As a launch game for Nintendo’s Gamecube Luigi’s Mansion was intended as a showcase for what the new hardware could do. That the new console should arrive without a ‘proper’ Super Mario title on day one was unheard of but handing the baton to the plumber’s long-overshadowed brother and dropping him into a big haunted house was a welcome change of pace nevertheless. With Luigi’s Mansion 2 currently in development for the 3DS the time felt right to revisit this fun little action game.
Luigi has won a mansion in a contest he can’t remember entering and, after arranging to meet Mario there, he sets off to take a look at his prize. Five minutes on site are all it takes for it to become apparent that his mysterious win is no blessing as the place is haunted and Mario seems to have gone missing, taken by the ghosts. Only an eccentric scientist called Professor Elvin Gadd can help, lending Luigi his Poltergust 3000, a device of his own creation, for him to vacuum up the spirits and exorcise the building in search of Mario.
This being a Nintendo game you shouldn’t expect a Resident Evil style of survival horror experience. Exploring the dark mansion is atmospheric affair, moodily lit by the reluctant hero’s torch as he explores and although the sudden appearance of ghosts sends shivers through Luigi they’re more likely to make you, the player, chuckle. The mansion starts off completely dark and it’s your job to turn the lights on in each room by ridding it of various ghosts. Most ordinary spectres will try to attack you but can be stopped in their tracks by shining the torch at them causing them to momentarily freeze. This is your window to fire up your Poltergust and start sucking. Ghosts will try to escape from your clutches and the stronger ones will drag Luigi all over a room, to successfully contain them you must hold R to continuously vacuum whilst pushing the control stick in the opposite direction the ghost is trying to escape from. Doing so will reduce a ghost’s life meter and when it hits zero it’s sayonara spook. Sucking up these ghost is the bread and butter of the title and it fortunately remains fun throughout with the gradually increasing difficulty of capturing ghosts.
As you explore you’ll encounter a number of character ghosts that require a little lateral thinking to catch. Most will become invisible whenever you turn to face them so you’ll have to watch their movements carefully to wait for an opening or perhaps interact with your surroundings to provoke a response. For example you might use the Poltergust to open a curtain and let in a draft prompting the resident ghoul to move to close it. Once you’ve got one of these portrait ghosts trapped in your beam it’s business as usual until their large amount of life is reduced. These portrait ghosts are really well characterised and interacting with them is often likely to raise a smile.
In addition to this the mansion is overrun by boos, the Mario games’ familiar ghostly nasties. The shy boos remain hidden from sight and can only be detected by the boo radar on your Game Boy Horror, another Gadd contraption used to keep track of various things. To make a boo show its face you must track it to whatever object or item of furniture the radar indicates it is hiding in and disturb it although sometimes you’ll only find decoys. You can’t lock boos in your vacuum the way you can other ghosts and most instead carefully aim the Poltergust to chip away at the boo’s life and try to keep it from escaping through a wall. If that happens you can often pursue it to the next room and try again but not if it moves to a room you don’t have access to yet in which case you’ll have to find it again later.
As you progress and turn on the lights you will find keys to unlock new rooms. The mansion may be an explorable open-ended game world but the game keeps your progress relatively linear, unlocking rooms one at a time. Things are kept interesting with the odd diversion, there are secret rooms that require some brains to get to, you’ll need to track down a handful of Mario’s lost possessions between ghost hunts and there are some boss encounters to deal with too. You will constantly gather money as you go from familiar Mushroom Kingdom coins to notes and gold bars and valuable gems. Money is typically hidden inside cupboards, drawers and other furniture as well as treasure chests. Using the vacuum to suck up the wildly fluttering paper notes is fun and building up your cash is quite satisfying.
The gameplay is based on a dual-analogue control method. You move Luigi around with the main stick and position the vacuum with the C stick. It can be fiddly but makes sense with practice. Vacuuming is mapped to the R button and exploring objects done with A. You can also turn your torch on and off with B but this is rarely necessary. You can also use the Poltergust as a flamethrower, water cannon or ice blaster to solve puzzles and trap certain ghost by holding L. You will need to be charged up with one of the three powers by sucking up particular elemental ghosts which can be found near sources of their element. It adds another layer of strategy to the experience and keeps things varied. There is no jump button or any other resemblance to the controls of traditional Mario platformers, in fact it’s only really the characters and visual direction that relates to previous games in the Mario universe.
That this was Nintendo’s platform to show off the graphical capabilities of their new machine does come across. The visuals still look good today accounting for the fact that this is a nine-year-old game. The dimly lit mansion is suitably gloomy, the minimal lighting creating the atmosphere beautifully. Character models are rounded and colourful and the environments, objects and enemies all maintain a clear cartoonish visual style. The side-on perspective and fixed camera is never restrictive, the rooms designed to make the best of it and the whole visual presentation is strong throughout.
The sound design too is excellent with one central theme used to inventive and varied effect. The creepy tune plays as you stalk through the dark corridors and rooms with the petrified hero actually humming along. That hum turns into an easy-going whistle as you causally stroll through areas you’ve brought light to. Charles Martinet, voice of the Mario brothers and all round nice guy lends tremendous character to Luigi whose constant terror at finding himself in a haunted house is hilarious. If you tap A when not in reach of an object to examine Luigi will call out to his brother, his voice becoming more and more scared the lower your health goes. Given how little music there is and how little overall content in the sound department there is in Luigi’s Mansion the audio presentation is quite excellent.
Luigi’s Mansion is a fun little action game, engaging from start to finish with a decent amount of depth in most aspects of its design but it’s short. A handful of hours are all that it takes to beat the game. True, that’s the state of things in the genre these days but in 2002 the game felt rather brief especially given its status as a flagship console launch title, it’s a shortfall the sequel will aim to put right by including multiple mansions. There’s a little replay value if you want to chase for high money scores but ultimately the title doesn’t offer the kind of value for money you would expect from a flagship franchise outing. It’s not the toughest game to beat either. The controls take a little time to accustom to and you’ll need to think a bit to catch some of the character ghosts but most competent players should breeze through. One good point about the difficulty is the relative scarcity of health pickups which helps to add a touch of tension.
There’s no doubt that Luigi’s Mansion is a fun, charming and well-presented little actioner that has suffered unfairly from a bad rep as a result of its faults. It deserves a second chance and I’m delighted we’re getting a sequel because the concept is carried off with confidence. Nonetheless the game is not one of the all-time launch day greats because as fun as it is to suck up ghosts with a vacuum cleaner it’s not as fun as stomping on goombas.
Though Luigi remains in his brother’s shadow his starring debut is still an entertaining action title that excels in many areas. A combination of comedy, atmosphere and varied invention makes this title worthwhile.