The original Luigi’s Mansion launched with the Gamecube in America on November 18th, 2001. As Nintendo’s marquee title for the system and a new direction for the character, the game set the tone for the Gamecube going forward. Players were told to expect sequels and spinoffs to their beloved franchises that weren’t like the games that came before, but should still be enjoyable in their own right. Some titles molded from this idea were Metroid Prime, Kirby Air Ride, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and Super Mario Sunshine. Some of them were more similar to their predecessors than others, but they stood out. A few, like Luigi’s Mansion, entered a new genre or embraced a new locale, while others went for a dynamic change in art style.
Given that this was all kicked off by Nintendo’s exploration into kid-friendly survival horror, one might expect the franchise to receive lots of exposure and plenty of sequels. The game performed well off the bat, going on to sell millions of copies. This translated into Luigi’s Mansion popping up in other Nintendo games from Mario Power Tennis to Super Smash Bros Brawl, but no sequel. Despite this, thanks to his appearances here and in the Mario and Luigi games, Luigi’s personality was solidified as a mix of inferiority to his more popular brother, and constant cowardice.
In between Luigi’s Mansion, and the eventual release of the 3DS sequel, Dark Moon, in 2013, an interesting tidbit arose during a discussion in an Iwata Asks column about the making of the 3DS. When the Gamecube was still in development, it was designed with stereoscopic 3D in mind; it’s part of the Gamecube’s hardware. Though it ended up not being used due to how costly 3D TVs were, Luigi’s Mansion was also designed with this capability in mind. The release of the 3DS seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring back the game the way it was meant to be played, but it was not to be. Not, at least, until 2018.
In the meantime, Dark Moon came out, had even better sales and more critical acclaim than its predecessor, and had an arcade game based on it called Luigi’s Mansion Arcade. This seemed like the perfect opportunity for Nintendo to capitalize on the franchise and keep going, but again they waited. Until this year, when the remake of the first game hit 3DS and a new game got announced for Switch in a one-two punch. While not every franchise needs an annual release to be relevant, this could finally be the moment Luigi’s little sub-series has been waiting for. A chance to be front and center as a major Nintendo franchise, beyond just a cameo or a reference here and there.
Of course, one can ask the question – why is this 3DS remake of the first game coming so late? Granted, Nintendo seems keen on putting other random games on their handheld into 2019, but that’s beside the point. If I were to guess, I’d say that they planned on making Luigi’s Mansion 3 for Switch, but figured the best way to get people reacquainted with the series would be to bring back the first game, and finish the dream of seeing it displayed in stereoscopic 3D. It’s never too late to chase down a dream, but it’s worth asking how much it matters at this point.
Which is what I plan to do here. To investigate – what is this series? Is it as good as everyone says it is? Is there a big jump in quality, given that the two main entries released 12 years apart? And what’s exactly up with that arcade game? This will not include a review of the 3DS remake (I purposefully haven’t touched it yet in order to finish this article), but seeing where this franchise is now, and where it’s bound to go in the future is important. For all of Nintendo’s iteration of franchises like Kirby and Mario Tennis, Luigi’s Mansion stands out as something of an outlier – representing such a small stack of games, but having an enormous impact on Nintendo’s identity.
My investigation starts with the Gamecube original that I played as a kid. That I’ve held on to my copy this long might tell you something, but I don’t think nostalgia goggles are going to affect me too much with this one, but take this analysis with as many grains of salt as you wish.
BOOTING UP THE ORIGINAL (AGAIN)
Despite what the kid-friendly exterior tells you, Luigi’s Mansion is very much a survival horror game. It follows several tropes of the genre to a T, from save rooms (represented by wayward Toads), to stringent health and ammo resources, to the bait-and-dodge tactics you can use once you understand the controls. The set up for the story is also standard for the genre, with elements found in contemporaries from Resident Evil, to Fatal Frame. Luigi wins a contest he’s never entered, and given a big, spooky mansion as a prize. Mario goes ahead of his brother to investigate the place, but when he never returns, it’s up to Luigi to do something. Unfortunately for him, the mansion just happens to be haunted.
Comparisons to Ghostbusters are inevitable, as Luigi soon meets with Prof. E. Gadd, a paranormal-obsessed scientist who has just the right tools the younger Mario brother needs to get the job done. There’s the Poltergust 3000, a giant ghost-sucking vacuum, and the Game Boy Horror – a device that functions as a map, a way to track progress, and a means of communication with Gadd. Gadd, an odd duck who gladly volunteers Luigi for whatever, whenever, sends the guy on his way with the expectation that he return every so often to unload his bag of ghosts, so Gadd can seal them away in special picture frames. Probably the most uncomfortable way to store something other than a Pokéball.
