Welcome back to Franchise Festival, a fortnightly column where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found in the archive here.
This week we’ll be sneaking fearfully through the cobwebbed history of Luigi’s Mansion. Cover art is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.
Luigi played second-fiddle to Nintendo’s mascot Mario for a decade after his debut in Mario Bros. (1983). The status quo finally began to shift with 1993’s Mario is Missing!, an edutainment game developed for the MS-DOS, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) by The Software Toolworks. Luigi’s first outing as a solo player character sees him wordlessly hunting his brother through various historical eras with only limited opportunities to use the high-jumping skills he’d demonstrated in classic platformers like Super Mario Bros. 2 (1988).
Nintendo, meanwhile, was in an unusually difficult spot at the turn of the century. Its undisputed position as the lead manufacturer of home game consoles since 1983 had been undermined by Sony’s disc-based PlayStation, which had roundly outsold its own cartridge-based Nintendo 64 hardware since the latter’s launch in late 1996. Major developers like Square and Capcom had famously avoided producing content for the Nintendo 64 due to the storytelling limitations and high costs of cartridge-based media.
The announcement of the PlayStation 2 in March 1999 prompted Nintendo to reveal its own next-generation hardware, the minidisc-based GameCube (then known as the Dolphin), in August 2000. While a host of games would be previewed for the GameCube at E3 2001, only a handful would be finished in time for the console’s Autumn 2001 release. Super Mario Sunshine, perhaps due to the comparative inexperience of first-time director Yoshiaki Koizumi, was among the games delayed into 2002. The GameCube would be Nintendo’s first platform to launch without an accompanying title featuring the studio’s mascot.
Luigi’s Mansion (2001)
During the late 1990s, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (1995) director Hideki Konno and a small team were working on a Nintendo 64 game prototype featuring “stages revolving around a big house or apartment complex.” This evolved into “experiments with Mario and other characters being on a television set using a dollhouse” before becoming a vehicle for Luigi when development moved to the GameCube. The game’s planned “ninja mansion or Japan-style house” setting was eventually exchanged for a European mansion. Role-playing game (RPG) mechanics and varied areas – including a prairie and desert location – were stripped out as Konno narrowed his focus. Due to Super Mario Sunshine‘s delay, Luigi’s Mansion became the GameCube’s key title when it launched alongside the console in Japan on September 14, 2001; North American and European localizations respectively followed in November 2001 and May 2002.
Players step into the quivering boots of Luigi as he takes on a lead role for the first time since Mario is Missing!, once again searching for his lost brother. Rather than exploring historical settings, though, Luigi is plunged into a pastiche of survival horror at King Boo’s mansion. He’s aided by Dr. E. Gadd, a zany scientist who has invented a vacuum that captures ghosts.
The Poltergust 3000 serves as the core mechanical difference between Luigi’s Mansion and Nintendo’s other 3D platformers. Luigi can’t jump, so he instead engages with spectral enemies by dislodging them from their hiding spots, lighting them with a flashlight, sucking them up, and imprisoning them within picture frames (an ironic inversion of Super Mario 64’s use of paintings as level gateways). Once a ghost has been exposed and caught in the vacuum’s suction, the player moves their controller’s secondary c-stick to offset their prey’s frenzied escape motions. Much of the game’s short playtime is spent solving puzzles and collecting keys to access new rooms, ghosts, and floors of the sprawling estate.
Nintendo had often foregrounded excellent art design, but Luigi’s Mansion represents their most detailed world yet. Luigi finally receives a personality of his own, as an exaggerated sense of fear permeates every one of his animations. Composer Kazumi Totaka likewise made the most of the GameCube’s optical disc media with Dr. E. Gadd’s Animal Crossing-esque nonsense language and Luigi’s irregular humming along with background music. The player can even tap a dedicated button to make Luigi call out for his brother!
Luigi’s Mansion is a technical marvel and a hilarious sendup of contemporary survival horror games like Resident Evil (1996), but reviews were mixed due to the game’s uncharacteristically short length. An experiment by Nintendo with displaying portions of the game jn stereoscopic 3D, shown off behind closed doors at E3 2002, was subsequently abandoned when it was determined that the costs associated with mass-manufacturing the accompanying LCD screens were too high. Happily, this prototype would eventually inspire a 2018 remaster for the 3DS co-developed by Grezzo and Nintendo.
Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon (2013)
Next Level Games was contracted to develop the next Luigi’s Mansion nearly ten years after the previous title was published. This small Canadian studio had produced a couple of sports games for Nintendo, including Super Mario Strikers (2005) and Punch-Out!! (Wii, 2009), demonstrating an aptitude for working with the company’s sometimes-idiosyncratic hardware. Shigeru Miyamoto took on a mentor role, reviewing prototype builds and frequently offering criticism to ensure that the first Luigi’s Mansion sequel fulfilled the vision that he and Konno had had when designing its GameCube predecessor. A three-year development period ended with Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon‘s worldwide release on the 3DS in March 2013.
