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December 20, 2013

Season's Wii-tings: The Wonderful 101

Let me be upfront about The Wonderful 101, before I get too swept up in the words to come.

The Wonderful 101 is not -- I repeat -- is NOT the greatest game ever created.  It is not the be-all and end-all of video game potential.  It is not the automatic winner of Game of the Year, merely because it exists.

It is not a perfect game.  In fact, at times it can be surprisingly frustrating.  I don’t agree with its detractors -- and I know there are some out there -- but I respect their opinions.  I know what they’re talking about.

But with all that in mind, let me say, conclusively, from the start, that The Wonderful 101 is a good, good, good, good, DAMN GOOD GAME.  

So much so that I’m going to do something I don’t do very often.

*deep breath* The time has come.

It’s time for me to invoke The Gamer’s Duty.  With the only music that’s even remotely appropriate.

In this gaming world of ours, there are many titles to choose from.  Many have come, and many have gone.  Many more await us, as we enter the eighth console generation.  Inevitably, we’ll be met with titles that push us to our limits -- not in terms of skill or willpower, but in terms of patience.  The innocence we once accepted, and even took for granted, out of our electronic pastime has long since evaporated.  Lost in the aether, as those in command allow the medium to become awash with homogeny -- and with it, mediocrity.

We gamers have been wronged before, and we will be wronged again -- maybe in the coming days more than any other time in history.  The storm is approaching, but there is a reprieve.  We have the means to weather what may come -- with games that carry with them a great weight, as well as great quality.  With those shining titles held tight within our grasp, we send a message.  We cast a light into the future, to ensure a brighter tomorrow.  We show the world what a game can be.  What it should be.  What it WILL be, if only we act on our united spirits.  If only we do what must be done -- for our sake, for others, and as a teary-eyed tribute to the games that have brought such warmth to our hearts.

And that is why I will take a step forward, and do what I must.  I will uphold The Gamer’s Duty -- a commitment not only to lay claim to the works so deserving, so vital, so transformative, but to spread the holiest word to all those who will listen.  To do any less would be a betrayal to my fellow gamers, and the games that have soothed me so.

I swear upon my calloused fingers and countless pads to uphold The Gamer’s Duty.  And from this moment on, I pray, sincerely, that you do as well.

In the name of games.

…I guess what I’m getting at here is, if you have a Wii U and not this game, FIX THAT.  Alternatively, DOUBLE-FIX THAT by buying a Wii U and the game.

There you go.  Enjoy the non-ham version of that little speech. 

And now that that’s been said, I’ll be seeing you guys in the next post.  Hope you enjoyed the ham.

Okay, seriously.  Let’s chat about The Wonderful 101 for a bit.

Anyone who’s followed games for a while should know (or at least I hope they know) that Platinum Games has had W101 in the works for a while now, and has come out semi-recently.  I’d imagine the company wanted to get familiar with the Wii U’s technology and potential before they put out Bayonetta 2.  Sort of a trial run, if you will.  But this being Platinum Games, their trial run isn’t just a throwaway attempt at earning -- and subsequently losing -- goodwill and prestige.  This is one game-ass game.  And I’m not just saying that because these are the guys responsible for the exceptional Metal Gear Rising.

I can’t say I’ve played through the whole game yet (it’s proven surprisingly long, certainly more so than MGR), but it’s safe to say you can get a handle on the story within the first five minutes of play.  Simply put: aliens are invading, and it’s up to an elite team of colorful, costumed superheroes to unite up and defend the world from the villainous invaders, GEATHJERK -- short for “Guild of Evil Aliens Terrorizing Humans with Jiggawatt bombs, Energy beams, Ray guns, and Killer lasers.”  Yep, it’s that kind of game…and that’s part of what makes it utterly fantastic.  The charisma of this game is absolutely OVERWHELMING.

