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Throwback Review: Luigi’s Mansion

With Luigi’s Mansion 3 lurking around the corner, I thought it would be apt to revisit the horror game that kickstarted Nintendo’s E-rated horror franchise. I dusted off my GameCube and booted up the original Luigi’s Mansion to see if it still holds up.

Luigi peeking into the mansion

A Ghostly Story

 

The setup is a nice change of pace for a Nintendo outing: In a contest he doesn’t remember entering, Luigi wins a huge mansion in the middle of nowhere. To celebrate, he invites Mario for a housewarming party, but when Luigi arrives, not only is Mario missing, it becomes pretty clear that the mansion is haunted by pesky ghosts. After teaming up with the enigmatic Professor E. Gadd, Luigi is given the Poltergust 3000, a spectral vacuum cleaner with the power to suck up ghosts and he’s cast back into the mansion to face his fears and rescue his brother.

It’s refreshing not playing as a plucky hero in this quest, but rather as the quivering scaredy cat that is Luigi. Though he’s not as agile as his brother, his personality outshines Mario’s. Luigi’s mannerisms are endearing and it’s easy to empathize with this reluctant hero. Little by little, Luigi’s bravery develops and that makes going through the mansion and fighting hoards of ghosts that much more rewarding.

 

Taking Control of the Mansion

 

Though it looks cute and cuddly, Luigi’s Mansion has a structure that’s closer to Resident Evil than classic Mario games. The entire adventure is purely set within the confines of the mansion. You’ll find locked doors, keys to open them, and a fair amount of backtracking to do in between. Progression is all about clearing ghosts out of every room and doing that is as simple as shining your flashlight on them and revving up your Poltergust 3000. Using both analog sticks, you need to simultaneously move Luigi towards each escaping ghost while pulling back in the opposite direction. In action, sucking up spirits has the intensity of a rodeo; you have to predict their next move and learn when to lean into the punch—this system keeps the core act of exorcising ghosts engaging and it’s as fun to play now as it was 18 years ago.

Luigi sucking up an orange ghost in Luigi's Mansion

In addition to standard ghouls, unique Portrait Ghosts are scattered throughout the mansion. Prior to capturing each of them, you need to figure out their weaknesses.  Some, like the eternally bathing Miss Petunia, require you to freeze her shower water, while you’ll have to suck up the yarn of the knitting nut, Nana. The puzzle-like manner in which you unravel their weaknesses and their beefy HP bars means they’re among the game’s most memorable encounters. They also do wonders for giving the mansion itself an identity, lending a sense of context and family history to the ancient building.

 

Pretty as a Picture

 

Time has been very forgiving to the graphics of Luigi’s Mansion thanks to the cartoonish art-direction. Luigi himself still looks sharp and the ghosts, too, are ironically bursting with life, their gaping smiles and glowing eyes compliment their mischievous nature and discovering new enemies and learning their personalities is always a delight. That’s not to say the game is devoid of creepiness. The gothic decor gives each room a surreal quality and the short, Resident Evil-style cutscene that plays every time Luigi unlocks a new door still looks damn good—if you give it a chance, it’ll really get under your skin.

Luigi using a key to open a locked door in Luigi's Mansion

Dark rooms were the perfect opportunity for Nintendo to demonstrate what the Gamecube was capable of. They’re a great showcase for the game’s lighting engine and they still manage to impress. Unexplored rooms are enveloped in near-total darkness, pierced only by Luigi’s flashlight, which convincingly casts shadows through the dusty, antique furniture. Rooms are littered with tiny details and things to interact with, all contributing to the idea that this house is somewhere that people conceivably lived, loved, and died. This ties into the crowning achievement of the game: the entire mansion is interconnected. Not only does this eliminate loading screens, it keeps the experience focused. The lack of an interconnected mansion was something that players lamented in Luigi’s Mansion 2, but developers have promised to better incorporate into the upcoming third installment releasing later this month.

 

Old Stomping Grounds

 

While the mansion’s exterior is grand, it’ll only take you four to five hours to explore and conquer its hallowed halls. To get around this, Nintendo smartly gave plenty of incentives to replay Luigi’s spooky adventure. Gold coins and other bits of currency are hidden around the house that can be freely collected or sucked up with Luigi’s vacuum. In real life, sucking up money would be devastating, but here it’s borderline addictive in Luigi’s Mansion. Every coin, bill, and gemstone contribute to Luigi’s growing wealth, a sum that decides your endgame ranking. You also get ranked on how efficiently you defeated each Portrait Ghost, earning medals that come in the classic Olympic flavors of bronze, silver, and gold. Going for all gold portraits plus an A ranking is a worthy challenge for completionists and to this day. I’ve personally never achieved the coveted endgame A-ranking.

LLuigi next to a portrait ghost

Backtracking through the mansion does eventually become a little tiresome, mostly thanks to the Boos. Early on, Boos are introduced as a unique enemy type that you’ll spend the rest of the game hunting down alongside the main quest. At first, playing Hide and Seek with them makes for a nice change of pace and it gives you a good reason to revisit old rooms. The sheer number of them though (50 in all) makes the process drag on a little too long. Sucking up Boos isn’t as inherently satisfying as defeating standard ghosts and some encounters with them are further exacerbated when they fly off between rooms and corridors. In some instances, they disappear into rooms only accessible from another side of the mansion and it worse case scenarios they have the nerve to fly into rooms you don’t yet have a key for. To top it off, story progression is gated off until you’ve captured a set number of them. I know Boos are inherently cheeky, but the joke sometimes goes too far.

Occasionally Luigi will be pitted against elemental ghosts, specters that require an opposing element to defeat. Problem is, if you say go up against a fire ghost and don’t have any water in your Poltergust, you’ll have to trudge back through the mansion to find a source of water to get the right element. The fact that Luigi can only have a single element on hand at any given time means you’ll constantly revisit elemental hotspots. Again, it’s only a minor annoyance but it derails your sense of flow while playing and it distracts from an otherwise well-paced journey.

Luigi holding a key

In a bizarre twist, however, I believe the amount of backtracking is a reason why many players have such reverence for this game. The mansion has become a sort of home for anyone who’s spent time with this game. Players know every nook and cranny of the building, they know where all the gems are hidden, which doors are booby traps, and they know the whereabouts of all the mansion’s ghostly inhabitants. Replaying the game for this review felt like a very literal homecoming and I was shocked to discover how freely the mansion’s layout redeveloped in my mind, despite all the passing years in between playthroughs.

 

With just a few weeks before Luigi’s Mansion 3 launches, do yourself a favor and play (or replay) this gem. The unique ‘vacuum-rodeo’ gameplay still makes this game feel fresh and it’s a real joy to lose yourself in the mansion that started it all. 

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