When the Gamecube launched in November 2001, it carried a heavy burden: being the first Nintendo console to debut without a new Mario game. Instead, it marked the beginning of what has become a long-standing tradition for the company: releasing new hardware and asking players to wait “just a little longer” for the software that would sell it. Where previous consoles came roaring onto the scene with three of the most enduring titles in Mario history, the GameCube would have to wait almost nine months for Super Mario Sunshine – an eternity in the life of a new console. That’s not to say Nintendo hadn’t prepared anything special for its entry into the sixth console generation; in fact, the company’s flagship GameCube title made the case for the system (and its funky new controller) just as well as Super Mario 64 had for the Nintendo 64 before it. And though it starred one of Nintendo’s most well-known characters, it was like no game the company had ever developed before.
The game, of course, was Luigi’s Mansion, a send-up of Ghostbusters that had Luigi inheriting a spooky mansion, along with the thankless task of ridding it of a rather serious ghost problem. Though it was derided upon its initial release simply because it wasn’t Mario, Luigi’s Mansion has since become a sought-after title on the secondhand market, proving like so many under-appreciated games before it to endure long after the bleeting of the disappointed few has died down. Still, Nintendo’s announcement of a sequel at its E3 2011 press conference caught many off guard; after all, the premise of the original barely justified a single game, let alone two. Does a return trip to Luigi’s old haunting grounds prove to be worth the twelve year wait, or is the second son destined to live forever in the shadow of his brother’s success?
Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon improves on the design of its predecessor in two important ways. First, by adding a variety of new locations for players to explore, the developers at Next Level Games have made a game that is significantly longer than the original, with an average playthrough taking between 12-15 hours. The game’s environmental artists clearly had a lot of fun letting Luigi out of the mansion: from a pair of haunted towers built around an enormous tree, to an abandoned mining facility hidden under a snow-logged chalet, there’s enough visual diversity on display to put even the biggest Nintendo games to shame.
Of course, if all you were doing was moving from room to room, bustin’ ghosts with your shoulder-mounted vacuum, there wouldn’t be much point in extending the playtime, regardless of how nice it was to look at; as charming as the original game was, it grew repetitive rather quickly. To combat this problem, Dark Moon introduces a mission structure that gives players an opportunity to really dig in and explore each of its five environments, while retaining a sense of focus to drive them forward. The resulting game feels like a cross between a Sierra adventure game and a Saturday afternoon serial, with an assortment of deliberately crafted environmental puzzles and hunt-the-key quests punctuated by Buster Keaton-esque pratfalls as Luigi is constantly scared off his feet by the game’s hilarious cast of spiteful spooks. Yes, you’ll be doing a lot of the same thing from mission to mission – locating missing gears, burning down cobwebs, rescuing Toads – but the presentation is so charming that you can’t help but push forward just to see what abuses our meager hero will suffer next.
There’s plenty of reason to come back to Dark Moon once you’ve wrapped up the game’s approximately 25 story missions. A bevy of often maddeningly well-hidden collectibles – gold bricks, jewels, invisible Boos and other baubles – reward players with equipment upgrades, hidden time trials, and more, while a pair of 4-player variations on the core ghost-busting concept adds an element of competition to the package. It’s no Mario Kart, but the game’s multiplayer is a great way to spend a few minutes of downtime and can be played locally or online, with friends or globally. Also, it features pink Luigi, which is reason enough to give it a whirl.
Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon isn’t without its shortcomings. The biggest of these is its occasionally clumsy control scheme, which has the aiming functions mapped to the X and B buttons. The original game stood as a proof of concept for the necessity of a second analog stick for navigating three-dimensional spaces, and while it stands to reason that Dark Moon would’ve inherited this functionality via the 3DS’s optional Circle Pad Pro accessory, support for the device wasn’t included in the final product. Additionally, the difficulty level of some of the late-game puzzles ramps up considerably over what is found in the majority of the game, which makes me wonder if Nintendo forgot that a large portion of its intended audience consists of small children who won’t always be able to ask for help.
Over the past three decades, Nintendo has earned a loyal following by sticking to a single, constant design ethic – giving players a simple goal and asking only that they have fun accomplishing it. While Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon comes up short in a handful of areas, it is, by and large, another sterling example of what makes this company so essential to the gaming landscape. In an era where the vast majority of high profile games offer variations on the same theme, Nintendo quietly toils away at its own thing, reminding us that the simple joy of losing ourselves in a fantasy world is still just as relevant today as it has always been. Maybe you’ve outgrown your fear of the paranormal, but that doesn’t change the fact that bustin’ still feels so, so good.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon was based on an eShop download provided to us by Nintendo.