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The Wonderful 101 Remastered review: A flawed action game gets a second chance

I was a believer in the Wii U from the start.

After doubting the usefulness of the double screens in Nintendo DS, and ultimately being dazzled, I approached the Wii U GamePad with an open mind. But few Wii U games made the case for a second screen removed from the TV, and efforts like PlatinumGames’ The Wonderful 101 played more like a valiant attempt to make hay from Nintendo’s second strangest console than a game that took advantage of the hardware’s fully realized potential.

The Wonderful 101 Remastered, a cleaner looking version for modern systems with some light tweaks, seemed like a chance to liberate Platinum’s unusual action game from the Wii U’s anatomy, and let it shine as a more traditional action experience. Platinum knows action games, of course, better than almost anyone. But the nature of the game’s design — “drawing” weapons and fighting as a cluster of dozens of superheroes — remains clunky, regardless of the hardware.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=wvlcVFLdEFk%3Frel%3D0

The Wonderful 101 gives you control of a heroic team leader — initially Wonder-Red, then Wonder-Blue and other color-coded heroes — who fights alongside their superhero brethren and the ordinary citizens who join the battle against alien invaders. It’s a campy, colorful adventure. Game director Hideki Kamiya seems to stuff everything he likes — tokusatsu-style action, retro video games, action figures, charismatic but corny hero characters — into The Wonderful 101, and it’s evident he had a delightful time doing so.

As noted in Polygon’s original review of The Wonderful 101 from 2013, in order to combat bad guys, I must draw shapes like a straight line, a circle, or an S-curve to summon weapons (a sword, a fist, or a whip, respectively). This is the power of the Unite Morph, an ever-growing arsenal of combat tools used by the international superheroes known as Wonderful 100 (the plus-one here is you). New attacks are purchased from an in-game shop, similar to systems from other Kamiya-led series like Bayonetta and Devil May Cry.

Unite Morph weapons are composed of my main superhero’s tiny allies; these weapons are made of people! On the Wii U, summoning a Unite Morph was accomplished by drawing on the GamePad’s touchscreen. On a PlayStation 4, the system I played The Wonderful 101 Remastered on, drawing can be done with the right analog stick or the DualShock 4 touchpad. Neither reliably worked for me 100% of the time, but the touchpad performed better than expected.

The Wonderful 101 is more forgiving than your typical Platinum action game, so drawing flubs are rarely disastrous. You can take plenty of damage, heal up with items, and mash your way through many challenges easier than a Bayonetta or Vanquish.

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Thank goodness, because the visual chaos of The Wonderful 101 means easily losing your main character in a battle, and the option to continue right from where you died lets you move forward, just at the expense of a high score. I’d forgotten about the continue system in the years since the original. It doesn’t offer the same opportunity to improve your performance against a challenging boss, and to therefore learn from it, but a chance to grind out success.

Still, it’s hard to deny The Wonderful 101’s charm. The game is full of over-the-top characters and cute set pieces, like a Punch-Out!!-style mech battle, and little touches like an early moment where dozens of heroes hold up a giant football helmet to protect the team against an alien bombardment, that help break up the monotony. Other interactions are less endearing; turning a dial with the Unite Morph hand to solve a combination lock underscores just how problematic the game’s camera can be.

Image: Platinum Games Inc.

The extra polish that Remastered brings to The Wonderful 101 offers a thin veneer of improvement. Early tutorials and on-screen displays make it easier to grok the game’s combat systems, but menus are still clumsy to navigate. And to compensate for the lack of a second screen, the game offers some visual options to view the game’s submenu: overlay it on the action picture-in-picture style, see both in split-screen, or simply pop up the submenu on the fly. All options add to the cluttered visual noise of The Wonderful 101, but I resigned myself to making peace with the game being overstuffed by design.

If you walked away from The Wonderful 101 early on, like I did back in 2013, Remastered is unlikely to change your opinion of the game’s character-action merits. Newcomers shouldn’t approach The Wonderful 101 Remastered like Platinum’s other games, e.g. Bayonetta or Astral Chain, in which big, easily readable combatants beat up bad guys a few at a time with balletic, combo-chaining grace. It’s more like pitting dueling riots against each other, which offers its own style of fun.

The Nintendo Switch’s success has given many overlooked Wii U games a second chance to find a new audience, and The Wonderful 101 Remastered deserves to be experienced by more players. So I’m thankful that Platinum is able to bring its most curious release to even more people — Remastered is out on PS4, Switch, and Windows PC — even if I’m part of the crowd that doesn’t remember The Wonderful 101 very fondly.

The Wonderful 101 Remastered is out now digitally on PlayStation 4 and Windows PC, with a physical release on June 30. The game was reviewed on PS4 using a final “retail” download code provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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