My parents used to say to me, “nothing worth doing is ever easy,” which paraphrases Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote in such a way as to gloss over a certain amount of salient detail. Somewhere in Nagano Prefecture, Japan, at around the same time, I imagine that the parents of one Hideki Kamiya were more accurately quoting the ex-President and instilling his philosophy into their young son. “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…” is a lesson which, it seems, Mr Kamiya really wants to pass on to us all. The former Capcom employee, co-founder of Platinum Games, and director of Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe, Okami and Bayonetta is known for creating some of the most stylish – and toughest – games around. And recently, he’s been working with Nintendo.
If you’ve played Bayonetta, and you’re familiar with Nintendo (which, of course, you should be), then that might seem like quite a strange match to you. It certainly does to me: Nintendo with their primary colour-infused, family-friendly, everybody’s welcome, cheery disposition; Kamiya with his hyper-stylish, highly demanding, difficult-to-the-point-of-exclusionary, [I hesitate to use the word] hardcore, old-school game design ethos. These two radically different schools of thought come crashing together in The Wonderful 101, the first release in an improbable publishing deal between Nintendo and Platinum. Playing this game, I felt like I was witnessing the result of a titanic struggle between Mr Kamiya and Mr Iwata, of Nintendo. I can almost see the two men going at each other like Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, hitting each other with all their best shots.
Iwata: “You have to make this game bright and colourful so it will appeal to a broad audience!”
Kamiya: “It may seem welcoming on the surface, but the gameplay underneath is going to be incredibly complex and inaccessible to all but the most dedicated of gamers.”
Iwata: “Well, you’d better include an easier difficulty for the more ‘novice’ members of our audience.”
Kamiya: “Oh, there’ll be an easier difficulty – it’ll be called “very easy,” it’ll be the equivalent of ‘normal’ in most modern games, and it’ll be described in-game in such a way as to really emasculate any player who chooses to play on that difficulty!”
Iwata: “I expect the game to feature a colourful cast of kid-friendly characters.”
Kamiya: “I can do that! (If by ‘colourful,’ you mean ‘mildly offensive racial stereotypes,’ and by ‘kid-friendly’ you mean that I can still sexualise the female characters and have the camera linger on their leather-clad posteriors!)”
Iwata: “Well, the one thing I absolutely demand is that this game makes good use of the Wii U’s unique features, such as the touch screen.”
Who won? Quite obviously Mr Kamiya, for my money. Nintendo’s financial presence is apparent in the quality of the game’s presentation – this is the best-looking and best-sounding Platinum game that I’ve played – but beyond that, this game is pure Platinum. I do see a lot of Bayonetta in The Wonderful 101, but it’s more like Bayonetta++: the slightly jarring, low budget, film reel style of Bayonetta’s cutscenes is replaced by an endearing (and high quality) comic book style; the scattershot genre-melding that surrounds the core of the Bayonetta experience is thoroughly eclipsed by the sheer volume of gameplay variety on show here; and the intensely technical combo system of Bayonetta’s combat is smoothed out into a much more user-friendly (yet still ludicrously deep) combo system in W101.
Let’s just take a closer look at that combat for a minute: given that a sizeable chunk of the game’s overall running time is dedicated to completing ‘missions,’ and that the instruction for virtually every mission amounts to nothing more than “wreck everything on screen, destroy everything that moves,” I’d have to say that the combat is probably the main focus of the game. It’s a good job that it’s so much fun. So much unadulterated, intoxicating, exhilarating fun. After you’ve gotten over the hump of learning how to do it, that is. Up until that point of epiphany, while you’re still trying to figure out just what exactly you’re supposed to be doing, and how you’re supposed to be doing it, the combat is horrible. Not fun. It is crushingly, depressingly, overwhelmingly frustrating. It made me want to cry. It’s just so damn hard, and Mr Kamiya, bless him, gives you absolutely no help whatsoever in your quest to learn the ropes and improve. Messages will pop up to inform you that you’ve unlocked new skills, but they won’t actually tell you how to use them; items will become available for purchase in the game’s shop but you’ll be given minimal information with regards to which ones you might want to buy, and why you might need them; enemy attacks will need to be blocked, countered or dodged completely, but you will never be told which type of attack is which. You’ll just have to figure it out for yourself. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the amount of chaos happening on-screen at any given moment. Attacks will come flying in from multiple directions, from enemies who get completely lost in the melee, and you won’t see them coming, and you won’t be able to react in time to the attacks that you can see, and half the time when you do react quickly enough, you’ll make the wrong call and attempt to block an unblockable laser attack…
I realise that this is starting to sound pretty negative. Thinking back to my first few hours with this game though, I know that the previous paragraph is a pretty accurate description of my experience. It was punishing, and relentlessly frustrating. And I’m so glad I went through it all.
