Review by PeteBDawg

"Beautifully Rendered in Full LS-3-D"

You knew there was something funny going on. You played all those Nintendo games back in the eighties, and you noticed something strange about the way they worked. Oh, sure, they were simple enough and crude enough that you'd be able to chalk most of it up to the fact that they were always trying to use very simple means to represent complex actions, but there was still something funny going on. What am I talking about? I'm talking about the Gamecube launch game Luigi's Mansion and its illustrious grandparents. You don't quite follow me? Read on.

There's a sort of Nintendo metaphysics in existence, and its rules are not our own. In Nintendo metaphysics, it makes perfect sense for there to exist a sea creature that can swim very quickly, but only straight ahead, or to decrease in size by fifty percent when you touch the rear end of a turtle, or to have a blue candle in your backpack that shoots a massive fireball, but only once until you walk two hundred yards away and back. When you're playing an 8-bit game like Clu Clu Land, Super Mario Brothers, or The Legend of Zelda, everything is so pixilated and presentational, you don't give it much thought.

Now, I don't know about you, but I always assumed that as consoles got more sophisticated, this Nintendo metaphysics would fade away and cease to be. After all, they're mostly the consequence of limited technology, right? Link would find a more realistic way to produce fire, Mario would find new power ups not involving bizarre size increases, and games like Clu Clu Land just wouldn't be made anymore. Games like Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time seemed to be moving Nintendo franchises away from this bizarre alternate reality.

Then, I got myself a Gamecube and played Luigi's Mansion, and my jaw dropped. Good Lord! Good Lord! They took all the power of the Gamecube console to produce realism, all the capability for dramatic lighting, and all the smooth polygon rendering, and they reinvested it all into trippy, inexplicable Nintendo metaphysics. The results are no less than astounding. Puzzling, unsettling, and laughable, to an extent, yes, but, above all, it is astounding.

The idea behind the game sounds a little quirky, but innocent enough. Luigi wins a contest he didn't enter. The prize is a mansion. What's the twist? It's a haunted mansion, full of ghosts! And Mario went there and got lost! Luigi, unlikely hero, has to go rescue him. His main weapons are a flashlight and a vacuum cleaner, which he uses to startle and confine the ghosts, Ghostbusters style. The causality is solid; it's original without being unheard of. So far, so good.

But then things start getting weird. By consuming elemental spirits that hide in the house's furnishings, Luigi's vacuum cleaner can gout fire, water, or ice. Where does it hold it? How can it expel it, without expelling its other contents? Nintendo metaphysics! Luigi carries with him a Gameboy Horror, which he uses to scan his environment, and the ghosts he comes across, for clues. But try using it on a mirror, or on a variety of other home furnishings. The results are not what you'd expect, believe me. Why not? Nintendo metaphysics! If you manage to find and catch a certain sort of ghost, you get a large cash reward! Why? Who's paying you? Nintendo metaphysics! You walk into a ballroom, you are attacked by dancing ghosts in old-school Japanese martial art outfits. Sometimes, there are giant bombs with skulls on them hidden in normal-sized armoires. It doesn't let up for a minute.

Furthermore, the whole game has an odd feel it that comes a lot closer to condoning slavery than it really ought to. When you catch certain ghosts, they are pressed into paintings, where you can look at them at your leisure. The catch? These ghosts are, by and large, completely and totally harmless, and the only reason you have to catch them is so that keys will materialize out of nowhere and the lights will turn on. How exactly does banishing the spirit of a kindly, middle aged man to an art gallery for all eternity lead one to finding a light switch? Nintendo metaphysics!

And the downward spiral just keeps turning faster and faster, leading you farther and farther into a massive Nintendo Fun Club acid trip. The bosses are, well, I can't tell you what they're like, but believe me, they are among the very strangest things you've ever seen on a television screen. And it isn't just the immediate visage of them that makes you squint and makes your stomach jump, it's what you have to do to them that's most disturbing. But that'd be telling.

The game progresses very cleanly and consistently, getting weirder and weirder and weirder until the very end. It doesn't let up, it doesn't equivocate, and it doesn't disappoint. Well, the game is relatively short, so you might be left wanting more, but I wasn't. There's only so far you can stretch the game mechanics, and I applaud Nintendo for knowing to leave filler out of the game and only program as much as they knew was worth programming.

