It might be hard to believe these days, but Nintendo don’t always get it right. While the Switch might be sold out everywhere, with millions buying in to its dual-use charms, there was a time, not so long ago, when people had thought they’d thrown the last roll of their Triforce shaped dice. After the global success of the Wii and DS, the Japanese giant doubled down on both its name, and its penchant for innovative controllers, with the Wii U. It was a move that was set to confuse consumers, and underwhelm stockists, selling a paltry 13 million consoles in its brief, four year lifespan.
There were still high points. A Nintendo system, will, always, be graced by some incredible software, and in testament to that quality, the remasters of many of those games have formed the backbone of the Switch’s software line-up allowing them to finally find an actual audience.
The library of these ‘lost’ Wii U games is drying up a touch now, but at the top of the remaining list was The Wonderful 101. For many, it’s a missing classic from PlatinumGames, a misplaced icon that bears many of the hallmarks of a development company who’ve only grown in stature with each release. Now though, after one of the easiest Kickstarter campaigns we’ve ever seen, it’s here, arriving on PC, PS4 and Nintendo Switch to finally wow the world at large.
The Wonderful 101 is all about superheroes; 100 of them in fact. It turns out that the extra one isn’t even a dalmation; it’s you. Or probably ‘U’. You set out as tiny superhero Wonder-Red, and gather a motley crew of other adventurers to your banner, all of whom will help you defeat wave after wave of robotic do-badders in quite possibly one of the most unique ways possible.
Wonderful 101 is all about unity. As you grab other superheroes, and conscript ordinary citizens by chucking them temporary hero masks, your whole team joins you in every single attack. Beyond just attacking en-masse, Wonderful 101 sees your group able to take the form of different items – a Unite Morph – that starts with a giant fist and extends to include a sword, gun, hammer and various other utility items including a giant jelly. That’s my favourite one.
Unsurprisingly, the main thing to do with these shapes is hit bad guys. As a PlatinumGames affair, there’s a great deal of emphasis placed on timing, blocking and placement, and if you get it wrong you’re going to be severely punished, with your health dwindling at a catastrophic rate. It’s tough, but just as in Nier:Automata, Astral Chain and Bayonetta, if you put in the time you’ll get used to what it’s asking of you, and start to dish out the pain yourself.
There’s a problem, though. The Wii U was a console built around the second screen in its gamepad, and The Wonderful 101 made constant use of it. Would you believe going from two screens to one has proved to be the greatest challenge in translating the game to modern consoles?
When switching between the different Unity Morphs, most of them require a shape to be drawn with the Wonder Liner, a glowing line of heroes and citizens. Draw a circle and you’ve got a fist, draw a straight line and you’ve got a sword. It sounds simple, but it’s really not. Even on the Wii U, with the benefit of a great big touchscreen for your broad thumb or stylus strokes, there was a certain level of imprecision that you had to get used to. In a combat-heavy game like Wonderful 101, imprecision is your enemy.
In translating the game to PS4 and Switch, there are at least options available that let you replicate the experience. There’s the PS4’s touchpad – which can actually do more than just be a giant button – and, if you play with a Switch undocked, there’s the touchscreen. The alternative is that you use the right analog stick to ‘draw’ out those shapes, but no matter which method you use, you’re not going to get it right every time.
There’s so much of the Wonderful 101’s DNA that found its way into last year’s Astral Chain, particularly if you use the analog stick, and the exact same issues resonate here. Frantic, timing-heavy combat does not play all that well with shape-driven QTEs and a control scheme that skews the wrong side of finicky.
Things do improve a bit as you grow more accustomed to what the game is asking of you, but as the shapes grow more complicated, so too do the frustrations. You’ll find yourself sticking with the fist or sword wherever possible, not because they’re the most effective, or the most fun, but because they’re the easiest to draw.
The other hangover from the Wii U’s gamepad is the use of the second screen as an information point, and occasionally, a secondary viewpoint. PlatinumGames solution here is less than elegant. You can either have it pop out somewhere over the main screen, invariably obscuring something along the way, or you can have it appear in ratio alongside the main screen.
There’s plenty of options here, from changing the opacity of the default picture-in-picture mode, or changing scaling of the two screens in Dual Mode – you can also add a background to fill the aching black void that surrounds them – but it’s always going to be ungainly. It would have admittedly been a huge task to completely overhaul the UI, but it ends up being another mechanical villain to fight with.
The biggest shame of all this is that it gets in the way of what is undoubtedly a fun game. The Wonderful 101 is brimming with absurd charm, from its Saturday-morning cartoon stylings to its 1950s era heroic theme songs. It’s just so damn likeable that you’ll squeeze yourself through the contortions it’s asking of you in order to experience every giant robot and every silly interaction. Ultimately, despite the higher resolution graphics and improved performance, it’s a game that remains better experienced on its original host console.