Nintendo has always had a dark side. Though it's built up a name for itself as a family-friendly game company, every so often, when it can be contained no longer, its dark side manifests itself in the form of a Super Metroid or a Majora's Mask. But while we expect a touch of gloom and misery in our Zeldas and Metroids, it may strike you as more than a bit curious that one of Nintendo's darkest adventures stars a platforming hero who had previously been known for some of the happiest, most family-friendly games on earth.
But then, nearly every aspect of Luigi's Mansion is bound to strike many as more than a bit curious. Nintendo had launched each of its three previous consoles with a bright and colourful Mario platformer, yet for the GameCube, the company chose a dark, atmospheric title starring the mascot's lesser-known brother. Not only that, but Luigi's Mansion was about as far from a traditional Mario game as it could possibly get – so much so that it didn't even feature a jump button.
Perhaps it's for these reasons that Luigi's Mansion never got the recognition for which Nintendo had hoped. It simply wasn't the game that people were expecting. It's a shame, really, because in actuality it's quite a remarkable little title. Luigi's Mansion is a unique and atmospheric experience that's as fun as it is technologically impressive.
The premise is a simple one: Luigi has won a mansion in a contest... except he doesn't remember entering any contest. To see what the deal is, he heads out to check out the mansion for himself. Once inside, he is almost immediately confronted by a gang of disgruntled ghosts; thankfully, the notorious Professor E. Gadd (creator of such classic commodities as F.L.U.D.D. and the Portraitificationizer) comes to your aid with one of his latest inventions. He explains to Luigi that his brother, Mario, is being held captive inside of the mansion. Naturally, Luigi must find a way to save him.
In addition to your trusty flashlight, the Professor equips you with two of his cleverest inventions to survive the haunted abode – the Game Boy Horror (GBH) and the Poltergust 3000. The former – which is quite literally a Game Boy Color with a more groan-inducing name – might be likened to the Scanning Visor in Metroid Prime. The GBH screen is sort of like a window, and pressing the X button lets you look through it and examine your surroundings. This item becomes useful as you encounter some of the game's trickier bosses, as it allows you to scan them and get insight into their possible weak points.
However, the focus of attention is undoubtedly on The Poltergust 3000, which serves as both an incredibly fun gameplay mechanic and a technological showcase for the at-the-time revolutionary game engine. When used in tandem with the flashlight, the vacuum-like device is simply a way of sucking up the ghastly inhabitants – first shine your light on the ghost to catch it off guard, then quickly suck it up using the R button and Control Stick. However, it quickly reveals itself to be much more than that. The GameCube's pressure-sensitive trigger buttons were quite cutting-edge when the system launched, and Luigi's Mansion was one of the first titles to showcase their use. Being able to precisely control the airflow of the Poltergust sets the groundwork for some pretty neat boss fights and puzzles, and this, in conjunction with the game's still-impressive physics engine, makes interacting with the environment a real joy. The way in which your vacuum is able to affect things like table cloths, shelves, beach-balls and carpeting is still really cool even today, and goes a long way in pulling the player into the game. Interacting with the environment doesn't go unrewarded, either – exploring every nook and cranny to find cash, pearls and gold bars is addictive and gives the game a unique high score twist that not many 3D adventure games have.
Structurally, Luigi's Mansion is about as far-removed from a Mario game that you could get – in fact, the closest thing you could compare it to is dungeon-crawling in The Legend of Zelda. Gone are the spacious and whimsical environments of Mario 64 — instead you're given one ill-lit, claustrophobic and creepy mansion that you must explore room by room. Upon entering one, you're greeted with darkness; darkness, that is, and the haunting giggles of hidden ghosts. One by one these will reveal themselves, and it's your job to suck them up. Clearing all of them in a given room will cause the lights to come on and, more often than not, a treasure chest to appear. Nine times out of ten these will contain keys that allow you to access some previously impassable door, and round-and-round the formula goes. It would run the risk of being overly repetitive if the core gameplay mechanics weren't so much fun, but thankfully the odd satisfaction of seeing Luigi getting yanked around the room by unruly ghosts never gets old; and the game's knack for creating a mood means exploring a new room is always an exciting experience.
This being a launch title and all, it's not surprising that Luigi's Mansion isn't the prettiest GameCube game, but what it lacks in pixels, it makes up for with artistic flair and technological impressiveness. In addition to aforementioned physics engine and great use of the controller, Luigi's Mansion was also a pioneer in realistic lighting effects. The flashlight was an immediate stunner, and its effect still manages to impress after other flashlight-driven games like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories have driven the concept further. But one of the most consistently enjoyable aspects of the game is how much work went into turning Luigi from Mario's bland pallet-swap into a hilarious and lovable individual with a distinct personality. Simply put, the character animations in this game are astounding: the way Luigi's hand trembles as he opens a new door, or how his teeth chatter as he walks down a darkened hallway. He flattens into a thin sheet of paper when something falls on him, he stretches and expands when screaming with fear — with care and detail, Nintendo turned a once pointless character into one as expressive and malleable as something out of a Bob Clampett cartoon.
Furthermore, Luigi's Mansion's use of sound is still some of the cleverest you'll hear in a video game. There's essentially only one theme here, but it's amazing how much mileage Nintendo gets out of it. Sometimes it plays hauntingly in the background. Sometimes, in the creepiest and quietest of rooms, Luigi will whistle and hum it nervously to himself, as if to keep his mind off of the ominous danger at hand. In rooms with sneaky ghosts that refuse to show themselves, if you listen carefully, you can hear them cackling the tune to get a better idea of where they are. Genius.
What Luigi's Mansion lacks in content and longevity, it makes up for with a remarkably well-crafted and unique single campaign that will keep you consistently entertained from front to back. It's not quite on the same level as Mario's better outings, but the game is so entirely different from anything Mario has ever starred in that it feels almost unjust to compare them; and, really, it's this complete departure from the Mario formula that makes the game so successful in the first place. The gameplay design is so uncommon that it's pretty difficult to slap a genre label on it, but suffice to say that if you consider yourself a gamer, you owe it to yourself to give this one a shot.