The main gimmick of the combat system is the Unite Morph. You get 100 unique characters to play with, each of whom attacks independently with one of 7 weapons. By drawing one of 7 symbols on the touch screen, a portion of your party will join up to form a giant version of one weapon, and you go from there, stringing together combos of different moves and different weapons. While the touch screen method works perfectly in its own right, I found that using the right analog stick to draw my weapons was undoubtedly the way to go, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the speed with which you can draw and then activate attacks is much greater because your thumb stays near the all-important A and X-buttons. Also, you can draw much larger weapons when using the analog stick, and that will definitely come in handy as you progress through the game. Whichever way you go, there is an initial period of difficulty when learning how to effectively draw your shapes, and a longer period of difficulty when figuring out how to incorporate them into combos. I’ve seen a lot of talk equating the Unite Morphs to the special moves from Street Fighter, and while it’s not a perfect analogy (W101 never comes close to the level of complexity found in 2d fighters), it does have some merit. In both cases you will be inputting a sequence of directions on the analog stick coupled with certain button presses, and in both cases you will find a steep learning curve and a high skill ceiling. With a little practice, pulling off a single Shoryuken becomes almost second nature; with a great deal of practice, you may be able to train your fingers to incorporate Shoryukens into devastating free-form combos. The exact same principle applies to W101’s Unite Morphs.
The other area of the game that is likely to cause less dedicated players to down tools in frustration is the often mean-spirited difficulty outside of combat. I can’t tell you how many times I died and had to restart as the result of being thrust into a “think fast and act fast, or die” situation and not being given enough clear information pertaining to the actual requirements of the situation! I don’t know whether to file this under “bad game design,” “out-dated game design,” or just “old-school game design,” but whichever one it is, it certainly isn’t conducive to enjoying the first run-through of an otherwise brilliant game. I guess you could say it’s like the cutscenes in Metroid: Other M – you only have to sit through the nonsense once. After you figure out what you’re doing, you’re very unlikely to mess up again, but that fact just emphasises the cheapness of those sections.
The good news at this stage of the review is that everything else about the game – literally every single other noteworthy component of the whole experience – is absolutely fantastic. It’s an action game, and it certainly does that title justice – there’s just so much going on at all times, the pace is relentless, and it’s such a variety of crazy action (lurching from the standard combat to an on-rails shooting section to a QTE-led boss encounter to a Starfox homage in the blink of an eye) that I defy anybody to feel bored for even a moment of playtime. The mission structure is just insane: it’s roughly one-third adventuring with liberal doses of combat, one-third ridiculously over-the-top scripted combat with enemy creatures the size of the Statue of Liberty, and one-third epic boss battles that can go on for 20 minutes or more. Every part of the game is thrown into your eyeballs and earholes with such exuberance that it’s impossible to fault Mr Kamiya’s work ethic, at least. You may or may not enjoy the finished product, but one thing you could never say is that the team at Platinum didn’t put their all into its creation.
The music matches the on-screen action perfectly, with the rousing (incredibly camp but undeniably catchy) main theme being busted out at all the right moments to enhance the mood during triumphant scenes of boss-clattering carnage.
Likewise, the story does a great job of keeping pace with the action, as every new enemy encounter is more epic than the last, every new character introduced is more outlandish than the last, and every twist and turn in the narrative is more inconceivable than the last. I won’t say how it ends, but even if you are familiar with Platinum’s particular brand of kitchen sink story-telling, I think you’ll still be amazed by the story’s final act. The escalation is just utterly ridonculous.
The game’s graphical style is… unique, and very pleasing to look at. Yes it has the bright, colourful Nintendo look to it, but there’s more to it than that, with a very fully-realised world, consistently interesting enemy design, and a great shiny, toy-like effect on the main characters. There’s also something about the visuals that strongly reminds me of Jet Force Gemini on the N64, which of course is a positive association.
The implementation of the Wii U’s second screen is – dare I say it – the best I’ve seen yet. Forget the drawing for a moment; this is the first game since ZombiU almost a year ago to really try something new with dual-screen gameplay. I mean genuine dual-screen gameplay. The game throws up the odd situation where you’re controlling your team – and watching them – on the gamepad screen while the main action is happening on the big screen. For example, your guys will be inside a spaceship, piloting it and firing lasers by running over directional pads on the floor (on the gamepad) while the enemy fleet is attacking in formation (on the TV). You’ll just be getting the hang of directing your troops to the right pad while keeping your attention on the main screen, when an enemy materialises inside the ship on the gamepad, giving you even more to think about, and stretching your skills to the limit.
To talk about game length for a moment (and you know I don’t like to, but I know how many people want to hear it), the game file clocked me at 22 hours for a single run-through of the game on easy difficulty. Most people will get through it slightly quicker than me though; I know I take my time with games. My total play time so far stands at around 60 hours (and for the record, I have played the story mode only – I haven’t touched the multiplayer mission mode), and I can easily see myself doubling that in my quest to beat the hard mode and unlock some of the secret characters etc. This really is one of those games that you can replay ad infinitum: improving your performance, going for platinum medals… it just doesn’t get old.
What it all boils down to in the end is that this game is a fierce proponent of the theory that “you get back what you put in.” So many games these days require such little input from the player, and all they can give back is some flashy explosions and scripted scenes – it’s the definition of throwaway popcorn entertainment. Well, The Wonderful 101 requires a lot of effort and dedication from its players, and what it gives back is something that is increasingly rare in gaming (and it’s worth noting that, amongst all the art forms, this is something that is unique to videogames, so it would be a sad day indeed if the rise of the mainstream managed to eradicate it altogether), and that is a sense of personal growth as you figure things out for yourself and, through copious amounts of practice, improve your skills. Your character doesn’t power up; you do. This is what Mr Kamiya wants from you, so to beat him at his own game you should consider the wisdom of Kung Fu legend, Bruce Lee. “Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”