I picked up The Wonderful 101 on a whim yesterday for twenty bucks. That’s pretty cheap, especially for a flagship game on a beleaguered console that launched just a few months ago, but director Hideki Kamiya has kind of a reputation for releasing inspired, frenetic, highly tactile games that sometimes fail to attract an audience.
For what it’s worth, I’ve always loved Kamiya’s games. Bayonetta remains one of my favorite action games I’ve ever come across, and even the more-esoteric titles like Viewtiful Joe managed to charm me enough to see them through to the end credits. I like the guy’s work; I respect his directorial style.
But for whatever reason, I just can’t figure out what to do with Wonderful 101. It certainly isn’t lacking in style: the game’s practically bursting with cheesy aesthetic, from the heroic theme music to the exaggerated movements of the 101 would-be heroes you control.
But that last point — control — is where the game stumbles for me, and I frankly didn’t see it coming. Kamiya’s games have always lived and died on the fluidity of control — the enthralling sense of power that comes from feeling a deeply intuitive connection to your larger-than-life heroic avatar. Each of his games has succeeded largely on the strength and alacrity of the hero’s connection to the player. But something about the game — maybe just the sheer volume of things moving around? — is making it damn-near impossible for me to make a meaningful connection.
I’m cool with a solid challenge in a game. I expect to die a lot in any serious action game, and 101 hasn’t let me down there. But when I’m struggling just to make out the myriad moving pieces on the screen in order to understand who’s attacking what? That’s just frustrating.
I’m probably drifting perilously close into grumpy-old-dude territory here, so I’ll admit this might just be my own failing as the player. But for a game that was heavily promoted and featured a playable demo — a rarity these days — I’m starting to understand why it wasn’t a commercial hit.
It’s a great idea and a joy to look at. It’s just a shame I can’t figure out what it’s trying to do.