I’ve said before that one of the biggest casualties in this (or any) generation is the death of Clover Studios.  That blow’s been softened, given that Clover has pulled a Dark Phoenix and mostly come back as Platinum, but the stable of titles they once commanded -- Viewtiful Joe, Okami, God Hand, and tangentially Devil May Cry -- didn’t resurrect alongside them.  I know my brother’s STILL waiting for Viewtiful Joe 3 (he doesn’t count Double Trouble).   Incidentally, W101 might as well be a new Viewtiful Joe, a new Okami, a new God Hand, a new Devil May Cry, AND a new Bayonetta ALL FUSED INTO ONE.  It’s like Voltron, where you can’t do anything without risking a robot lion head chomping one of your limbs.

I won’t say that Clover/Platinum Games put a ton of effort into telling a good story, but even if they don’t -- if they go for something simple, like saving your girlfriend or busting up angels -- they’re still entertaining by way of their execution.  Part of that execution comes from a term I’ve been using a lot recently: “charisma”.  It’s that element that makes a character compelling, no matter who they are, what they’re supposed to be, or how they do what they do.  You should know by now that I find it easier to see, point out, and enjoy the charisma given off by a good hero, BUT that doesn’t mean that I automatically hate anti-heroes or villains.  I just want them to be charismatic, and have an irresistible air around them.  Don Corleone may be a guy you don’t want to cross, but he’s also a guy you can’t help but be entranced by, and even respect.  Why?  Because he has charisma.  That’s the clincher.

W101 not only gets the concept, but explodes with it from start to finish.  It’s something that goes beyond just having color, humor, and goofy designs (a lesson, I’ve heard, was well-learned from those that played Knack).  There’s an earnestness and energy to it that sells the game, and the story they’re trying to tell.  I’d say this is accomplished thanks to at least two factors.  The first and most obvious is that the whole thing feels like it’d be a perfect fit for a Saturday morning cartoon block -- or if you prefer, any given season of Power Rangers.  Or Gatchaman, if you prefer; Wonder Red and Wonder Blue are eerily reminiscent of Ken the Eagle and Joe the Condor. 

In any case, it revels in being over the top, and while there is plenty of parody of conventions (Wonder Blue’s intro ends up getting botched by his own hand), you can tell that the devs put 200% heart behind the game and its presentation.  It’s easy to laugh at how silly it all is, but when it’s time for the heroes to be heroes, they do it with gusto and conviction -- and as it should, the game lets you get swept up into its pace.  Though I may not be the most reliable speaker, seeing as how I’ve been getting deeper and deeper into the tokusatsu/Kamen Rider world recently.    

The second factor is that -- like MGR before it, and Bayonetta before that -- this is a game that’s heavy on the spectacle.  But unlike other games that try to get you thrilled with its “epic, cinematic experiences”, this is a game that uses spectacle well -- because it actually has something worth showing.  It’s all over the place in the game at large; it’s constantly throwing new things at you, demanding that you adapt and process at a level plenty of other games don’t or won’t. 

This is a game that has you punching a three-headed robot dragon so hard that you make it puke rainbows.  By the time you reach the third stage, it’s not uncommon for you to summon a car-sized handgun at will and hold it gangsta-style to blast stories-tall mechs.  But one of the most important mechanics -- one that creates a unity between story and gameplay -- is the ability to turn regular citizens into costumed heroes in a flush of light and rainbows as soon as you find them in a stage.  The game gives you, the player -- the person given the power to be a hero -- the power to turn the helpless into agents of justice.  It’s a smart move…and it goes without saying that you’ll need them.

Of course, there’s also spectacle in the cutscenes.  As you’d expect.  Observe: 

And those are some of the more sedate scenes.  If the end of W101 has anything like the end of MGR, my jaw’s going to end up landing somewhere on the west coast of Australia when all’s said and done.

So.  How about that gameplay?

