Nintendo was in an interesting place in 2001. Though the Nintendo 64 helped revolutionize gaming (namely due to Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time), its sales numbers paled in comparison to the Sony Playstation. And with the Playstation 2 releasing in 2000, it’s safe to say that the GameCube was in a hurry to get out the door as soon as possible. As such, this meant that the GameCube’s signature Mario game, Super Mario Sunshine, would miss the console’s launch, marking the first time Mario wasn’t present to cut the ribbon on the dawning of a new Nintendo console.
To fill that void, however, Nintendo had a separate game set within the Mario universe to make the GameCube’s launch. But it ended up being quite different from any other game set in the world of the Mushroom Kingdom. The game in question was Luigi’s Mansion, a kind of spoof on the survival-horror genre that marked the first official game in which Luigi received the starring role (wiseacres are quick to point out the existence of Mario is Missing from years earlier, but that title was an edutainment game that wasn’t developed by Nintendo, so it doesn’t count). Although Luigi’s Mansion never boasted the depth of Mario’s adventures, Luigi’s first proper solo outing nonetheless provided enough unique ideas and personality that it retains a charm of its own.
The initial concept for what would later become Luigi’s Mansion at first starred the more famous Mario brother, with the idea being to place Mario in a singular indoor setting. Originally conceived as a Japanese-style castle, the setting eventually became an American-style haunted house. With the change in setting, Nintendo decided to promote Luigi to be the star of the game for one very simple reason: Mario was known for being brave and adventurous, but now was the time to showcase Luigi’s personality, whose constance presence in his brother’s shadow made him easy fodder for a ‘reluctant hero’ character.
Though audiences saw glimpses of distinct personalities between the Mario Bros. through their television series and books, there was never any official, concrete characterizations between Mario and Luigi by Nintendo themselves in the formative years for the video game series. If Mario was the brave hero who would leap into action at the first chance, then it just made sense that Luigi would be the series’ ‘Cowardly Lion,’ as he shares a similar heroic spirit as his brother, but it’s buried far, far deeper. So it was a natural fit to have Luigi be the one to traverse a haunted mansion, facing his many fears as he tries to rescue Mario.
Luigi’s Mansion might be the first Nintendo game to be centered around one of their character’s personalities, and it remains one of their most successful attempts (the less said of Metroid: Other M, the better). Nintendo’s critics often deride the developer for a supposed “lack of character,” but that’s a gross misconception. While it’s true Nintendo rarely prioritizes actual storytelling and their characters tend to not have complex backstories (probably for the better. I again refer you to Other M), many of their characters are bursting with personality in a similar vein to classic cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and Popeye the Sailor Man. Luigi’s Mansion is a fine example of this. Between Luigi’s constantly chattering teeth (which kind of makes him look like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit), shaky knees, and nervous humming of the game’s catchy theme tune, Luigi’s Mansion showcases its lead character’s personality – while simple and exaggerated – to be thoroughly entertaining.
It simply wouldn’t have been as good if it were Mario braving the haunted halls of its mansion. The game and its lead character both benefit one another in such a way that you wish more of the story-focused games of today would attempt to replicate that connection, as to avoid the common pitfall of gameplay conflicting with narratives and character motivation.
Even with Luigi’s personality leading the charge, gameplay is still at the forefront of Nintendo’s designs. And although it shows its age in certain areas, for the most part, Luigi’s Mansion remains a uniquely fun and charming game even today.
As mentioned, the game is all about Luigi trying to save Mario, who has gone missing in the new mansion Luigi supposedly won in a contest he never even entered (red flag there, Luigi). The mansion is, of course, littered with ghosts. Luckily for Luigi, Professor E. Gadd – a lifetime researcher of ghosts – has been studying the mansion, and gives Luigi his ghost-catching vacuum, the Poltergust 3000.
Yes, the gameplay is more reminiscent of the 1984 Ghostbusters film than it is any of its Mario series predecessors (Luigi can’t even jump in the game). Equipped with only the Poltergust and a flashlight, Luigi traverses the mansion fighting ghosts. The flashlight will stun ghosts, exposing their heart, which allows Luigi to suck them up into the Poltergust.
One of the most fun things about Luigi’s Mansion is the act of catching ghosts itself. The player of course moves Luigi with the standard joystick. But Luigi aims the Poltergust and flashlight with the GameCube controller’s ‘C-stick.’ If a ghost caught in the Poltergust’s whirlwind changes direction, the player will have to accommodate and pull the direction opposite to that which the ghost is heading, occasionally cutting some slack so Luigi can avoid a potential hazard in his way as the ghost pulls him along the ground. Essentially, it’s like an elaborate fishing game used as a combat mechanic.
It’s simple fun with the standard enemies, but the real treat comes in the form of the “Portrait Ghosts;” unique mini-boss-like specters whom the mansion’s many chambers are built around. Each Portrait Ghost has different tells and weaknesses, and can provide real tests of endurance for the player.
The Portrait Ghosts are memorable not just for how each one provides their own little puzzle for the player to solve, but also in their personalities and design. Most of the Portrait Ghosts are more humanoid than what we usually see in the Mario universe (keep in mind this was sixteen years before Odyssey brought realistic-looking humans into the fold), and although it would be difficult to call the game truly scary, the Portrait Ghosts’ appearances do make the game feel appropriately spooky and (relatively) darker than the usual Mario title. The mansion itself could be considered a character in its own right, given its strong sense of place.
