The highs of The Wonderful 101 were some of my best gaming moments of 2013 – and wouldn’t you know it, seven years later it still hasn’t lost its Platinum luster. Tragically, relatively few action game fans got to experience it because it’s been limited to the Wii U until now, but The Wonderful 101 Remastered has finally escaped onto Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC and it’s every bit as good as the 2013 original.
In fact, it’s even a little bit better thanks to smoother performance, faster load times, and a few smart additions that make its notorious learning curve a little easier. I wish it’d gone further with those and done more with the visual upgrade to justify the “remastered” label as opposed to being a straight port with a few tweaks, but this is still the definitive version of one of the most refreshingly different and endearing action games ever made.
The Wonderful 101 is a rare breed of action game even for Platinum Games, the developer that has basically written the book on them at this point. Its 10 to 12-hour adventure is an absolutely delightful superhero/sentai-inspired romp with great characters, amazing music, and some of the most downright impressive boss battles you’ll ever see. You control a group of tiny heroes known collectively as the Wonderful 100, and by using the right stick you can draw simple symbols that allow you to morph your mob into the shape of a weapon. For example, if you draw a circle they’ll make a fist; draw a straight line, you’ll get a sword; an L-shape transforms them into a gun; and a curvy line creates a whip.
Where things get really interesting is in the ways that these weapons interact with the world and your enemies. A visual language eventually starts to develop where you’ll learn that when you see spikes, you need to switch to the whip; when there’s a beam, you’ll need a sword to reflect it; when there’s a circular bomb on the ground, you’ll need to use the gun to suck it up and shoot it out. Very little of this visual language is intuitive, which is why it’s a bit of a problem that it is rarely explicitly taught to you. You kind of just have to pick up on it as you go, and at times it can feel like the developers expect you to read their minds when it comes to knowing how to avoid certain attacks.
The Wonderful 101 is a rare breed of action game.
It doesn’t help either that Wonderful 101 is uniquely punishing if you don’t know what to do in the moment. Getting hit, using the wrong weapon, or even using the right weapon at the wrong time can cause your group of heroes to careen off in all directions and leave you unable to defend or attack until you gather them up again; drawing specific glyphs can be finicky until you learn certain tricks that prevent you from mistakenly drawing the wrong one; and fighting some enemies without knowledge of key weaknesses can be extremely long and arduous affairs without any indication that there’s a better way.
Platinum has clearly identified the learning curve as a problem, as Remastered includes a few small adjustments that make it a little more inviting to newcomers. Unite Guts and Unite Spring, two vital techniques that essentially serve as a block and dodge button, respectively, are now basically free in the abilities shop from the start, emphasizing more than ever that these skills need to be purchased immediately.
Likewise, Multi-Unite, another essential technique that allows you to create AI-controlled weapons, is now a recommended purchase in the shop as opposed to an ability you have from the start. This is a smart change because you don’t really need Multi-unite for a while, and eventually forget it exists by the time you actually need to use it. Having it appear as something to buy in the shop makes it more likely that you’ll experiment with it when you get it and understand its use right from the get-go.
These are great changes, and a good start, but the effort to make Wonderful 101 a little more accessible for newcomers still feels only half-fulfilled.
Once you learn it, the combat becomes… well, wonderful.
That said, it’s important to emphasize that once you get over the initial hurdles involved with understanding Wonderful 101’s combat, it becomes… well, wonderful. It’s deep, flashy as all hell, and has a unique sense of freedom and choice. There’s usually an optimal way to defeat certain enemies, but they often don’t afford the kind of combo points needed to get those Platinum and Pure Platinum medals. So you have to make a choice of whether you want to play it safe and end a fight quickly, or be a little riskier and focus on bigger combos. There’s also a particular sense of urgency to every action because new weapons need to be drawn extremely quickly in order to use their special properties to either avoid taking damage or to capitalize on a brief opening – when you’re able to nail those opportunities, it feels awesome.
Beyond that, Wonderful 101 is one of the best action games out there when it comes to mixing it up. Most of the nine operations have at least one segment that shifts genre completely, whether it’s to an arcade-style shooter, a straight-up Space Harrier homage, or an underground chase that has you drilling through blocks. They’re all fun in their own way, and thankfully never outstay their welcome.
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Then there are the bosses, which are some of the most mechanically interesting and downright exhilarating boss battles I’ve ever experienced. Seven years later I’d still hate to spoil the best ones, but even when they’re pulling inspiration from obvious sources they manage to burst at the seams with creativity – and if their epic conclusions don’t make you feel something, you might need to check your pulse.
The Wonderful 101 is a game that made excellent use of the Wii U’s gamepad, but it turns out it works just as well without it. You were always able to use the right stick as opposed to the touch screen to draw the glyphs, and while there were moments where you’d have to control something on the gamepad while still paying attention to what was happening on the second screen, those segments play just as well with picture-in-picture boxes on a single, big screen.
Performance-wise, I’ve only gotten a chance to play on the Switch and PC versions. It runs like a dream on an Intel Core i7-6700k CPU and Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 graphics card, with a consistently smooth framerate and lightning-fast load times courtesy of an SSD. The Switch version, while still substantially better than the Wii U (especially when it comes to load times) still struggles a bit with maintaining that 60 frames per second mark once the action gets intense, as it tends to do fairly often. It’s never a huge issue, but it’s a bit disappointing to see considering how much better the Switch version of Bayonetta 2 is in comparison to its Wii U counterpart.
As a remaster, this updated version of The Wonderful 101 is not going to impress anyone with its minor improvements to performance and small adjustments to make it a bit more accessible to newcomers. However, the fact remains that this is The Wonderful 101, one of the best action games of a generation, and one that has tragically – until now – been locked on a relatively niche console. This remaster is the best way to play The Wonderful 101, which is something that I can’t recommend strongly enough, for those willing to power through its learning curve.