What’s worse than winning a haunted mansion in a contest you don’t remember entering? What’s worse than finding out your braver, stronger, older brother is trapped inside that mansion? What’s worse than also being trapped in said mansion with the task of clearing out all the ghosts being the only way out? A writer with Attention Deficit Disorder who becomes so preoccupied with holiday activities that he forgets to post a review he promised on the proper day! Sorry, folks. But, in the the words of dock supervisor Cheech Marin upon witnessing the arrival of a ghostly RMS Titanic, “Better late than never!” (Google it, youngsters.)
When the GameCube was revealed in 2000, a demo showcasing the console’s graphical capabilities and newfangled controller was featured, starring Luigi in a haunted house sucking up ghosts into a vacuum cleaner-like device. Gamers didn’t realize then that this would be the system’s launch title, in lieu of a traditional Mario platformer; the first time a Nintendo game system was released without a Mario game available in the company’s 18-year home gaming history. Fan reaction was decidedly mixed, but critical reaction was generally positive, and retrospect has shown it to be one of the most unique video games ever. It also established Luigi’s personality as a nervous, offbeat, reluctant hero.
The story is vaguely explained in a brief opening cutscene. Luigi has won a mansion. Upon arrival, he sees that it is dark and scary. He enters the mansion apprehensively and is immediately locked inside, unable to escape. Professor Elvin Gadd (aka E. Gadd) takes Luigi to his laboratory deep inside the house, introduces himself, informs him of Mario’s disappearance, and gives him his newest inventions: the Game Boy Horror and the Poltergust 3000, used for detecting and capturing ghosts, respectively. After a crash course in using these devices, Luigi is let loose in the mansion to rid it of pesky spirits and rescue his brother.
The mansion is divided into dozens of rooms, linked by hallways over three stories (plus a basement and rooftop). Each room has a puzzle that needs to be solved in order to turn the lights back on. Sometimes that puzzle is simply to eliminate all the ghosts. Others require significantly more thought. Many of the rooms have a character ghost who can only be captured after solving his or her own unique puzzle. After a room is cleared, a key is left behind that will unlock the next room that needs to be tackled.
Capturing ghosts involves several steps that utilize the GameCube controller’s special features. Luigi is equipped with a flashlight that is always on and pointing in whatever direction he is facing. This direction can be manipulated using the C-stick in what I believe is one of the first implementations of what is now known as a “dual-stick shooter” setup. The flashlight will freeze a ghost in its tracks, but they won’t simply drift into its beam blindly. You have to lure them towards you by turning the flashlight off with the B button, then releasing the button when it is close enough to capture. Once frozen, Luigi must suck the ghost up into the Poltergust by holding the R trigger down and the Control Stick in the opposite direction that the ghost is pulling in.
Each ghost has an energy level displayed in numerical hit points, and when that number reaches zero, the ghost is successfully captured. Ghosts can appear in set locations, randomly around Luigi, or even hide inside furniture and other objects in the room. Some ghosts must be weakened using elemental or environmental attacks before they can be frozen, and the key character ghosts, which have significantly higher energy levels, will only be vulnerable after their puzzle has been solved.
Clearing a room of ghosts turns the lights in that room on, and prevents more ghosts from appearing. Clearing all the rooms in a specific section of the house (indicated on the map by like colors) turns the lights on in the hallways outside those rooms, making for safe and hassle-free passage and exploration. After the lights are turned on, Luigi can search the room for money (in the forms of coins, cash, and jewels), or Boos (the white, spherical ghosts from most Mario games) to increase his score, which is tallied after every section is cleared, and at the end of the game to determine the player’s overall rating and final prize (a new mansion, built using Luigi’s amassed riches).
Light storytelling peppers the experience, but never invades it; and though the basic gameplay can get repetitive after a while, each puzzle is unique enough to make the individual rooms an engaging experience. There are a few bosses in the forms of especially large and nasty character ghosts, and a handful of surprises will alter the campaign briefly, but by and large, the bulk of the game revolves around manipulating the environment using the Poltergust, surprising ghosts, and capturing them.
While the core gameplay is pretty simple and straightforward, and in any other game might seem dull, Luigi’s Mansion puts those extra special Nintendo touches on to create a charming and memorable experience. You know that extra large A button in the center of the controller’s right handle? Its only function is to make Luigi call out for his missing sibling. As Luigi’s health depletes, his bellows become increasingly shaky and desperate. This serves absolutely zero purpose, but is so amusing that the urge to press the button intermittently or constantly is inexorable. Also, while the hallways of the mansion do have a pervasive musical theme, only the atmospheric accompaniment is played as BGM. The melody itself is hummed by Luigi, with the same inflection as his speaking voice based on his health. When the rooms are cleared, he simply whistles the theme casually, acapella. One of the stranger touches is the way Luigi examines objects. Sometimes he knocks on it with his fist, but other times he seems to… um… take a… well… more “personal” interest. One wonders how such an obscure combination of audio and animation could have slipped by the more conservatively conscious American localizers, especially considering veteran voice actor Charles Martinet’s choice of vocalization. Oh, well. Chalk another oddity up to Nintendo’s penchant for memetic mutation of its material, I guess.
As a whole, and in the greater scheme of Nintendo flagship titles, Luigi’s Mansion is an above average experience. Duration rounds out at roughly seven-ish hours, and completion of the main campaign unlocks a slightly remixed and more difficult mansion for your next play through. Of course, there’s always the option of replaying either mansion for a higher score.
Content is perhaps a little light for a full price launch title, but perfect for the GameCube’s budget priced Player’s Choice lineup. Since the game has never been rereleased or ported either physically or digitally, and the only way to obtain this game is via the preowned resale market, use your own judgement as to whether the price you’ll pay is worth what you’ll get out of it, but for my money’s worth, this is one of the few gaming experiences you’ll have that has no parallel, even a whole decade-and-a-half later; and though a long-awaited sequel was released on the 3DS in 2013, it only complements the inimitable escapades of Luigi’s first Nintendo-developed solo outing, it cannot replace them.