The Wonderful 101 is one of the best games to come out this year & is arguably the first truly killer app for the Wii U (though NSMBU was a lot of fun & Zombi U had some interesting ideas). It is also currently averaging around a 78% on Gamerankings.
There are many things that the developers of The Wonderful 101 could have changed to make the game more inviting to the press & general public for that matter but ultimately games like The Wonderful 101 are a poor fit for the gaming press.
The press is well-equipped to handle experience-focused games: i.e. your typical AAA single-player game these days. Play through the game, ooh & ah at all the pretty sights, and then write down your impressions. Easy stuff.
The press is even relatively well-equipped to handle competitive skill-focused multi-player games as long as they’re grounded in a well-established genre. Got a FPS to review? Jot down a list of features, compare its level of execution to the most popular games in the genre at the time, and you’re good.
Where it gets to be a lot more hit & miss is when the press is faced with a skill-focused game that doesn’t easily fit into a pre-established category. These are games designed to be played over a period of months, honing your craft & improving your scores & times, not rushed through to see what happens at the end of the story. And if the reviewer doesn’t even realize that this is a skill-focused game and instead thinks that the game is an experienced-focused game because it’s single-player and has a story? Heaven help the developer of that game who is hoping for a good metacritic score because they’re not going to get it.
Now if someone buys a game like this and doesn’t immediately get it, what are they going to do? Well, they have an investment in the game (the money they spent and their desire to enjoy the game) so they’re going to put in the effort to try to get something out of the game. They’ll keep at it until the game’s systems click for them, or they’ll look online at gameplay videos, ask questions on forums, check out a FAQ, etc. Some of them will eventually end up deciding that the game is bad or just not for them, but many of them will eventually end up enjoying the game. And if they end up enjoying the game, they may stick with the game and compete on the leaderboards, try to 100% the game, get all the achievements, etc.
Contrast this with your typical reviewer. They’re pressed for time so they’re unlikely to really master any of the games that they have to review. They’re unlikely to connect with other fans of the game or look up hints & strategies (and for that matter, hints & strategies may not even exist online since they may have the game pre-release). In short they have no incentive to try to get the most out of a game. In fact, they may even feel like putting any extra effort into a game may taint their “unbiased” viewpoint.
Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I’m not saying this to badmouth the gaming press. Skill-focused games that don’t have an easy analogue in a pre-existing genre are hard to get into for a lot of people. Not having that community support structure online to help makes things even harder. But as someone who loves new experiences & loves a good challenge, it’s frustrating when many of my favorite games, games that I think are expertly crafted (except for, perhaps, not doing a good enough job teaching the depths of their gameplay) don’t get the respect that they deserve. And it’s frustrating because by not understanding these games & by reviewing them negatively, we’re actively discouraging creativity in game design.
And this is not just a “Oh, the game is too hard.” Hard games can get good review scores… if they’re firmly based in a reviewer’s background knowledge. Like take Dark Souls for example. Dark Souls is expertly crafted & has a lot of creative ideas, but it’s firmly grounded in the Action/RPG dungeon crawl genre. It’s not wildly creative; they took a well-established idea, added some neat ideas, and then did a fantastic job with everything.
Compare that to something like The Wonderful 101. 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. 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.
Or take one of my all-time favorites, Mirror’s Edge. It’s a cross between a racing game & a platformer which is a combination that you hardly ever see. Then they gave it a first-person perspective (which is never used in platformers and is only sometimes used in racing games). And then they gave it level design that on the surface feels more like a FPS than either a racing game or a platformer and yeah, the resulting chimera takes a while to get used to… but once it does, it’s amazing. I love to say that the story mode in Mirror’s Edge is all big one tutorial and that after you’ve completed it, that’s when the game really opens up and becomes a ton of fun, but I’m afraid a lot of people played through the campaign and then figured the game was over, instead of just beginning.
And don’t even get me started on Siren or Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter.
Okay, enough ranting. Now for some constructive criticism.
Developers, make better tutorials. Hold the player’s hand at the beginning long enough for them to understand the proper way to play the game & give them the tools to progress further, and then get out of their way, and let them play the game & grow on their own.
Reviewers, make an honest effort to find the fun in games. And if it’s easy to miss that fun, either through a poor in-game tutorial or by mismatched conceptions going in, then help others find that fun through your review. You could even link to great tutorials like these:
And everyone, please buy The Wonderful 101. The industry needs more games with this level of craft & creativity.