If you haven’t heard -- or if you’re still reading this post instead of at the very least watching an LP on YouTube, in which case what the hell is wrong with you -- W101 is an action game where you take control of the Wonderful 100 (the official members of CENTINEL, along with any temporary comrades you find in stages) and fight whatever evil aliens come your way, as well as using your team to solve puzzles.  And I mean team; like Pikmin before it, the game has you building your forces and controlling them as a single unit. 

Move across a street, and everyone moves in kind.  Hammer the X Button, and you’ll send out your comrades to punch-up and even mount nearby enemies.  But the game’s primary mechanic is using “Unite Morphs” -- draw a symbol using either the GamePad or the right stick, and you’ll take members of your team and fuse them into a powerful weapon you can use as you see fit.  Draw a circle, and you’ll make a pulsing red fist.  Draw a bigger circle, and you’ll make an even bigger fist.  If you have the teammates and the battery power for it, you can make some massive weapons, and thus get in some massive damage.

You have plenty of offensive options via your Unite Morphs, but like any good action game, your defensive options are just as vital.  W101’s got you covered in a number of ways; by the time you finish the first couple of stages, you can buy Unite Guts (a parry move that turns your team into a giant pyramid of pudding) and/or Unite Spring (a dodge move where you’ll all leap out of the way like a Slinky).  It is EXTREMELY important that you learn how to protect yourself in this game, because the way the game works, getting hit at all is a bad idea

Take a big hit, and your team will get scattered and spread through an arena, crippling your offense until you pick them back up (or they recover from being stunned).  You don’t want that to happen, because enemies have a surprisingly wide variety of attacks -- and by giving them a chance to wreck you, they probably will.  On top of that, you have to learn how to deal with enemy attacks -- and unlike MGR, parrying saves you from far fewer attacks than you’d expect.  It’s a powerful tool, don’t get me wrong -- it can open up enemies for your offense, or even stun them -- but if you think you can just mash the trigger and expect results, you’ll regret it.

What this means is that there’s an undeniable level of frenzy to most skirmishes.  It feels like a very button-mashy game (and it probably is, when all’s said and done), but in this case that’s to its credit.  You’ll want to go for blistering rushdown in this game, because that’s the pace of its flow -- and it does a remarkable job in getting you swept up in it.  You have lots of tools at your disposal -- seven main powers, by my last count, not including skills you can buy in the shop -- and you can’t help but want to play with them, or show the enemy your Morph of choice. 

At the same time, it’s a game where you feel the pressure of battle.  There’s always a sense of danger to each fight, transmitted through the presentation as well as the challenge; if you aren’t paying attention, you WILL die.  You have to learn what to do, controlling both yourself and your opponent.  And when you do -- each time you “crack” the game, and learn how to use its myriad tools to your advantage -- you’ll feel like you accomplished something.  You cannot even begin to imagine the glee I felt when I punched a big bruiser with my team, summoned a trio of slashing swords to soften him up, parried his attack, then parried again to stun him, then launched him and comboed him a hundred feet in the air, then switched mid-combo to a giant hammer to finish him off and earn a platinum medal.

The Wonderful 101.  Quite possibly the HYPEST game ever.

Okay, so those are all things that make it good.  Where’s the “but” in this situation?

Well, the game has a lot of the strengths of MGR (and other Platinum/Clover games; the power-ups you buy can tweak your experience to make it mechanically similar to Bayonetta, Okami, or even Viewtiful Joe)…but unfortunately, it also has a number of the same weaknesses.  For one, the camera.  It’s held at a fixed perspective, and pretty much the only control you have over it is to zoom in or out.  In most cases, it’s fine -- but when it’s not cooperative, you REALLY notice it.  You can lose track of the action in the rush of attacks and particle effects, especially since your hero team is decidedly tiny.

 Worse yet, most of the arenas are (and pretty much have to be) large, and enemies will take advantage of that; time and time again I’ve been tackled or shot from something off-camera, and even if I had the reflexes of a jaguar I doubt I could have stopped them from taking potshots.  To say nothing of what happens when you have to move into an enclosed area, and use the GamePad to control the camera while simultaneously using the GamePad to navigate.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m not used to the controller yet, or because it’s not implemented well, but man does it feel obtuse.

