In the summer of 2008, in between spells of supervising future Wall St bankers at Brown’s summer camp, I wasted countless afternoon hours playing Battletoads on an NES emulator. For someone who came of age during the twilight of 16-bit gaming, the 3D wonkiness of N64/GameCube era, and the advent of FMV movie-games, the sheer difficulty and variety of Battletoads was like a kick to the teeth.
The game ferried me breathlessly from a Double Dragon-style beat ’em up to a boss battle (from the boss’ perspective!) to perhaps the most unforgiving biking racing sequence ever. More impressively, the game’s difficulty wasn’t a gimmick; it wasn’t hard for its own sake (or because it was poorly executed), but for the sake of making the player hone her abilities, reflexes, and strategy. Each level was a world unto itself, and it’s impossible to imagine some kid sitting down in 1991 and just beating it straight-through on an unenhanced NES.
Battletoads was a unique mix of challenge and variety, sprinkled with just the right amount of humor – the game’s premise of superhero amphibians is almost surely a parody of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle rage sweeping the world in the late 1980s/early 1990s. It was also a trailblazer, with its gorgeous graphics and faux-3D level design foreshadowing not only the upcoming Genesis/SNES generation but the PSX/Saturn/N64 one after that. It pushed the NES for all it was worth. Since that time, though, no game has really followed its exact blueprint, even if Battletoads’ influence can be seen in platformers like Donkey Kong Country.
Battletoads’ spiritual successor on the Wii U
Until now, anyway. The Wonderful 101, a Wii U exclusive released back in August 2013, is a fantastic genre-defying superhero game with a steep learning curve, unpredictable level design, and beautiful HD graphics. The player controls a massive group of heroes, called The Wonderful 100 (the 101st member is the player) and must collate their powers to fight off earth-invading aliens. To do this, you have to use the Wii U GamePad to draw attack patterns and movement trails (drawing with the R stick on the GamePad/Pro Controller is a bit more cumbersome, I found).
The GamePad is utilized to its fullest here, in a way that hasn’t been seen since the excellent ZombiU launch title. While inside some buildings, the GamePad’s gyroscope (one of its many tricked-out hardware features) is used for navigation, and many scenes perform the patented “look at your GamePad!” move that any player of Nintendoland is likely to be familiar with.
It’s odd how perhaps the two most quintessential Wii U games – ZombiU and The Wonderful 101 – are incredibly difficult. ZombiU’s bleak survivalist ethos – few weapons, power-ups, and health dot the landscape – means that making it through and dying only once is a superhuman feat. The Wonderful 101 is difficult in a different way – while it has plenty of items to restore health or unlock new features, it requires a great amount of coordination to use your team, as well as a certain physical preciseness in timing unite morphs (the giant fist morph may even be a reference to Battletoads’s combat animations).
The learning curve is sharp – The Wonderful 101 unfortunately provides little guidance, forcing players to learn its unique machinations largely on their own. And multiplayer mode requires a pricey Wii U Controller for each additional player. But The Wonderful 101 nevertheless stands as a good indication of what developers can do with the Wii U’s unique hardware and input methods. I hope that the recent sales boost from Wind Waker HD will drive more consumer and developer interest in the platform.