No other studio in this industry handles action quite like Platinum Games. Director Hideki Kamiya has been the creative mind behind many iconic action franchises like the original Devil May Cry and the stylish game-changer that was Bayonetta. Ever since then, his own dedicated studio has made games characterized by adrenaline-pumping set pieces, larger-than-life battles, and highly technical, in-depth combat systems. But one of their greatest and criminally overlooked action masterpieces came out in 2013 on the Wii U, a colorful and exuberantly vibrant superhero action brawler called The Wonderful 101. Naturally, when Platinum announced it was getting a remastering on Switch, PS4, and Steam, I was beyond excited to see this unsung classic fight the good fight once again.
The main story is an unapologetic love letter to the long-running Super Sentai TV series where you control a team of superheroes known as The Wonderful One Double Oh as they fight to defend the planet from a massive alien invasion. But rather than control each member of this team individually, you control the entire team all at once from an isometric perspective, with one of the core members acting as the leader. It sounds completely unwieldy in concept, but in practice it plays like a supercharged version of Pikmin but with Power Rangers instead of cute plant people.
What really helps the whole thing work is the Unite Morph ability. By drawing a shape using the right analog stick (or on a touch screen/pad depending on your platform of choice) the heroes will combine together into a large weapon which you can control to fight the towering monstrosities that threaten them. Drawing a circle creates a giant fist, drawing a straight line makes a sword, a Z makes a pair of claws, etc., and much like Platinum's other games, these special powers have multiple versatile uses both for traversal and for navigating the battlefield. Certain Morphs can absorb fire or electricity or remove armor from enemies, or even deflect and negate attacks used by certain enemies. However, the fact that these powers become more powerful by being larger—indirectly using up more of your teammates—adds a crucial element of crowd control and resource management.
Unlike any other character-action game under Platinum's banner, if you get hit in The Wonderful 101, not only do you lose health, members of your team are knocked unconscious and scattered, and since you need a certain minimum of active teammates to use certain Unite Morphs, including the ability to dodge or even block large attacks, you will be caught trying to recover your team while avoiding any follow-up assaults by the enemy. This becomes especially terrifying where even if you do collectively block an attack from a certain enemy type, you get overwhelmed anyway since your team isn't big enough or the attack can break through defenses. In a way, it's an even more extreme version of the reflex-based arcade action that this studio has made it's reputation on: Don't get hit, keep those combos going, and keep your head in the game.
In fact, The Wonderful 101 feels like both a natural refinement and apotheosis of Hideki Kamiya's entire brand of action game. While titles like Bayonetta or Vanquish are lauded for their fantastic combat and elaborate boss battles—starting with regular enemies in a graveyard somewhere then ending with battles in space against enemies the size of the moon—they are also derided for being too short, clocking at about six hours on average depending on difficulty level. There are also complaints of rushed or scattershot plots full of weird gameplay deviations. In enters The Wonderful 101 and it doesn't feel like a breezy action movie but more like a legitimate superhero epic, clocking at almost twenty hours from start to finish.
The plastic toy play set aesthetic lets everything from goofy bits of slapstick comedy to super serious drama play out with consistent thematic punch. Each and every single boss battle in the game's nine distinct operations builds upon the other in spectacle and challenge and is peppered with so many surprising changes in genre—rail shooters, platforming sections, even full on boxing sections straight out of Punch-Out!—that don't completely overstay their welcome and remain tied to these set pieces. The final battle is such a beautiful spectacle coupled with one of the most audacious “mash A as fast as you can” sequences it still remains one of my favorite gaming experiences of all time. Tying it all together is a central plot that manages to include a lot of cheesy superhero cliches and cheeky self-aware jokes, the team's very theme song hitting a delicious sweet spot of dopey but mesmerizingly earnest, alongside campy galactic sci-fi B-movie schlock that coalesces into something downright irresistible.
If there is a distinct area where The Wonderful 101 can't fully escape its history of being on the Wii U: it is with how the remaster handles the second screen mode and its very Unite Morph gimmick. When it comes to the latter, I will admit I put a lot of time into the original release than most, but I mostly defaulted to using the analog stick to draw the shapes rather than the touch screen. The fixed camera does a good job of not blocking the heroes from view at any time, so learning how to quickly draw Unite Morph powers mid-battle became more a case of practice than coping with awkward design. The same isn't as true for the second screen sections, parts of the game where crucial information would be split between the television and the Wii U's tablet controller. The remaster handles this by introducing a picture-in-picture mode which pops up automatically during these fixed points in the game. You can also pull up this second screen view with a button press and even control where it is displayed and how transparent it is, although its practical use outside of these scripted sections are quite limited.
Even with these artifacts of its original release popping up, I am absolutely ecstatic that The Wonderful 101 Remastered not only happened but it still retains that electrifying exciting energy that made me a fan of the original release so long ago. If you love action games, superheroes, and boldly bonkers spectacle, you will absolutely adore this experience.
TechRaptor previewed The Wonderful 101 Remastered using a PC code provided via Kickstarter. The game also releases on PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch on May 19.