And again, like MGR some of the non-combat sequences -- the spectacle events -- take a lot more guesswork than they should.  In the same sense that Raiden would suffer an instant-kill if he didn’t run down a clock tower the perfect way, there are times in W101 where you’ll have no idea where to go or what to do, and end up taking a hit or outright dying because of it.  You don’t know how many times I fell during a sequence with a falling building because of seemingly-random debris falling, or how much extra time I spent on a boss fight because I had to send in dudes to repair a downed enemy, but couldn’t because I needed more dudes.  It’s flow-breaking, and something like that is very nearly a death knell for a game like this.

Alas, events like those are fairly common.  Not just the spectacle events, mind (and there are QTEs of a sort, but the attack-calling of your teammates plus the lenient input time makes them a breeze to get past).  It’s annoyingly easy to have your flow disrupted for any number of reasons.  Off-camera shenanigans by enemies.  Massive attacks that completely invalidate your parry.  Nigh-unpredictable, light-speed attacks that snipe you from dozens of feet away.  The fact that, as per the nature of the game, there’s always going to be something new coming at you -- and with it, some insane bullshit attacks or attributes designed, even destined, to give you a headache.  At times it feels like the game is trying its hardest to prevent you from enjoying the game -- from playing with its toys and tools, simply because it’s trying to push you to your limits.

And when you get down to it…well, that’s part of the fun.

Don’t get me wrong.  It sucks supremely to have your flow interrupted.  And it happens a bit more frequently than I’d prefer, to the point where either A) I REALLY suck at the game, or B) it’s not nearly as fair as I’d like it to be.  But those moments when you do crack the game, figure out its mechanics, turn the tables on a tough opponent, figure out what to do on your first try during a setpiece sequence, or just punch your way to the end of a stage -- those are what make the game worthwhile.  Those are going to be the moments you remember, because you earned them in spite of the game’s best attempts to hamper your fun.  You’ll be more than willing to endure the pain and frustration merely because the potential to have that fun and excitement is ingrained into every skirmish.

It’s something perceivable during every second of the game.  It’s designed to challenge you, but it’s also designed to ensure that you have fun.  It’s a laser light show full of explosions, sky-rending special attacks, and baddies that make Skeletor look demure.  You have the chance to be a hero -- and while it’s far from easy, it’s also far from infuriating.  You’ll have to be prepared to suffer, but the chance of hearing that theme song flare up as you lay a beatdown of justice on an enemy officer makes every sneak attack and unintended pitfall worthwhile. 

So, bottom line.  Is it a good game?  Hell yes.  Is it the perfect game?  Hell no.  Is it better than MGR?  It’s fairly close, but I think W101 gets edged out of the top slot by a slight gap; while Raiden’s game has the more (for lack of better terms) technical and refined gameplay, Wonder Red and his team have a game that’s got supreme presentation, charisma, and spirit.  That has to count for something.  It does for me, at least -- to the point where, if I was the sort to do a “Top 10 Games of 2013” list, this would take no less than fourth place. 

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand that’ll just about do it for this mini-series.  Hope you guys enjoyed this look into some of the Wii U’s offerings this holiday season.  I certainly did.  It’s hard to say how Nintendo and its brave little console will do in the coming months and years, but if nothing else I’m more than satisfied with what we have now.  Don’t let any naysayers fool you; THIS is the console that started off the eighth generation, and while it’s taken a while to pick up steam, it’s a worthy contender.  Wonder Red and his team are proof enough, and then some.

See you guys soon, then.  Very soon, in fact; I’m going to put up a special end-of-year post early next week.  Chances are you don’t want to miss it.

Now go on and get outta here, before I use the rest of this post for mindless gushing about W101.  You don’t know how great the temptation is.    

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