Its ghost-hunting concept is undeniably fun, and it leads to a rather unexpected take on the Super Mario universe; one that merges a dark atmosphere, cartoonish art, humorous animation, and good production values
It is not surprising that Luigi, gaming’s most famous lovable loser and the eternal second fiddle to his far more popular sibling, has the worst of luck. For instance, in Luigi’s Mansion, one of the Nintendo GameCube’s launch titles, he receives a message through the mail announcing he is the fortunate recipient of a fantastic prize: a huge mansion. Excited and not even slightly suspicious that he won some sort of lottery without even signing up for one, he calls Mario to tell him the news, asks his brother to meet him by the designated location of his sweet new house, and then proceeds to run to their meeting point.
After going through a menacing forest on what is a dreary night, Luigi catches a glimpse of his home, but where the flyer had displayed a pleasant house over a lovely green hill, what he sees is an ominous manor that seems to have been taken straight out of a horror movie. To make matters worse, Mario is nowhere to be seen and upon walking into the building Luigi discovers the place is infested with all sorts of ghosts, which try to sneak up on him not too long after he reluctantly opens the front door.
To a certain extent, one could say Luigi’s Mansion is a bit of an oddity. Historically, both before and after the GameCube’s release, Nintendo has always tended to build the games that accompany their consoles as they reach the market for the first time with at least one of two goals in mind: they are either big new entries to major franchises, which are guaranteed to cause many gamers to buy the new hardware as soon as possible; or they are efforts dedicated to showcasing the capabilities of the machine.
Luigi’s Mansion is, obviously, neither. It is an entirely new property that, albeit connected to the Super Mario universe, features a style of gameplay that is considerably removed from the platforming that characterizes the series; and although it does have very respectable graphics and music that still hold up just fine, it is hard to claim it pushes the hardware that supports it, therefore making it tough to qualify it as an example of what the GameCube could do.
But Luigi’s Mansion does not really suffer due to how it lacks the traits that would usually make a launch title a must-buy. Its low-key demeanor, its general simplicity, and its status as an unsung classic that remained – for quite a long time – forgotten by Nintendo itself are a perfect match for its unlikely starring fearful hero. More important than that, however, is the fact that the adventure it contains is thoroughly original; for through the couple of decades that preceded the game’s launch, never had Nintendo dabbled into the territory it tackles here.
As he is about to be attacked by a ghost, Luigi is rescued by an old man called Professor E. Gadd, who uses a glorified vacuum cleaner – brilliantly called Poltergust 3000 – to suck up the spirit. He goes on to tell tell the terrified green dude that the mansion he is in has recently appeared out of nowhere, probably as a trap built by the ghosts to lure him and his brother into their clutches, and that Mario was likely kidnapped by the ghouls. As such, after doing some training, Luigi straps the Poltergust 3000 onto his back and decides to do some ghost-hunting around the mansion.
By far, the best part about the unexpected blend of the Super Mario universe with a setting and premise that are intimately tied to the horror genre is how, at least in theory, the two elements are incongruent. Characters from a franchise that is usually fun, happy, and colorful are suddenly thrust into a haunted mansion that is, to a certain degree, sinister. And from that odd mixture of parts, Nintendo emerges with a game that is thematically flawless, as it simultaneously embraces the spooky and the cartoonish.
It goes without saying that Luigi’s Mansion is not scary, but it does have a creepy vibe. Rooms that have not had all of their ghosts cleared have their lights turned off, and such darkness, when combined with the effect of Luigi’s trusty flashlight, scenario details that nicely stand between the realistic and the artistic, and a soundtrack that goes from totally silent to smartly eerie, ends up conjuring an atmosphere that is positively chilling. And even if the ghosts that roam the house’s poorly lit halls are more huggable than they are terrifying, the quest does muster some tension.
Although Luigi’s Mansion does not push the GameCube, at least not as much as other titles would go on to, there is one new asset brought in by the console that is finely explored and smartly used by the game: the dual analog sticks. Their existence is essential to the success of the adventure, and the way they are employed makes Luigi as well as his hunting tools control intuitively and smoothly. While the left stick is used to move the character around, the right one is responsible for directing either his flashlight or the gust of his vacuum cleaner, which is turned on by pressing the R button; with that, players are given full domain over the precision that is required to suck the ghosts in.
Furthermore, other actions include the visualization of the mansion’s 3-D map, which is triggered via the Y button; the access to a list containing all items and major ghosts captured by Luigi, which is achieved by pressing the Z button; the activation, through the X button, of a first-person view that allows gamers to scan the environment for extra intel; and the interaction, via the A button, with the various objects scattered around the rooms of the manor, an important tool to look for hidden ghouls or treasure.
With those moves, Luigi must little by little make his way through the five floors of his mansion until he manages to save his missing brother. As far as progression goes, the game is relatively straightforward, because pretty much all of the doors are locked up when the character starts his quest. Consequently, at any point in the game, a quick look at the map will tell players where they need to head to; that is, to the room whose entrance is clear.
