If you think the Marvel universe is absurd and over-the-top then The Wonderful 101 isn’t for you – the eponymous heroes are themed around puddings and toilets, and its enemies go by a convoluted nine-letter acronym that doesn’t even spell a real word. The heroes fight said aliens by building a massive gun out of people. What is the gun loaded with? More people.
The future-Earth of The Wonderful 101 is under siege by a highly advanced multispecies organisation of violent extraterrestrials: the Guild of Evil Aliens Terrorising Humans With Jiggawatt bombs, Energy beams, Ray guns and Killer lasers – Geathjerk for short. Rushing to earth’s defense is a network of 100 varied superheroes. The player makes that number 101.
The Wonderful 101 has a bold, unique, Playmobil art style and high-octane gameplay. One part comic-book, one part western Saturday morning cartoon, and five parts anime, its cities are packed with skyscrapers and equally tall overpasses that are levelled with reckless abandon. Every character looks like an action-figure or a cartoon character, with a rigid, polymer hairstyle and a disproportionately large cranium.
Heroes the 100 may be, but the game is all about teamwork. Individually, no member of the group could be considered truly “super”, but they can articulate together into massive structures, which are useful in both combat and puzzle solving.
Naturally, more heroes equals a larger size and greater power. For example, a sword comprised of the entire complement is a force to be reckoned with, and building up such a weapon – one that has the ability to sweep over an entire combat arena with a single swing – is awfully satisfying.
Superficially, the gameplay of The Wonderful 101 could be compared to Pikmin, and there are certainly some similarities.
For one, as with Pikmin, your team will often lag behind the leader a little, so attacks from enemies will often connect despite the leader of the group dodging them completely.
The greatest difference is that The Wonderful 101 is a beat-‘em-up with a smattering of puzzle solving, while Pikmin is the absolute inverse. Some control allowances are made for this. Holding the Y button on the Wii U's GamePad draws all 100 heroes into a tight circular formation and speeds them up a tad, so evading the blows and projectiles of enemies is much less of a pain.
In addition, unlockable abilities allow the group to deflect or avoid damage. One such ability transforms the group into a glob of jelly that deflects certain attacks, while others let the team assume the form of a rolling ball or coiled spring in order to bounce out of range quickly.
These numerous, varied forms are assumed by drawing simple shapes on the GamePad's touch screen or, much more awkwardly, laying them down with the right analogue stick. Geometry is extremely minimalistic; a sword is a straight line, a fist a circle, and a hang glider a triangle.
For ease of use, the instant the player touches the screen the action is paused, but this does disrupt the flow of combat. The number of forms that the 100 can assume is large, but not so large they couldn’t easily be represented by icons on the controller’s touchscreen.
Combat is tough, even on easy mode, and it is vital to switch between an armed state and a much more mobile unarmed state regularly.
Weapons often have applications above simply battering enemies with them; the sword can be used to deflect lasers, and the whip can be used to remove certain armour plates.
However, as there is only one button to attack with each weapon, be it fist, sword or gun, the combat occasionally verges on becoming repetitive. The game has a massive number of enemy types, but it also manages to recycle them too often, padding out its length with bland skirmishes.
The one place that the Wii U's touch interface unambiguously adds to the game is during quick time events.
The simplistic nature of most games’ quasi-interactive cutscenes make The Wonderful 101’s drawing requirement at these moments a genuinely interesting.
Developer Platinum Games is known for ludicrous setpieces and naturally they feature here too. A solid 40 minutes is spent on the body of a gigantic flying alien monstrosity, colliding with futuristic buildings and transforming into different blunt objects.
That level of action is both sustained and welcome. The Wonderful 101 follows the Independence Day school of pacing: all aliens, all the time.
It’s unsurprising, then, that its rare non-combat sections do tend to be the weakest of the game. There, the level design leaves a lot to be desired, and the game is often extremely bad at signalling what to do or where to go next.
Other sections force the player to use the GamePad's accelerometer to control the camera in certain cramped indoor areas. It doesn’t work.
The Wonderful 101 also has a multiplayer mode for up to six players, who team up on arenas full on monsters. A great deal of the bombast and subsequently the enjoyment in the game, however, comes from the settings and the set-pieces, making it categorically inferior to the singleplayer offering.
In a great number of ways, The Wonderful 101 is a conventional arcade beat-em-up, but in almost as many, the game is unique and refreshing. Certainly, there’s more than a hint of the gimmicky, but mostly its a colourful, unapologetically fun action game that doesn’t take itself at all seriously.