The game eventually brings another subplot to the table, as a bunch of Boos get loose in the mansion, and Luigi is expected to hunt them down Metroid II style – but beyond that, that’s the whole plot. While most Mario games have little in the way of story, it’s this simplicity that helps the game feel isolating and creepy. There’s simply nothing else to do – no one to interact with. It’s Luigi, the ghosts, and the occasional Toad along the way. The only other signs of life are the desperate cries for help from Mario trapped somewhere, by someone, that can sometimes be heard in the distance.
The set-up is intriguing, the enemy design is memorable, and there are little touches that help the game seem better than it is, but the major falling down moment I have is the mechanic for sucking up ghosts. It seems simple – stun ghosts with the flashlight on the B button, then suck them up with R when their hearts are exposed. When they try to run, push the control stick in the opposite direction the ghosts are going to keep a grip. All well and good, except getting this to work consistently is difficult. Some ghosts I’ll have no problem capturing, while others break free repeatedly, even when I use the same techniques on both of them. This is particularly an issue when capturing Boos, since it’s easier for them to escape the Poltergust’s suction, and float into the next room, a unique trait for their kind. This might mean having to give up the chase if they go into a room you can’t access yet, or waiting until you die or restart the console for them to respawn if they float through a wall with no room on the other side.
Another complaint I have is with Luigi himself. Yes, it’s funny that he gets scared by ghosts so often. What isn’t funny though, is seeing Luigi get scared by the same ghost twenty different times because he’ll scream, jump in surprise, and prevent you from acting when you, the player, know exactly what to expect. This may sound like a small quibble as it takes only seconds for Luigi to get back up, but those seconds add up. Plus, the ghosts laugh at him – and by extension, you, which adds to the frustration.
The difficulty spikes can be annoying, and the short playtime is probably indicative of the game’s development as a launch title, but it feels like the time is right for a director’s cut of sorts to retune the game. Get rid of the fat, minimize the backtracking in the last third, and maybe add a couple more features – if Nintendo did all of that, they’ll have a much better game on their hands. Perhaps that’s exactly what they did with the 3DS version, I don’t know. But it’s what makes the most sense.
WAXING AND WANING WITH DARK MOON
Though I grew up with Luigi’s Mansion, I never really expected much from a sequel. What could they add to justify making a sequel? When Dark Moon came out, I had friends telling me how good it was, how I should play it, but I ignored them. The concept of Luigi busting ghosts in a bunch of different buildings sounded weird, and kind of overkill given the length of the first game. So I stayed away, convinced it wasn’t for me.
I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong: I totally was. Having now played Dark Moon, I’ve come away with a new appreciation for the series, and commend Next Level Games (Mario Strikers Charged, Metroid Prime: Federation Force) for delivering a sequel that improves on the original so much, it’ll be hard to go back. I know the game sold well, but I feel like it’s not talked about enough – I’d put Next Level’s work on this right up there with Retro Studios’ Metroid Prime. Nintendo does super well when they bring in other teams to develop their games. It should be done more often.
This time, the game tactfully acknowledges it’s been awhile since the last game, and frames the plot as Gadd just calling Luigi up at random and expecting him to be raring to go. Of course he isn’t, but Gadd pep talks him into investigating a whole valley of haunted houses to help restore the Dark Moon – a device the scientist uses to turn ghosts friendly, but has been scattered in pieces across the land.
Thanks to this minor amount of globetrotting, the structure of the game has been reworked into a mission-based format, taking much from the structure of worlds in traditional 3D Mario games. With about three to six objectives per area, Luigi investigates these buildings bit by bit, proceeding further as each mission allows, until Gadd can lock down the location of the next Dark Moon piece. Then there’s a boss at the end of each world that makes clever use of Luigi’s mechanics and makes the hunt for these purple fragments feel worth it.
As a whole, the control system has been reworked, not just to fit the 3DS, but to add depth. My fingers still slipped from my New 3DS XL because of how cramped they got, but the control scheme is worth it. Pressing buttons to aim the vacuum up and down helps makes puzzles more challenging and secrets less obvious in the environment. Moving the 3DS around in real life to use the gyroscope in first person segments is fun, too; it makes the experience feel like you’re peeking into a little world. The stereoscopic 3D adds a depth of field that helps the game pop, but ends up being useful in only a handful of segments.
Still, the game is a good showcase for the system, because as dated as the hardware might be, it easily outshines its console counterpart by a country mile. Usually, handheld sequels are derided because they lack the power of their console brethren, and memory space is traditionally smaller. Here, though – the opposite is true. Thanks to the 12 year gulf that separates Luigi’s Mansion and Dark Moon, handheld gaming technology has caught up to produce a sequel jam-packed with more features and locations than before.
Even though they’re now on the same system, the idea of going back to a Luigi’s Mansion without the improvements of Dark Moon seems pretty hard. I will of course keep an open mind when I play the game, but my instinct tells me it’s going to be night and day. I mean, Nintendo and Grezzo (Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask 3D, The Alliance Alive) have worked on the 3DS long enough to likely squeeze out some technical marvels that might not have been around for Dark Moon, but how much will it matter in the end? It’s kind of like if Nintendo released a port of the NES Legend of Zelda on the Nintendo 64 after Ocarina of Time came out to hype up Majora’s Mask – it’s fine enough in its own right, but it’s hard to go back after so many improvements have been made. It won’t be clear until next year just how much this new 3DS port will affect sales of Luigi’s Mansion 3 – should it move the needle at all.
