When I got the Nintendo Gamecube for Christmas 2001, one of the first games that I got to play for the system was Luigi’s Mansion. I was excited: after years of playing second fiddle to his brother Mario, Luigi was finally the star of his own game (I know he was the star of Mario is Missing, but I do not consider that game to be official Nintendo canon). While it was odd that Nintendo opted not to launch with a Mario game this time around, it was also neat that they were trying something different. Ultimately, I found the game to be quite fun, but there were features that kept it from being a masterpiece; namely, its easy difficulty and rather short length. Thus, my dreams of a truly marvelous outing for Mario’s brother were not quite fulfilled.
The story opens with Luigi walking through a dark forest one night, on his way to a mansion that he had won in a contest that he did not even enter. He had asked Mario to meet him there, but when he reaches the spooky-looking mansion, his brother is nowhere to be seen. Before long, he discovers that the mansion is haunted by hundreds of ghosts, the very sight of which terrifies him a lot. Luckily, he finds Professor E. Gadd (get it?), a somewhat odd, but intelligent, inventor who supplies him with a vacuum specially designed to catch ghosts. Now Luigi, in spite of his cowardice, must rid the mansion of the ghosts, uncover its secrets, and rescue Mario. While the tale is merely serviceable, it does offer some fairly neat twists, such as having Mario being the one in distress for a change.
As Luigi explores the mansion, he will find ghosts that pop out to frighten him. Only by shining his flashlight to stun them can he use his vacuum, the Poltergust 3000, to suck them up and trap them inside. As far as normal ghosts go, some of them merely try to attack Luigi, while others attempt to grab him, and still others can only be defeated with certain elements. As Luigi progresses, he can collect medals that allow him to shoot fire, water, and ice from the vacuum. This enables him to not only defeat some ghosts, but also to solve puzzles. Typically, when all the ghosts in a room are captured, the lights go on, and our hero wins a key to another part of the mansion. There are many locked doors, but since a map showing where the key fits automatically pops up, there is never any guesswork involved here.
From time to time, Luigi will encounter Portrait Ghosts, which tend to be stronger and smarter versions of the normal ghosts. Your job is to find out what their weaknesses are, and then suck them in. These battles tend to be a bit more challenging than those with the normal ghosts, as they put up more of a fight and have more hit points, as well (with most of the ghosts, their hit points drain as they are being sucked in). Some of these ghosts are actually bosses, and they present some of the game’s more challenging moments. Eventually, these ghosts will be imprisoned within paintings, which they were in before the Boos set them free.
Ah yes, the Boos, those trouble-making ghosts that were first seen in Super Mario Bros. 3. Early in the game, Luigi accidentally releases them, and then they hide throughout the mansion. When you clear most rooms, you can use a special radar to uncover a hidden Boo. After that, you will need to suck the Boo into your vacuum. However, this is often easier said than done, as they are somewhat more resistant to your vacuum than other ghosts, and they tend to escape the room where you found them. They might enter a room that you have not been in, adding to the frustration. You better get used to this pain, though, as you must capture forty out of the fifty Boos to complete the game (you do get fifteen of them during one boss fight, though).
As you capture ghosts and solve puzzles, you will participate in a side quest in which you find Mario’s missing items. Each one contains a clue as to whatever happened to him. During this quest, you see with your own eyes the unfortunate fate that has befallen the Mushroom Kingdom’s greatest hero. This mini quest seems a bit pointless aside from getting hints as to who might be responsible for the kidnapping. It does add a bit of extra length to the game, however.
That leads to the biggest problem I have with this game: it is over far too soon. The mansion is divided into four areas, each containing a varying number of rooms. Each area culminates in a boss battle, which, as I mentioned, can actually be fun and tricky. However, it will not take much to complete every room, nor do you have to explore all of the rooms to beat the game. I would have to estimate that it will take about six hours or more to complete the game…not very long at all. Nintendo usually makes games like this quite big, but they failed to do so this time. The result is that the game feels more like a demonstration of what the Gamecube could do and less like a true game.
The game is also largely lacking in challenge. It usually does not take a lot of guesswork to figure out what you have to do and where you have to go. The ghosts are fairly simple to catch with enough practice, and many of the puzzle solutions are more or less obvious. While there are more difficult challenges at times, they mainly come in the form of the aforementioned boss fights and Boo chases. The fact that the game can get a bit repetitive after a while-since you complete basically the same task in most rooms albeit with some neat variations at times-adds to the lack of challenge. Additionally, be prepared to backtrack a lot, and with the somewhat slow way that Luigi walks, this backtracking can take a bit.
There are plenty of hidden coins, dollar bills, and jewels that can be found within the mansion. They determine your overall rank at the end of the game, but otherwise, collecting them is pointless. Oftentimes, you have to perform tasks such as exiting and reentering a room to find a gold mouse with a lot of money or finding a blue ghost who rapidly flees from his hiding spot. Clear the room before you find the ghosts, and you are out of luck if you wanted their money. Also, by capturing the Portrait Ghosts, you can get a gold, silver, or bronze frame depending on how successful the struggle was. Even if you fail to get all of these bonuses, there is a way to get them back without having to hit the reset button…
…and that is to beat the game and start it all over again. That’s right: once you beat the final boss, you have the option of going through the entire mansion start to finish again. Unless you really want to get a lot of money and obtain every last gold frame, there really is no point to going through the whole game for a second time. You can also unlock a slightly harder variation of the mansion in which the ghosts are tougher, but your vacuum is a bit stronger. In the North American version, these are really the only significant differences for this mode, though my understanding is that the European version had other changes such as a mirrored layout of the mansion and different Boo requirements for some rooms. Therefore, our version of the so called “hidden mansion” is rather pointless.
Luigi’s Mansion has its flaws, but it also has its merits. It is a fairly good initial test for the Gamecube controller, and it will not take that long for you to learn how to use the vacuum. Some of the puzzles and tasks are quite clever, if on the easy side. The boss fights are exciting, though they are sadly few and far between. A lot of secrets can be discovered if you know where to look. The game is rather fun overall, and I, for one, get the sense that there is a true masterpiece just trying to break out. Unfortunately, the short length and easy difficulty prevent it from doing so.
For its time, the graphics were rather impressive, with nice shadow and lighting effects. At times, it seemed like I was playing a CGI movie, as the appearances of the ghosts made it seem like they came straight out of a Pixar film. The mansion itself is more cartoon-like than spooky, but then again, the game was intended for a family audience. The music score mainly consists of a single tune playing throughout the rooms. It is fittingly haunting and mysterious, but it might get annoying after a while. Some other tunes pop up on occasion, mainly during boss fights and cut scenes. In a nice touch, Luigi hums along to, and whistles, the main theme as he explores the mansion. He even calls out Mario’s name when you press the A Button when there is nothing to examine. There is not a whole lot of voice acting as is par for the course for a Nintendo game, but what there is of it is often amusing.
Luigi’s first solo outing could have been a truly marvelous experience. There were plenty of signs that a great game was hiding someplace. Sadly, for all its merits, Luigi’s Mansion became merely average due to being too easy and too short. Had Nintendo not rushed the game out to launch with the Gamecube, it would have been quite a masterpiece. As it is, Luigi’s Mansion is not terrible, and is far better than Mario is Missing, but it could have been improved a great deal more. If Nintendo makes a sequel for the Wii, here’s hoping that it will be longer and a bit more challenging so that Luigi can finally become the star of a truly amazing game.