Feature: A Short History of Luigi

From palette swap to main man

This week, Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon has been scaring — or more likely charming — 3DS owners in North America, while Europeans will get hold of the title very shortly. It represents Luigi's latest solo effort, as he chases ghosts with his Poltergust, with his widely acknowledged debut — bear with us, Mario is Missing fans — coming on the GameCube. It says much, arguably, for his status in the foundation years of Nintendo that it took until its fourth generation home console before Mario's younger brother stepped out from his shadow.

Still, it's all coming up Luigi. This is the Year of Luigi, after all, and there's more green in various Nintendo promotions than you'll see in Dublin on St. Patrick's Day — a lot of green, basically. In an effort to show how far he's come, below is a brief — by no means comprehensive — history of Luigi in Nintendo games. We don't claim this to be a full account — that could go on forever — but is a flavour of his role to date throughout Nintendo's system generations.

Life as a palette swap

When you combine limited technology with small, time-pressured teams, you get palette swaps. As first impressions go, Luigi had a poor start as little more than the second player character in Super Mario Bros., showing up with the same build and abilities as Mario. While the game's title (and series that followed) did reference both as "Bros.", the fact Mario is named prominently and is the playable hero in single player made him the star, casting Luigi as a backup and guest player when the controller's being passed back and forth. And no, it's not called Mario Bros. because that's their surname; being called Mario Mario would just be silly, and we'll take the word of Shigeru Miyamoto on this one.

The same fate had befallen Luigi in the Mario Bros. arcade before this, of course, and the NES port that followed, to some extent making him the "green guy" as Mario became the icon and mascot of Nintendo. The trend also continued in Super Mario Bros. 3, a game that made far greater use of the 8-bit system's capabilities, while Luigi was still ultimately a green Mario. It was classic younger brother syndrome, as he accepted the hand-me-downs and scraps of Mario's rising star.

Wait, Luigi's taller than Mario?

Of course, you may have noticed that we skipped a major NES title in that previous entry. Super Mario Bros. 2 may have been a re-tooled Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic, but that title's use of four distinct characters finally gave an identity to Luigi — as well as Princess Toadstool and Toad. Whether it was simply the result of the Luigi skin being applied to a particular template, or a deliberate choice, the younger brother was shown to be taller than his famous sibling. Not only that, but he could jump higher, though was limited by a slower running speed and poorer "traction" when running. Some of those trends would return in later appearances, so whether they were coincidental or not, they became an intrinsic part of the character.

Super Mario World on Super NES did continue the cruel trend of making Luigi look like little more than a green Mario, but a subtle sprite change gave the green one a slightly different look to his famous brother in Super Mario All-Stars.

In more recent times Luigi has been playable in all of the New Super Mario Bros. titles on DS, 3DS, Wii and Wii U. Dedicated players of Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Galaxy 2 will have also unlocked the ability to play as Luigi — in the original he was rescued by Mario a few times before becoming playable after full completion of 120 stars, with the neat touch of the second playthrough becoming 'Super Luigi Galaxy' — universes potentially implode when Luigi rescues Luigi, but such things matter little in the Super Mario 'canon'. The approach was switched in the sequel — we'd like to think due to popular demand — where Luigi pops up as playable on a few occasions, giving a nice option to switch up the gameplay at certain moments; once you've gone far enough in the game you can also switch to Luigi at will. Likewise in Super Mario 3D Land, a reward for progressing far enough (slightly beyond the basic initial campaign) is to switch to play as Luigi at any time.

In the case the Galaxy titles and Super Mario 3D Land, Nintendo incorporated some of the platform differentials that give Luigi his own feel. He can build up to a quicker run — but needs a little longer to hit full stride — and can jump higher but has a tough time with traction — continuing on from the skill-set in Super Mario Bros. 2. Once his slippery ways are under control, however, that extra bit of speed and height on his jump can be a genuine advantage in tougher levels.

Cameo star for hire

As Nintendo continued to gain a foothold in the gaming industry, revolving around key heroes such as Link, Samus Aran and, of course, Mario, it started to dabble with sports and family games that incorporated a wider range of characters from the Nintendo universe. In the case of classics such as Super Mario Kart, that meant delving into the Mushroom Kingdom for other kart racers. And so began the cameo years, which will probably never end.