Despite its shift to portable hardware, most of the series fundamentals remain unchanged: Luigi is working to save Evershade Valley from King Boo and an army of angry ghosts using a vacuum cleaner provided by Professor E. Gadd. The absence of a secondary analog stick means that ghost capture relies on Luigi’s bodily movements rather than swinging the Poltergust, and a new darklight lets the player see otherwise-invisible features, but the game’s biggest changes are structural. The player now explores five small mansions as they collect shattered pieces of the titular moon, jumping into bite-size portions of stages via teleportation instead of exploring a vast central environment.
With a significantly extended playtime, Dark Moon also offers new gameplay wrinkles on top of those returning from the GameCube. Luigi often escorts hapless Toad characters that he finds around each mansion and battles oversized bosses; a couple of boss encounters had appeared in the original game, but they were less complex than the multi-phase foes of Dark Moon. ScareScraper, a new multiplayer mode, offers randomly generated mansion floors in which up to four players can compete to capture ghosts, find an exit, or pursue adorable polterpup characters.
Dark Moon reviewed exceptionally well, improving and expanding on nearly every aspect of its predecessor. Criticism was primarily directed towards its challenging boss encounters and restrictive level design. If nothing else, it was an early demonstration of the 3DS’ capacity for lushly crafted experiences and a reminder of Nintendo’s knack for expressive character design a decade after Luigi’s Mansion had introduced the world to Luigi and E. Gadd’s off-kilter adventures.
Luigi’s Mansion 3 (2019)
Nintendo turned to Next Level Games for the series’ Switch debut following a brief prototype period on the Wii U. With much of the platform’s advertising focused on the ease of drop-in/drop-out multiplayer, the development team made the risky decision to build its single-player campaign around a two-character system involving Luigi and a glutinous doppleganger named Gooigi. They also revisited concepts abandoned during production of the original Luigi’s Mansion, building areas around non-domestic settings like pyramids and movie studios. Plans for puzzles that involve multiple floors, on the other hand, were cut during development when playtesting demonstrated that they were more challenging than fun. Luigi’s Mansion 3 was released on the thematically appropriate date of October 31, 2019.
The high-definition graphics of the Switch are leveraged to provide the franchise’s most comical opening yet, as Luigi, Polterpup, Toad, Peach, and Mario all make their way to a towering art deco hotel for a much-deserved vacation. Things go awry during their first night at The Last Resort when Luigi awakens to find his living companions being imprisoned in paintings by thinly-disguised spectral employees. He teams up with Polterpup and Professor E. Gadd, also captured by Last Resort owner/ghost Hellen Gravely, to explore the hotel’s 17 floors and save his friends using a new model of Poltergust.
All of the mechanics of Dark Moon return and are enhanced with new gameplay features. A slam attack can be used to reduce ghosts’ health gauge more quickly, while a plunger can be affixed to obstacles for more powerful suction. The darklight is also now able to bring invisible environmental objects into existence. Luigi and Gooigi are respectively able to move through water or slip through mesh grating, either by two players working together or by switching between playable characters. Levels feature more complex multi-room puzzles than ever, alongside new waterlogged areas where Luigi navigates using an inner tube, while each floor culminates in a unique boss battle.
Luigi’s Mansion 3 represents the series’ most fully-realized interpretation of its core concept. Reviewers praised it as the best entry so far, and sales doubled those of Dark Moon. Next Level Games so impressed its client that Nintendo purchased the Canadian studio in January 2021, the first such acquisition for the famously cautious corporation since 2007.
Capcom developed and published a spinoff for arcades in Japan in 2015. Luigi’s Mansion Arcade, one of Nintendo’s only standalone machines since it prioritized home console development in the 1990s, is a cooperative rail shooter built on the level design and game engine of Dark Moon. One or two players sit in a cabinet and use full-size Poltergust light guns to flash light and capture on-screen ghosts from a first-person perspective as they work through three stages – Gloomy Manor, Old Clockworks, and Treacherous Mansion – on their way to King Boo.
Area bosses from Dark Moon‘s single-player campaign are respectively replaced in the Gloomy Manor and Old Clockworks with The Brain, a ghost from Dark Moon‘s ScareScraper mode, and the Haunted Towers’ Three Sisters miniboss. Following a brief test period at Dave and Busters, Luigi’s Mansion Arcade made its way to general circulation around North America in 2017.
Luigi’s Mansion‘s humble beginnings as an experimental Nintendo 64 project by Hideki Konno belie its high-profile status in Nintendo’s software library. Following a shaky start as the GameCube’s flagship launch title, Next Level Games would conclusively cement the quirky series as a bestseller on the 3DS and Switch. The evolution of its level design from claustrophobic corridors to expansive non-euclidean settings suggests that fans can expect surprising new twists in the series for years to come.
What do you think about Luigi’s Mansion? Which is your favorite series entry? How about your favorite ghost? Let’s discuss in the comments below.
Be sure to tune into the monthly Franchise Festival podcast if you’d like to hear an even more granular exploration of noteworthy video game series! If you enjoy the articles or the show, please consider backing us on Patreon.
As ever, here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:
- #111: Dead Space – October 22
- #112: Assassin’s Creed, 2007-2014 – November 5
- #113: Assassin’s Creed, 2014-2020 – November 19
- #114: Advance Wars – December 3
- #115: Metal Gear – December 17