Upon getting there, it is up to Luigi to get rid of all the ghosts in the place, which will cause the room’s lights to be turned on and a treasure chest, usually holding a key, to show up. Given the game always automatically indicates the door that is unlocked by the collected key, there is little to no mystery regarding how to proceed; a nature that gives Luigi’s Mansion a rather accessible configuration that is bound to please newcomers, but that also runs the risk of making more experienced gamers feel like there is too much hand-holding going on.
Nevertheless, through the brief five hours it lasts, the game is successfully carried by its fantastic atmosphere; the humor of watching a jumpy Luigi be frightened by the tricky spirits; the way the character nervously wanders the hallways while humming along to the songs or calling out for Mario; and the genuine fun found in the process of capturing the otherworldly creatures.
In order to make the ghosts rest inside the Poltergust 3000, Luigi must first stun them with his flashlight and then activate the suction powers of the mighty gadget. When doing so, the gust will cause him to latch onto the ghosts, which will begin to desperately scramble around the room while trying to escape; what players need to do to rein them in is tilt the control stick in the direction that is opposite to the one the ghosts are heading to, which will make the ghouls’ HP be slowly drained away. It is delightful; it is humorous; it carries a certain level of physical comedy; and it brings forth an alluring alternation between quiet moments when Luigi is looking for the ghosts and action-packed segments when he is trying to suck them in.
Overall, the ghosts encountered during the course of Luigi’s Mansion can be arranged into four distinct types. The nearly infinite common ghosts, which play the role of minor enemies, are usually captured via the standard process, with variations occurring depending on the HP they carry and on the attack patterns they present. The nineteen portrait ghosts, which get turned into paintings that are displayed in E. Gadd’s art gallery, act like mini-bosses and can only be stunned after Luigi executes a specific action in the room (which is hinted at by scanning the foes with the first-person view). The four boss ghosts, which mark the ending of the game’s four chapters and usually reward Luigi with a special key that opens the way to a new area of the mansion, are faced in special arenas that bring quite unique setups to the duels. Finally, Boos, of which there are fifty, cannot be stunned and are – therefore – able to get away more easily; furthermore, differently from all other types of ghosts, they are mostly found hiding in objects of rooms that have been cleared.
Through that variety, Luigi’s Mansion is able to give some flexibility to what would, otherwise, have been an endless chain of differently finely decorated rooms where ghosts are captured. The game also takes another significant step in that direction by letting Luigi boost his Poltergust 3000 with the powers of water, fire, and ice. Activated by sucking in specific orbs, this add-on allows the vacuum cleaner to expel – via the L button – torrents of these elements, and they are applied in solving puzzles involving either the portrait ghosts or the rooms themselves as well as in combats against elemental ghouls.
Truth be told, the riddles are never brilliant or surprising; they can be solved in a matter of seconds. And that fact makes one feel like Luigi’s Mansion could have devoted a little more of its time to fleshing these puzzles out or making them more omnipresent, as the majority of its rooms do not feature any notable twists. Still, they do pull off the trick of bringing, even if partially, a satisfying change of pace to the generally predictable fabric of the title’s quest.
Although the short running time of Luigi’s Mansion does have the benefit of not making the title overstay its welcome, hence allowing the adventure to be delightful all the way through, it winds up being related to most of the punctual issues that get in the game’s way. And that is because the measures it takes towards achieving replayability end up not being appealing enough. The new version of the mansion that is unlocked upon beating the game is, at least in the American and Japanese versions, lackluster, as it differs from the one of the regular quest just due to a slight spike in difficulty.
Meanwhile, both the cash Luigi acquires – which serves as a scoring system – and the distinct paintings he unlocks if he sucks bosses and portrait ghosts effectively, without taking damage from the former and without letting the latter escape at any point during the struggle, are not exactly a big deal. Finally, catching all Boos, which is optional, is fun but ultimately suffers from the fact that sometimes the ghosts – especially those that posses high HP – have the annoying habit of escaping to adjacent rooms all the time, infusing a whole lot of walking back and forth between areas into the capturing process.
The overall feeling emitted by Luigi’s Mansion is, consequently, that of a game that could have been thicker in terms of content if it had expanded upon some of its ideas; more specifically, on the somewhat underdeveloped puzzle-solving element it boasts. As it stands, nonetheless, it is a pleasant launch title that, although undoubtedly not quite on the same level as the games Nintendo usually releases alongside its consoles, does hold up very well.
Its ghost-hunting concept is undeniably fun, and it leads to a rather unexpected take on the Super Mario universe; one that merges a dark atmosphere, cartoonish art, humorous animation, and good production values. What comes out of that blend is a game that is simple, entertaining, and charming. And those values, accompanied by gameplay elements that are quite unique in the industry’s canon as a whole, carry the lovable and unlucky Luigi to the rightfully earned starring role in a franchise that fits his quirky personality like a glove.