Typically, wherever Mario has headlined a title, Luigi and a host of others have followed behind to provide extra playable characters. A bit like the Jackson 5, there was one big star hogging the spotlight, often shown in commercials or adverts to be hogging the ball, finishing first, collecting the most stars and so on. Yet for gamers already developing an affinity for the put-upon brother, these titles gave a rare chance to help Luigi to well-earned, popular victories.

There's a broad range of cameo appearances, playable and otherwise, where Luigi plays soccer, tennis, golf, joins in a Mario Party, gets into scuffles in the Super Smash Bros. series and many more besides. In recent generations Luigi's increasingly iconic — slightly nasally voice — has been heard through these appearances, giving a bit more flesh to the character.

Luigi becomes a co-star

While Luigi may have been playable in a number of titles, we feel special mention should be made of his joint adventures with Mario — these are Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga on Game Boy Advance, Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time and Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story on DS, as well as the upcoming Mario & Luigi: Dream Team on 3DS. All of these titles were developed by AlphaDream, a "2nd-Party" subsidiary of Nintendo.

Although the Paper Mario franchise has cameo appearances from Luigi and its own style of dialogue and humour, these handheld RPG titles have gone a long way to solidify Luigi's charm as a character among Nintendo gamers. With the brothers teaming up directly and Luigi being on the small screen throughout, his somewhat cowardly and clumsy persona has undoubtedly been expanded upon in these titles, often off-set from the determined brow and reckless heroism of Mario. The fact he's a named part of the title helps assert his role, too, and he's a vital part of the comedic approach of the series; that tendency to frights and hesitancy wasn't originally conceived in these titles, of course...

Going solo

Before we mention Luigi's widely recognised debut, we should acknowledge the solo appearance that often gets ignored but, nevertheless, was a release on NES and Super NES. We're referring, of course, to Mario is Missing, an educational game that sees Luigi explore different cities, collect artifacts and answer some trivia questions. It's not a classic and is often overlooked — especially as the title still name-drops Mario — but Luigi is the main playable character.

What's typically referred to as Luigi's actual solo debut is GameCube launch title Luigi's Mansion, a game we've happily referenced a fair bit recently here on Nintendo Life. We celebrated its 10 year anniversary with a robust defence of its merits as a unique, charming and well-constructed game. The issue when it was released, which was unfortunate for our green hero, was that it drew comparisons with the iconic Nintendo 64 launch title Super Mario 64 — like comparing apples and oranges, to be sure, but representing the first-party launch hope on a new system was a tough ask for Luigi. Reflected on the title without that context, however, we feel that many would agree that it's an enjoyable experience that deserves a loyal audience.

The difficult circumstances that accompanied Luigi's Mansion didn't, it seems, do our hero any favours. In the decade that followed Luigi was limited to his Mario & Luigi handheld appearances and a large dose of cameos, making some wonder whether he'd had his chance and missed out. Thankfully, Nintendo had decided not to completely abandon Luigi's solo career aspirations, with Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon — which some would prefer to call Luigi's Mansion 2 — gracing 3DS systems worldwide. It picks up on the GameCube title's themes and gameplay with adjustments for the hardware, while offering a lengthier adventure and an entertaining multiplayer option. It has, by anyone's definition, had a terrific reception from critics, with outlets of various sizes — even those that can occasionally be deemed harsh on Nintendo titles — lavishing it with praise. At the time of writing, and accounting for 45 critic reviews, Luigi's latest adventure has an impressive Metacritic rating of 85, while our own Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon review awarded 9/10. A triumph for the younger sibling, and also for developer Next Level Games.

Of course, this is the Year of Luigi, so there's more on the way. As well as the aforementioned Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, we can also look forward to New Super Luigi U, which will be a sizable downloadable addition to New Super Mario Bros. U, a separate set of levels and worlds to star the man himself. Details on that are relatively scarce, though Shigeru Miyamoto has stated that this DLC won't have a new story, but levels re-designed to be played by Luigi — all footage shown so far has also been single player.

With this being Nintendo, however, we wouldn't be surprised if it has a surprise or two ready to beef up Luigi's big year. Perhaps Luigi's Mansion will be the first GameCube title to be released on the Wii U Virtual Console this Halloween? We like to dream.