Dark Moon is better than the original Luigi’s Mansion in just about every way, but how does the experience translate to the arcade scene? Released back in 2015, Luigi’s Mansion Arcade was technically the newest entry in the franchise before the 3DS remake, so I thought it would probably be a good idea to take a look at it.
I didn’t end up spending too much time with the cabinet, but I think I have more than enough takeaways from my time. If you’re familiar with what’s left of the arcade scene these days, you’ll know a good third or so of the games are light gun games. Luigi’s Mansion Arcade is no different. It’s an elaborate cabinet that seats two people in its enclosed carriage-like space, and instead of regular guns, there are plastic versions of the Poltergust nozzle. Instead of triggers, there’s one button near the butt of the gun for shooting, and one near the tip for controlling the flashlight. This makes comparisons to Ghostbusters inevitable yet again, since you have to hold the device like they do to play effectively.
This adds a difficult spin for players, as stunning ghosts and sucking them up with different hands is a more involved and complicated action than just shooting in The House of the Dead. Your attention is split, especially if you’re not used to the controls, and this makes paying attention to the action on screen harder. Playing in first person and on-rails brings other dimensions of difficulty as well. Unlike in the other two Luigi’s Mansion games, sucking up ghosts doesn’t send Luigi flying around the room – he instead stays rock still, which makes it nearly impossible to avoid attacks.
This is in theory solved if you play co-op with your friend, but the title is still different enough that, unless you know what you’re doing, you’re in for a rough time. My co-op partner died way sooner than I did because it’s hard to absorb everything that’s going on; all the extra stuff like smart bombs and branching paths felt like needless complications to an already unique setup. Plus, arcade cabinets aren’t just quarter-munchers anymore; you’ll have to spend serious dollars to keep up a decent playthrough. If you’re able to dedicate your time, there might be a fun and worthwhile game to play. I just found it ear-splittingly loud and confusing.
SUMMARIZE AND MOVE FORWARD
When you play Luigi’s Mansion on Gamecube, it seems fine. It’s not amazing, as there are several annoyances you’ll come across, but it works perfectly well. Stack it next to Dark Moon though, and it’s kind of like going from Assassin’s Creed to Assassin’s Creed II. All the tools and elements are there, they just had to be retooled and expanded in a way that just wasn’t apparent with the first project. Now that we’re there though, the older game just sits, begging desperately to be updated with new controls and panache, but that doesn’t happen often. Most ports and updates tend to preserve games as they were.
I have yet to check out Luigi’s Mansion on 3DS, but I imagine two scenarios going in. The more likely one is that this will be a straight port with a few new features, but otherwise the same game. The other scenario is that the developers tweak just enough under the hood to keep the spirit of Luigi’s Mansion the same, but this time it’ll play like you remember it, instead of being what it actually is. I want to be optimistic, I don’t want to cloud myself with too much bias going in, but it’s good to keep realistic expectations. I’m glad Nintendo’s finally able to see their dream of Luigi’s Mansion in stereoscopic 3D come to life, but at this point it matters more to them than me.
As for Luigi’s Mansion 3, the sky’s pretty much the limit. Nintendo has only released a small teaser trailer about the game, which has been extrapolated into a nearly half-hour long analysis video by GameXplain on Youtube. I’m not sure I’ve seen enough to be sure of anything, but what I hope this game expands on the improvements Dark Moon made, and blow them up to an even larger scale. More power-ups, more console-specific interactions. Seeing the world of Luigi’s Mansion in HD for the first time will be a nice touch, but I expect there will be enough new stuff there to make it much more than “the same formula, but again, and it looks prettier.”
The Luigi’s Mansion series is an interesting one – Nintendo relies on it for iconography and characters, but in terms of actual releases – it doesn’t have much. Especially compared to other Mario spin-offs. This one-two strategy of the 3DS port followed by a new title could breathe life into it and elevate it to a new level. However, with one solid gold entry and one that’s lost its luster over time, I’d argue that another sequel is needed to really judge where this series stands. I don’t want or expect Nintendo to start pumping out titles on the regular like with the Kirby series, but I would prefer, at least, if we have some kind of regular schedule. Even if that means we only get an HD port of the first two games in 2024, I’d be okay with that.
Play Dark Moon, check out the original if you want, but skip the arcade version unless you’re really interested. Other than that – please keep an eye out for my review Luigi’s Mansion on 3DS coming soon, and for more information on Luigi’s Mansion 3 on Switch as more information becomes available.
To contact the author of this article, you can message him on Twitter, or email him at dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios.com!