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The RetroBeat: Luigi’s Mansion gave Mario’s brother his own identity

Who ya gonna call? Luigi!

Image Credit: Nintendo

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Luigi’s Mansion 3 comes out on October 31, and it’ll be Nintendo’s biggest Switch release for the rest of the year (that doesn’t include the word Pokémon in the title). But before the Halloween launch, I’m looking back and appreciating the original Luigi’s Mansion for GameCube, a game that helped define a console and a little brother.

Because before Luigi’s Mansion came out in 2001, Luigi was stuck in Mario’s shadow. Luigi started life as a green-colored palette-swap for Mario in the 1983 arcade game Mario Bros., and that was his role going forward for a long time. If a Mario game had two players, Luigi would be called into action.

He would receive some development. The U.S. version of Super Mario Bros. 2 gave Luigi a taller, leaner look and higher jump than Mario. This was the first time that Luigi was more than a green-colored clone of Mario. The animated Super Mario Bros. cartoons of the ’80s and ’90s also gave Luigi a personality, establishing him as a bit of a comedic coward.

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Green Mario

But after Super Mario Bros. 2, Luigi was often nothing more than a green version of Mario in games like Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. He did have a starring role in Mario’s Missing, but that lackluster edutainment game did little to raise Luigi’s profile. Heck, his name wasn’t even in the title

Worse, when Super Mario 64 released as a launch title for the Nintendo 64 in 1996, Luigi wasn’t in it. He was removed from the sideline and kicked out of the stadium. If Luigi did appear in any Nintendo 64 games, like Mario Kart 64 or Mario Tennis, is was as part of ensemble cast.

That’s why the announcement of Luigi’s Mansion felt like such a big deal. Every major Nintendo home console had launched with a Mario game. Now, the GameCube was going to debut in 2001 alongside a solo Luigi adventure. Finally, the little brother plumber was getting the spotlight.

Luigi time

Luigi’s Mansion solidified the character as a star in his own right. It took those cowardly character traits that had never really been a part of the games and made them a defining part of the character. Much of the fun in Luigi’s Mansion comes from watching him shake in fear and freak out when a ghost pops up out of nowhere. My favorite part is the way Luigi hums the main theme, almost as if he’s trying to his mind off being inside a haunted house.

Luigi’s Mansion also helps the character stand on his own by presenting a game that’s different from a standard Mario experience. Luigi’s Mansion has no platforming. Heck, you can’t even jump. If anything, it’s more like a 3D Metroidvania. You explore a nonlinear world while collecting new abilities that help you unlock new areas.

Of course, the entire time you’re sucking up ghosts. This was well before the 2009 Ghostbusters title, so it was great having that specter-vacuuming fantasy represented in a “modern” game. And sucking up ghosts feels great in Luigi’s Mansion thanks to the strong rumble of the controller, the elastic animations of the ghosts, and he twin-stick controls of the character and his vacuum.

Switch for success

The GameCube was not a big hit, only selling 22 million consoles. The Switch has already sold more than that. That’s why Luigi’s Mansion 3 is so interesting. Sure, Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon was a success for the 3DS back in 2013. But it feels like the timing is right — with a holiday release for a hot console — for Luigi to have his most successful game ever.

Let’s just remember that Luigi’s current status as beloved character with a unique identity separate to Mario’s really started in 2001 thanks to the original Luigi’s Mansion.

The RetroBeat is a weekly column that looks at gaming’s past, diving into classics, new retro titles, or looking at how old favorites — and their design techniques — inspire today’s market and experiences. If you have any retro-themed projects or scoops you’d like to send my way, please contact me.

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