A very well-designed mixture of darkness and humor
Differently from every single home console released by Nintendo up to that point, the Nintendo Gamecube did not feature a major Mario adventure among its starting lineup of games. Coincidentally, the system that usually stands, wrongly, as the black sheep of Nintendo’s hardware collection – if you exclude the virtual boy – kicked things off by putting an often overlooked character on the spotlight: Luigi.
Luigi’s Mansion, the flagship Nintendo title of that first wave of Gamecube games, debuted without garnering much attention. However, as years went by, its fame would steadily grow. For a game that originally appeared as an average launch title, the franchise ended up gaining a very surprising, yet deserving, amount of support for an eventual return. After a decade on which its fanbase grew to staggering heights, Dark Moon comes around to expand on the first game while giving the franchise a heavy infusion of the extremely clumsy personality Luigi has acquired during the past few years on his RPG incursions. The result of it all is one of the very best games the 3DS has to offer.
The game, seemingly eager to display its glorious blend of eerie environments and slapstick humor, shows its nature from the get go. Luigi sits at home watching TV when, suddenly, Professor E. Gadd interrupts the signal to summon Luigi to yet another creepy quest. The ghosts of Evershade Valley had been exhibiting a very peaceful behavior in recent years. Unfortunately, during one apparently normal night, the spirits begin to act up; destroying everything in their surroundings and haunting the abandoned locations of the valley. An awfully frightened Luigi tries to hilariously deny the invitation for an adventure, but the Professor promptly transports Nintendo’s second plumber to the valley and – thankfully, for us – sends him ghost-hunting around the place.
Instead of featuring one large mansion where the whole adventure takes place, Next Level Games cleverly decided to split the game in five distinct manors. The geographical separation of the houses supported the creation of one overall theme for each one of them, giving the game a much wider potential for level design; something that is fully explored by the developers to great and amusing results.
While the first location is your average haunted house, the others go on to explore themes like ice, plants and clockwork; the last of which strays away from the regular assortment of Mario themes and ventures into a theme that is fantastically adequate for a haunted universe. The mansions are throughly impressive in both their visual and structural design and they never cease to amaze: every turn and corner hides the possibility of a surprise and the rooms are packed to the brim with objects and contraptions that Luigi can interact with, which often generate some truly funny results.
The amount of stuff that can be pushed, pulled, sucked, and moved is enough for the mansions to receive many accolades for stellar attention to detail, but while Next Level Games was clearly worried about the finer grains of the mansions’ environments, they also took excellent care of how they were built.
Set up in ways that tend to remember some Zelda dungeons, moving around the mansions becomes a puzzle in its self. Invariably, during the game’s missions, the location that serves as Luigi’s current destination will be neatly highlighted in the map. Getting there, though, is usually not as straightforward as the map will let on, as it will involve deep exploration of the surrounding rooms, puzzle solving, the finding of keys, ghost encounters and other events. Once they are cleared, the mansions will not seem like they are enormous, but the game is so densely filled up with mystery and riddles that at least three hours are required to clear each one of them.
In respect to the game’s handheld nature, Next Level Games took a decision that certainly causes diverging effects. The game is completely structured around missions, usually featuring six for each house plus a boss battle and a mindlessly fun ghost hunt against the clock. The benefits of such an approach is that, besides making it possible to play the game in short bursts, the game gains a lot of replayability because players are awarded a rank for each mission based on money acquired, ghosts captured, time spent and health lost; and the mansions go through some significant changes between missions, which furthers deepens how incredibly varied the game’s level design can get.
However, the mission-based format also creates a few of problems. Since Luigi has to return to E. Gadd’s lab whenever one mission is done, the game loses a bit of its haunting immersion – slightly harming the company’s stunning environmental work. In addition, during the course of some missions, players are not allowed to go into certain areas of the mansion, a factor works against the natural urge players will get to explore the very well-done locations. Also negatively affecting the game’s sense of isolation is the fact that E. Gadd is often calling up Luigi in order to give him details of where to go and what to do. While the interruptions do diminish as the game advances, they remain an issue through the adventure.
Those flaws, though noticeable, are ridiculously tiny compared to the game’s flooring qualities. Everything in Dark Moon is nicely executed. The controls are tightly done and make battling ghosts a huge thrill; a positive factor that is multiplied by the nice variety of ghosts that the game throws at Luigi. The simple controls and Luigi’s limited set of instruments – he only packs his trustworthy glorified vacuum cleaner and a flashlight that either makes environments brighter or reveals hidden objects – are used to an incredible degree, and the quantity of different puzzles that the developers were able to come up having only a few tools at the character’s command is beyond remarkable. Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon is one of those games that amazes at every step of the way, and whatever issues individual players may encounter during the adventure will be easily overshadowed by everything else.
If on the creative front Dark Moon is spectacular, its technical departments shine equally bright and set new high standards for the system. The game’s visuals are absolutely astounding. The fact that the game takes place in tiny rooms instead of open environments allowed Next Level Games to go all out with textures, effects and details without fear that the game’s rendering performance would suffer.
Few Nintendo games have ever offered such detailed scenes, and the delicate precision with which lights and shadows have been implemented – a key factor for a generally dark game – is quite a sight. The music and sound design are also very well done. Taking advantage of low-key compositions and punctual sound effects, the game crafts a tense environment that has its darkness balanced by the cartoonish sounds emitted by ghosts, Luigi’s always amusing voice tonality, and the fact that the green dude often likes to hum along with the tune that is playing on the background.
Where Luigi’s Mansion is most impressive, though, is in its animation. Anyone who stops to pay attention to the way Luigi moves will certainly burst out laughing at how he walks, runs and looks around in ridiculous fright. The highlight comes around in the small custscenes that punctuate the exploration. The mansions’ walls are full of holes through which Luigi can check out what ghosts are doing when they think he is not looking. Those little peeks into their behavior tend to be accompanied by comical cutscenes of their wild interactions with each other and, like it happens with a good silly cartoon, it is easy to lose a few minutes looking at what they are doing while taking in the cleverness of it all.
In total, the adventure can stretch out for over fifteen hours. That is especially true to those who decide to go after the collectible gems and boos that reward and amuse players who like to explore every nook and cranny of the manors. Still, of that is not enough to satisfy the needs created by more than one decade of waiting, then the game packs an extremely solid multiplayer mode.
In it, four players explore mansions that can range from five floors to twenty-five in three different modes that share the same goal: finding a way to get to the top of the mansion by unlocking doors, capturing ghosts, and enduring the many challenges of working as a team. The mansions in the multiplayer mode are randomly generated, which adds a good deal of value to the whole experience even if there is a limited set of rooms from which mansions are created. However, as the fun comes from working together with other Luigis, capturing ghosts and defeating a boss every five floors, the multiplayer remains a strong and alluring option either as a break from the main adventure or as a source of fresh simple fun after the game is done.
If all franchises that spent more than one decade away from the gaming world came back with an outing as impressive as Dark Moon, then even very ardent fans would not mind if their favorite characters decided to take a break of such length. In spite of its long absence, Luigi’s Mansion has not lost a single step. On the contrary, it has actually taken advantage of that quiet time to take a good look at the mirror and figure out the areas on which its gameplay could be significantly improved.
If more than a decade ago the lack of a Mario game on the Gamecube’s launch lineup was a reason to delay the purchase of the system, this time around Luigi gets a little sweet and friendly revenge on his brother. After all, his arrival on the 3DS – more than any Mario game released for the system up to now – becomes the ultimate reason why owning a 3DS is worth it.