It may not match the combination of cartoony characters with a dark and dreary atmosphere of Donkey Kong Country 2, but Luigi’s Mansion is probably the only other game I can think of that warrants a comparison in that regard. Luigi’s Mansion’s eventual 3DS sequel, though arguably an improvement in certain respects, lacks the original’s sense of atmosphere and character.
Luigi’s Mansion could be described as a “Diet Metroidvania,” with Luigi gaining access to more chambers of the mansion as he continues to capture Portrait Ghosts. Though perhaps one of the game’s drawbacks is that it could have taken an extra page from the Metroidvania sub-genre and had Luigi (or the Poltergust, as it were) gain new abilities to access more of the mansion, instead of it merely being a case of defeating sub-bosses for keys. The Poltergust does gain the ability to emit fire, water and ice, but they unfortunately never get utilized in any substantial way.
Another fun aspect of Luigi’s Mansion is finding the many treasures hidden throughout the titular abode. While Mario is always grabbing coins, here, Luigi is on a quest for coins, pearls, dollar bills, gemstones and diamonds. Though gaining these riches does little more than effect your score at the end of the game, it still proves to be a fun diversion to see how much treasure you can collect.
The biggest complaint most people seem to have with Luigi’s Mansion is its short length. If you know what you’re doing, the game can be completed in about the time it takes to watch a movie. Luigi’s Mansion could have done with just a couple more hours of gameplay, as some of its ideas don’t meet their full potential with the little time they’re allowed to have. On the plus side, I suppose the game’s brief time makes it one of the few titles in the medium that can be seen as a holiday tradition with annual playthroughs (Halloween in this instance, obviously).
Luigi’s Mansion was one of the earlier Nintendo titles to feature a New Game Plus mode after completing the campaign. Unfortunately in both its Japanese and US release, the differences between the main game and New Game Plus are little more than some stronger enemies and a weaker Luigi. The PAL version of the game (released well after the other versions) rectified this somewhat by making the post-game version of the mansion mirrored and changing the locations of certain treasures, but even that only goes so far. So unless you missed out on some treasures, or just really want to beat your high score, there’s not a whole lot of reason to play through the “Hidden Mansion” mode.
The short running time of the campaign is unfortunate, but it’s not the game’s biggest issue. Though the GameCube has aged better than the Nintendo 64 on the whole, it’s earlier titles still suffer a bit from the same kind of technical hiccups that plagued its 64-bit predecessor. And Luigi’s Mansion is no exception.
Some of the controls feel a little clunky, particularly in regards to handling the flashlight in conjunction with everything else. The flashlight is turned on by default, and pressing the B button turns it off. You turn Luigi around and aim the Poltergust with the C-stick, and you suck up ghosts with a press of the R button. And while the flashlight stuns the ghosts, you have to stun them at the opportune time, or else they’ll disappear. It can feel a bit awkward to turn Luigi around and aim the Poltergust while holding the B button to keep the light off and then release it to turn the light on when the time is right, especially in rooms with multiple ghosts.
Along with the standard enemies and the Portrait Ghosts, the Mario series’ classic ‘Boo’ enemies show up as the primary baddies. While seeing these secondary foes get a promotion in the same vein as Luigi is nice, there are some issues with the Boos’ presence in Luigi’s Mansion. The game features fifty Boos hidden throughout the mansion. But unlike the other ghosts in the game, Boos ignore the aforementioned “fishing” aspects of the catching process, with Luigi simply focusing the vortex of the Poltergust on Boos to drain their hit points.
That may not sound too bad, and at first it isn’t when the Boos have less hit points. But once you you realize Boos can travel from room to room, and they start getting more hit points, thus giving them more opportunities to do so, it gets a bit tedious chasing a Boo from one room to another, and downright frustrating when they exit a room to go into the hallway and back again repeatedly. It’s also a bit disappointing that, despite the game claiming there are 50 Boos in the mansion to be captured, there are technically only 35, since 15 of them are automatically captured as part of a single boss fight.
Another note Luigi’s Mansion should have taken from Metroidvanias is the implementation of fast-traveling. The game can only be saved by talking to Toads (who are perhaps a bit too far spread out from one another), or after catching a Boo. While the Toads save your game, they don’t act as checkpoints. Every time you reload your game, or defeat a boss, or die, you start back at the foyer of the mansion. Although you can return to the foyer by scanning mirrors, there’s no means to fast-travel anywhere else in the mansion. As you might imagine, backtracking to different sections of the mansion can quickly feel arduous.
Though these aspect do show that the game has aged a bit, the core gameplay, along with its undeniable sense of character, have helped Luigi’s Mansion remain a fun and delightful experience nearly two decades later. It is perhaps the perfect launch game the GameCube could have hoped for (if maybe not the one it sorely needed), as Luigi’s Mansion echoes the console itself in many ways. The GameCube may not have been the success story Nintendo was hoping for in the Playstation dominated market of the time, nor is it one of Nintendo’s more iconic or innovative consoles. But it has a unique appeal of its own, a small-scale charm that’s aberrant among Nintendo systems.
Just the same, Luigi’s Mansion – though far, far away from being one of the best games set in the Super Mario universe – remains a unique and appealing offshoot of Nintendo’s flagship franchise. We may not have realized it in 2001, but in hindsight, Luigi’s Mansion seems to have encompassed the GameCube’s place in Nintendo’s history right out of the gate.