Somewhere in my parents’ attic is a large box containing a couple hundred action figures. For years, I would craft elaborate performances by the Silverhawks, She-Ra (Princess Of Power), Snailiens, and others—stories about brotherhood and betrayal, good and evil, and a whole lot of posturing to look cool. Classic novels like The Three Musketeers and Robin Hood and the pop culture of the time like Chris Claremont’s X-Men and Sailor Moon taught me that those were the hallmarks of good storytelling. The stories never ended. They just got bigger and led to grander adventures. New backstories were introduced every time a new toy was acquired. It was fantastic, in every sense of the word.
The Wonderful 101 is the equivalent of dumping a box of 400 action figures out in front of a kid and telling them to go at it. The hyper-kinetic lovechild of Platinum Games (best known for Bayonetta, a fast-paced, intricate action game about a witch whose hair is also her clothing) and Nintendo (best known for the virtual bowling simulator in every retirement home in the world), The Wonderful 101 tells the story of a United Nations-sponsored team of 100 heroes that defends Earth from whatever happens to be threatening the planet at the moment. In the game, the threat du jour is a hostile intergalactic fleet by the name GEATHJERK, an acronym for the “Guild of Evil Aliens Terrorizing Humans with Jiggawatt bombs, Energy beams, Rayguns, and Killer lasers.” That’s exactly the kind of outlandish follow-through a preteen storyteller eats up.
You start out with Wonder-Red, a by-the-books spiky-haired hero, and collect his 99 teammates along the way, though the story only ever involves six of them: Blue is a California loner, Green a French goof, Pink a European fashionista, Yellow a timid Russian, White a Japanese philosopher, and Black a tech prodigy from New Delhi. Together, they’ve got the multinational Super Friends vibe that Captain Planet could never quite muster, though the interpersonal dynamics basically boil down to this: Red and Blue don’t see eye-to-eye, and Green has a crush on Pink, but she thinks he’s gross—same as every formulaic team dynamic ever. The varied personalities are ripe for sharp moments of character banter, and while there’s a bit of that, the game never forgets that we’re primarily here to beat up bad guys.
And the fighting really is the heart of The Wonderful 101. Waves of thugs and beasts with names like Nyerk and Dough-Goo are beaten back by transforming the band of heroes into giant weapons. Standing on each others’ shoulders, the colorful heroes become an enormous sword, whip, gun, or whatever the situation may call for. It’s a combination of the “together, we can do anything” trope and the “my G.I. Joe doesn’t have kung-fu grip, so I’ll just imagine something unbelievably awesome for it to do instead” schoolyard mentality that drives the whole work.
And like the stories told on playgrounds, the scale and silliness of the adventure is constantly escalating. Each time I thought I’d seen the biggest, most over-the-top action sequence The Wonderful 101 could throw out, the next level would start with something even more grand and ludicrous. Late sequences seem as though the developers were playing Punch-Out and Star Fox and said to themselves “you know what would make this crazier?” And then after making it crazier, they added cyborgs and explosions.
The scale of the action is enormous, but The Wonderful 101 never takes itself all that seriously, frequently winking and nodding to remind the audience that it’s all in good fun. When a robot turtle the size of a house smashes your heroes, they will be, at worst, temporarily flattened like Daffy Duck under a steamroller. No blood, no broken bones, just the same level of consequence as the standard Saturday morning cartoon. At one point, I defeated a colossal war robot by tickling its underarm. “Why would a robot be ticklish?” I asked for a half-second before remembering that young me would have eaten it up. I moved on to the next preposterous scene.
It only takes a moment for The Wonderful 101 to whisk away any expectation of being grounded in reality, and the game is better for it. It was built with a childlike imagination, its ethos being that absolutely anything can happen. At its worst, the game resembles Bayonetta For Kids, but Bayonetta was never half as joyous as this, with the stakes never feeling as high, or the threats as personal. It’s the way kids tell stories. Everything is important because there’s no concern for mature complications. When the game finally decided it was time to pack up its toys and go home, I couldn’t help but feel jealous of how cool and shiny its toys were. I wanted to call its mom for another playdate or circle its timeslot in the next week’s TV Guide. Instead, I think I’ll play it again, like a good comic book or well-worn VHS.