’s a three-act structure perhaps unsurprisingly similar to a typical villain of the week episode of Power Rangers, and usually takes about 45 minutes to an hour to complete the first time through.
While there’s nothing wrong with that approach, I’d argue the setup is at its most effective when taken in small doses, playing one operation through, then coming back later to do another.
Playing large chunks of the game all at once, seeing each operation continually try to one-up the last didn’t take long to grow tiring. Some stretches of gameplay felt too stretched out, the big, multi-phase boss fights went from an exciting challenge to feeling like a chore after a while, and the 12-15 hours it takes for a first playthrough felt like an eternity.
Personally, I still very much loved the game, just not that I shotgunned it in nearly one sitting the way that I did for this review.
The Wonderful 101 isn’t a perfect game, but it’s definitely a unique one. Instead of having just one hero to control, it has many all acting as one. It tries to make every boss fight an absolute spectacle, while throwing in an entire section that’s a reference to another game, because why not? It never takes itself seriously, yet knows its characters well enough to produce genuinely heartfelt moments. It’s rough around the edges, but gives everything it has. In a way, the game encapsulates everything PlatinumGames is.
The Wonderful 101 is not for everybody, and while the Wii U didn’t really do it any favors, I think it’s initial reception was proof of that. But time has passed, tastes change, word of mouth spreads, and appreciation grows. So maybe, with The Wonderful 101: Remastered, “not for everybody” includes at least a few more people this time.
Also, the orchestral recording of “Tables Turn” is…well, wonderful…I’ll see myself out.