Action games are complex ways of playing with action figures, equipping the one connected to your controller with more than just karate-chop action to live out heroic battles against evil. These figures have always been a great way to let a show or comic’s fans act out their favorite character’s stories, but videogames directly provide the means to embark on adventure. Unfortunately, both games and figures have a problem with how many characters a player can hold at once, but Hideki Kamiya’s The Wonderful 101 lets you simultaneously control an army through a season long television show that proves that even the smallest heroes can defeat galactic threats if they unite.
Classic superhero tokusatsu like Super Sentai have long brought together squads of fighters to tackle enormous threats, transforming everyday people into super warriors unleashing powerful martial arts to dazzling special effects. The Wonderful 101 takes this genre and ramps up the numbers until the player is running as many as 100 around the screen at once, attacking foes or evading and repelling incoming hits. The W101’s brilliance is how it thinks about group dynamics, how it moves the many as one, and how it coordinates them all when battle gets fierce. By the end of their adventure, The Wonderful 100 team will summon weapons like Wonder Red’s fist, Blue’s Valiantium blade, Green’s guns, or White’s claws against the GEATHJERK assault bent on human extinction, piloting their Virgin Victory cruiser across the globe.
Kamiya’s evolving game design stretches as far back as his genre defining Devil May Cry, but it mechanically diverged into two subtly different branches with Viewtiful Joe and Bayonetta on one and Okami and The Wonderful 101 on the other. While all use two main attack buttons to create quick, versatile gameplay, W101 has one button control the selected single character while the other button controls the rest of the group. Since the buttons for these two entities can easily be accessed at the same time, a player can simultaneously use different weapons with different attributes against enemies with drastically different characteristics.
The Wonderful 101 infuses every element of its design with the action figure aesthetic, from the plastic character models to the enemies made of pieces that can be broken off to expose the frames underneath, but its most important element is the isometric camera angle that looks down on the colorful environments as if you were a kid playing in a reactive playset. Unlike single character action games where a 3D camera system follows the player, the top-down perspective easily keeps all the action contained within view so you always have an eye on your team.
Okami’s celestial brush mechanic that draws an item into the world is one of the most action forward uses of an inventory system in a game, and W101’s static camera means the right thumbstick was free to paint at any time. Because items are made up of the units in your group, their size and power is directly impacted by your total strength. Additionally, since both your main unit and the group can conjure weapons independently, you can unleash a large variety of different attacks at the same time, the perfect thing to overwhelm your enemies. Upgrade this enough and you could be sniping a foe with your main while a bomb slows time, a fist uppercuts them into the air, and a hammer pummels them to the ground. It’s a fast and unique system with remarkable depth.
A game like this could easily become overly complex, and while it’s far from simple, everything is so well thought out that anybody can improve. Every weapon has a few special moves including launchers and spins, but they all use the same inputs regardless of the weapon, which avoids unnecessary complexity and links incredibly well. Kamiya’s experience creating Bayonetta’s comprehensive combat model continues to pay off here and the player has options for every scenario, right down to the slo-mo and counters.
For a game where the number of units in your party determines your power level and a single enemy attack can send those within reach flying, crowd management is pivotal to success. As your skill grows, you will learn when to pull the group in tight with the run button and how to quickly reclaim KO’d units, how to divide units and when to draw multiple weapons versus one large one. These considerations change over the game, as every permanent member you collect grows independently which builds your total campaign level, adding new moves and increasing your health.
Level flow is important in an action game, and the playsets here are rich with details. By now, Kamiya has worked on his structure and paced them with regular fights and secret missions that grade player performance. Because temporary members build your forces over the course of a mission, it’s important that they be placed to regularly replenish your stock. But every nook is also crammed with small things to do, including revitalizing withered areas sending your team into subtly placed doors and windows for permanent members or other items. The W101 rewards learning every element of its design, from discovering the gameplay systems and mechanics to exploring the missions and developing your manual dexterity.
To keep with its tokusatsu inspirations, each three mission arc can be seen as a contained episode consisting of two main missions and a third multi-phase boss fight. As is his trademark at this point, Kamiya stuffs the adventure with references to classic arcade titles like Space Harrier, but here is able to flex creatively to include other shooters segments and a few Punch Out! brawls. Unfortunately, these attempts can be as clunky as his other implementations, as if the game’s core framework is flexible enough to handle the sequences but not the fidelity to execute them well. Regardless, they offer a much appreciated break from the rest of the combat and allow the stories to radically twist and reinvent itself when necessary.
That is the true strength of the design philosophy that The Wonderful 101 is expressing; that when a bunch of small parts come together they can be flexible enough to fit any situation, that even when the individual takes a beating the whole can back them up and reform. By the end of the story, what starts as one man thrown into war against invaders turns into an unlikely team taking the fight to the stars. The Wonderful 101 says that what starts small can become large and once you awaken the hero within you, you discover that you’re not alone.
DEVELOPER: Platinum Games
Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.