Wonderful 101 suffers from inscrutable systems, non-existent tutorials, and an unwelcoming camera
The Wonderful 101 is getting mixed reviews, and that’s putting it delicately. The game sits at a 78 on Metacritic, which in the world of game journalism is a pretty tepid response. This is a time when Nintendo needs every hit it can muster, and Wonderful 101 is… well…
I don’t know. The game is confusing as hell, and it does a poor job of explaining itself to the player. I’ve put in a good amount of time, probably close to five hours, and I still don’t really understand what’s going on. The game has done next to nothing to help me figure out what the hell to do, how to effectively fight the enemy, or to introduce the player to the other levels of complexity in the game.
Add in a mechanic that has you drawing shapes on the Wii U’s touchscreen to conjure weapons, a tricky camera that can be hard to manage, and you have a game that gives an absolutely terrible first impression.
Ready to give up
I haven’t played enough to give any kind of a review, but I will say that if I wasn’t getting paid to write about the game and give some thoughts, I would have already given up. I’m just not having fun digging into the game’s systems to try to understand, and the design of the game seems utterly unconcerned with whether its engaging the player.
I’ve been to Radiohead concerts that felt the same way, they weren’t playing for me, they were playing in front of me, and barely seemed to care if I was there at all. The Wonderful 101 does not open the door to the player, you have to be willing to put in some serious time and effort into figuring what the living hell is going on.
Zeboyd Games posted a great story on why the gaming press and reviewers have so much trouble with games like this, and I agree with some points and reject a few others. The primary idea, that the game isn’t easy to pin down, is sound.
“If you had to stick it in one genre, you could call it a highly technical Brawler/Adventure game like Devil May Cry. But then you add shape-based controls. And transformations. And minor RTS elements. And level design that completely changes everything on a regular basis the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the NES Battletoads,” the article states. “And then you add a focus on perfection & improving your score like you’d see in a hardcore bullet-hell shmup (the game gives you a score & a rating every few minutes) and it’s no wonder that a lot of people are having trouble mentally parsing it.”
This lack of a clear concept or elevator pitch hurts the game, and often makes it feel unfocused if you haven’t taken the time to figure out the various systems. A friend asked me to describe the game, and I told him to imagine a version of Devil May Cry that’s designed for children, but is actually much more complicated than that brawler. I feel like that’s a good start, but it’s not going to get many people running off to the store to check it out.
I talked with Robert Boyd via Twitter as I was playing the game, and he showed me some community-made videos that did a great job explaining how to play the game. I’ve embedded them in this post.
These videos did more to help my understanding and enjoyment of the game than anything that’s actually in the game, and I would have been lost for a much longer time without them. An inability to fit into an established genre, mixed with a lack of care for teaching the player how to interact with the game’s often inscrutable mechanics, and you have a game that will never sell well, but is likely to become a cult classic.
This obviously isn’t what Nintendo had in mind.
Trying to find the fun
I’m going to keep digging for the fun in Wonderful 101, and there is much to like in the game’s character design, wonderful music, and often goofy attitude. Creating weapons out of the bodies of the townsfolk you’re supposed to be protecting is a neat, tongue-in-cheek idea, and it uses the touchscreen in novel ways once you understand how to quickly and simply draw the shapes to bring forth each weapon. It’s not a terrible game.
The problem is that, despite its breezy atmosphere and childlike character and level design, it’s unwelcoming. You can bash your head against the side of the experience, or you can seek out lengthy tutorials to learn how to play before you even begin. I don’t fault anyone, reviewer or otherwise, who gives up and walks away. Many of us have limited time for our games, and it’s not worth fussing over games we don’t find enjoyable due to poor design in the beginning levels.
The Wonderful 101 is going to be debated for years, and it will likely grow a small but dedicated group of grognards who will bristle whenever anyone speaks ill of their recently adopted child. They can leave me out of it. I’m all about experimentation in design, but it has to go somewhere, and it has to be willing to bring the player along for the ride. It’s not fun to be chasing a moving train while someone sticks their head out the window, yelling at you to keep up, and I won’t feel bad for giving them the finger and going to get a cup of coffee.
Or, I don’t know. I’ve heard good things about the later boss battles. Maybe I’ll run alongside this train for just a little longer.