The Wonderful 101 Preview

The project was so wonderful that it became just that.

When I was a kid, I'd hungrily flip the pages of the latest issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly until some glossy-looking screenshot of an upcoming arcade title bade me stop. There was something about the sheen of those games that entrapped my 10-year-old brain and wouldn't let it free. It wasn't just that the graphics were plain betterthey were, but that wasn't it. They reached a level of polish and loving detail that shamed the consoles of the day while still looking like a video game. That may sound obvious, but today it's quite rare. Nowadays, the graphical cutting edge is measured by the number of people who can't tell the game world for the real one.

I think that's why Platinum's upcoming Wii U title, recently renamed The Wonderful 101 from Project P-100, appeals to me so much. It's the kind of game that would have been made 20 years ago if they had today's technology. And after getting some face time with it at Nintendo's recent Wii U experience in San Franciso, I can tell you that 10-year-old me is ready for more.

Everything from the isometric view to the unapologetic use of saturated colors gives 101 the appearance of something you put quarters into. You can keep your debates over whether Nintendo's new system is more like three Gamecubes duct-taped together or five Xboxes running in SLI or whatever. If video games never looked better than this one, I could live with thatnot because it looks so outwardly impressive, but because it's such a perfect marriage of artistic vision and technical aptitude.

One gets the sense that every minute detail looks exactly as its creators intended rather than what they could do with what they were given. Excellent use of lighting and depth of field makes you feel like you're really saving a little world that exists only inside your television, and every enemy I fought looked like the coolest toy I ever begged my Mom for.

What I played was a slightly shortened version of the E3 demo, so there were no real surprises in terms of content. It's hard to say what kind of game it is without oversimplifying it or relying on lazy “it's like this + that” descriptors. Viewtiful Joe + Earthbound? Ratchet and Clank + Paperboy? I dunno. How about an "action game"? I'd like to call it an arcade-style beat-'em-up, but you don't fight waves of henchmen. It's more like a “boss rush” game (ever played Alien Soldier?) with some puzzle and platform elements in between. While it strikes a good balance, it's hard to tell if the game will retain the same structure throughout or shake it up a bit. While every element felt fun, the combat was definitely the star.

The best way to sum up the combat would be to say that it definitely feels like the work of Hideki Kamiya. Controls respond predictably, the action is explosive while remaining comprehensible, and every success feels like a true victory. Each of the different morph abilities felt as distinct and fun to use as the next, which kept me from sticking with one for too long. Watching your gaggle of superheroes “Voltron" themselves into a clenched fist or a giant energy sword never fails to entertain, and I'm sure that discovering new morphs over the course of the adventure will be a strong hook for many.

I'm still not sold on the whole process of drawing the morph pattern with your finger on the Wii U gamepad, but you can use the right analog too. It works well enough, but couldn't you accomplish just as much with a radial menu or any number of other functional solutions that don't involve me looking down at my hands while being shot at by giant robot tanks? Same goes for the indoor puzzle-solving sequence where the action moves to the gamepad view. Not only was the camera in a bit too tight, but the game looks decidedly less eye-popping, since the gamepad screen is… less than impressive. Perhaps the puzzles will start utilizing it more creatively at some point, but for now it still feels like a gimmick.

Hopefully, any further gamepad shenanigans will continue to be either optional or unintrusive because the rest is a blast so far. Cool though my younger self would have found it to control a game this sweet-looking with my Etch-a-Sketch 2000, it's the core experience here that has my attention. The Director and Producer duo of Kamiya and Inaba has produced nothing but gold so far, and so long as the gamepad tomfoolery is kept to a minimum, I see The Wonderful 101 continuing that trend.