After being Mario’s sidekick for more than a decade, Luigi was finally given the chance to once again star in his own game. Luigi’s Mansion was a launch title for the GameCube, and the second title in the Mario franchise where Luigi is the main character, (the first, being Mario is Missing!). The game features some refreshing ideas, a unique and atmospheric experience, an entire cast of new characters to populate the Nintendo universe and one of the best examples of sound design found on the Gamecube. It was an extreme departure from what Mario Bros. games are known to be and a virtual textbook of video game special effects. Luigi became the Peter Venkman of the video game world, but the world didn’t’ seem ready for the change.
It isn’t a secret that the Gamecube wasn’t exactly a runaway success. When it launched, the system was one of the oddest looking video game consoles ever released. It was the first Nintendo home console to not launch with a traditional Mario game and it was a commercial flop. And despite several obvious reasons why the console didn’t sell well, many believe the exclusion of a traditional Mario title at launch was a big mistake. Luigi’s Mansion doesn’t match the classic status of Mario’s adventures but looking back fifteen years later, I’d argue Luigi’s Mansion was actually a great launch title.
For the unfamiliar, the game takes place in a haunted mansion that Luigi supposedly wins in a contest that he never entered. After investigating the mansion, Mario goes missing, and it is up to Luigi to find him. To help Luigi on his quest, an old scientist named Elvin Gadd has equipped him with the “Poltergust 3000”, a vacuum cleaner used for capturing ghosts, and a “Game Boy Horror”, a device used for communicating with the professor. The ghosts have escaped from E. Gadd’s paintings and it is up to Luigi to capture every last one of them.
What makes Luigi’s Mansion a great launch title is how technologically impressive it was for the time.
It’s a rather simplistic premise for sure, and one obviously inspired by Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters, but what makes Luigi’s Mansion a great launch title is how technologically impressive it was for the time. Luigi’s Mansion is not an entirely straightforward 3D adventure. It’s both an action-adventure game and a puzzler and it requires a lot of patience and exploration. Gone are the spacious and whimsical environments of the Mushroom Kingdom, instead, you’re given one dark, claustrophobic and creepy mansion that Luigi must cautiously explore – and a handful of suddenly executed surprises make this as fresh and vital as the day it was made. What makes the game so effective is not so much the slightly sinister characterisation of the generally neurotic protagonist, but the fact that Hideki Konno made the house itself the central character, a beautifully designed and highly atmospheric entity. The mansion itself is huge and incredibly detailed. The pseudo-3D world is laid out across several floors, dozens of rooms and secret passageways, all of which house ectoplasmic manifestations, and things that go bump in the night. Beyond everything else, Luigi’s Mansion is a virtual textbook of level design and video game special effects. The real-time lighting, shadow effects, physics and character animations are astounding and render Luigi and the cast of poltergeists with distinctive characteristics similar to that seen in The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride. As the plumber searches the haunted locale, Luigi’s flashlight will cast shadows on, around, and behind every object in the room, and when lightning strikes outside, his shadow will stir along the walls. The attention and care to detail must be admired, from the way Luigi’s hand trembles as he opens a new door, or how his teeth jabber as he walks in and out of every room. There is no game on the Gamecube that tops Luigi’s Mansion in this regard.
Even more impressive is how everything in the game reacts accurately to Luigi’s vacuum— tablecloths, drapes, bookshelves, carpeting, candles and so on. The GameCube’s pressure-sensitive trigger buttons were quite cutting-edge when the system launched, and Luigi’s Mansion was one of the first titles to showcase their use. The Poltergust 3000 can be used for more than just capturing ghosts. It can also be used to shoot objects or spray a variety of ammunition such as fire, ice, and water. The ammunition is also put to good use for solving puzzles throughout the game and for taking out enemies with special elemental weaknesses. Being able to precisely control the airflow of the Poltergust sets the groundwork for some unique boss battles. And interacting with the environment doesn’t go unrewarded, – exploring every nook and cranny to earn coins decides one of five different endings.
Nearly everything in Luigi’s Mansion has been painstakingly made including the sound design. The game has one primary theme that plays for the majority of the game and Luigi hums along to the tune constantly. It’s amazing how much mileage Nintendo gets out of it, and you’ll love how Luigi’s voice changes depending upon his mental state. But as great as the main theme song is, it is the silence or rather the lack of soundtrack that is the highlight here. The role of the sound designer and the importance of sound design is usually relegated to a secondary position, ignoring how essential they are in making a game. A classical film, for example, would tell us that a good sound design is the one an audience is unable to perceive. And that is what Luigi’s Mansion does so well. Every creek, footstep, howling wind, and shriek is brilliantly inserted. The composition team really went out of their way in making even the slightest noise stand out helping to make Luigi’s Mansion a lush, modern valentine to old-fashioned sentiment, and to old-fashioned ghost stories, too.
Luigi’s first solo excursion isn’t perfect, but what is? It may be a little stiff in the joints by now, but it’s still a remarkable feat of imagination, a spooky old ghost story with a genuinely sinister edge. Luigi’s Mansion is also a showcase for Luigi, who slinks through the game humming his tune in his usual cheeky fashion and getting off his occasional slapstick antics that prove he’s just as charismatic as his older brother, if not more. It’s a shame Nintendo hasn’t made more than one sequel. The game boasts one of the most colorful cast ensembles which includes King Boo, Shivers, Melody Pianissima, Bogmore, Spooky, Vincent Van Gore and Sue Pea, to name just a few. If there is one game Nintendo should and could adapt to a feature-length film, it would be this. Imagine a big screen adaptation of Luigi’s Mansion directed by Henry Selick with a soundtrack by Danny Elfman? Nintendo what are you waiting for?
– Ricky D