The game also manages to make a number of honest to goodness jokes, as well. There are a bunch of jibes at the distinctive melodrama of the classic survival game series, and they're funny enough to laugh and inconspicuous enough not to be a bother. Luigi is almost always quaking in childlike fear, and his wary calls of ''Mario! Maaario!'' are always entertaining. All in all, the atmosphere is a wry juxtaposition of cartoonish humor and twisted, psychotropic darkness. It's rich and very playable, a fine work of craftsmanship.

But the game is a little limited; Luigi can't jump, and the whole thing is very linear. ''Ghost wrangling'' with the vacuum cleaner is tons of fun, but it never really changes, and the control scheme is poorly suited for the challenges in the game that require both vertical and horizontal control. It's dual analog, but it isn't overly responsive, which means that you almost never do anything by accident, but in the moments of intense action, it can be a problem pointing Luigi in the right direction.

This doesn't so much result in controller throwing as it does in a general sense that this game isn't really meant as a test to serious video gamers, and is more of a cultural artifact than anything else. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Luigi's Mansion is just for kids; there's too much actively trippy weirdness for any college student to actually dislike it. I'm saying the ideal audience for this game is a group of friends without much to do and enough time to savor all the detailed and bizarre imagery, rather than a lone gamer looking for a challenge. If you play through this game as quickly as you can, you will be disappointed. If you take your time, you're in for a treat.

On to the ratings. 5 is average.

Graphics - 9 - The graphics and effects are beautiful, but, more importantly, they always make it abundantly clear exactly what is going on. There are times when you have to look in unlikely places for answers to problems, but the graphical design encourages exploration and doesn't mislead. This game almost plays itself, and most of that benefit comes from the wonderful graphic design, which is sophisticated and comprehensible at the same time. The right word for it, believe it or not, is ''elegant.''

The reason why the trippiness of this game is so astounding is because the graphical design communicates it so very, very clearly. There's no denying that something is supremely weird in Luigi's Mansion, because, there it is, right in front of your face!

The only problem is that every single room is shot from basically the same camera angle, and although that is perfect for 99% of situations, there are times when it is clear that a slightly different way of dealing with the camera would have been better. There's no easy solution to this problem, because a constantly shifting camera would have greatly hurt the game; the total package is just a bit shy of perfect.

Sound/Music - 9 - I am very reluctant to give 10s to games. After all, who's to say a game you haven't played couldn't be better? Luigi's Mansion doesn't really demand a ten in any category, but the closest it comes is probably in this category. The Gothic music is deep and atmospheric, and when it cuts out, Luigi hums it to himself. Wonderful!

Helpful sound effects let you know what's going on, music comes and goes at appropriate times, and Luigi's frantically pattering footsteps add another layer of detail to all of it. It creates a trademark air that I can only describe as Galloping Gothic: it trudges along in ponderous darkness for a few minutes, and then it picks up its feet and skips ahead, care free, for a few more. Simply put, it'll make you smile.

Play Control - 7 - The play control is smooth and precise, but it is just a little too slow. Getting spooked by a ghost usually results in a mad dual analog scramble to get Luigi pointed in the right direction, but after that, it's smooth sailing. The Game Boy Horror scanning system also is a little quirky at times, but, all in all, the play control is smooth, precise, and soundly above average.

Design - 8 - The game design is definitely the work of top-notch professionals. Nothing is left ambiguous or unfinished, and every single inch of Luigi's Mansion is mapped out and polished. The flashlight/vacuum cleaner combat system is designed very well, and the mansion itself is full of surprises. Walking from place to place unlocking doors is somewhat repetitive at times, but never for very long. It's not the coolest game design I've seen this year, but it's a success of which the designers can be proud.

Challenge - 4 - The game isn't very hard. There are parts that are absolutely agonizing, but most of it is a breeze. The majority of games out there are harder than Luigi's Mansion.

Replay - 2 - There is a thrown-together game concept that encourages replay, but it is clearly forced and doesn't work in practice. I don't like to tell people to buy or rent a game, after all, that has to do with a person's money, and I'm talking about games for their own sake, but once you play Luigi's Mansion once, you might play it again for fun, but you probably won't. It isn't designed for that purpose.

Theme - 9 - This game is absolutely crazy, and I love it for that. The kooky survival theme is wonderfully executed, and the story is compelling, even when it is discomforting. Luigi is a very two dimensional character, but even that seems oddly appropriate, considering his roots as a two dimensional character. Even though it is exceptionally trippy, in the end, it holds together, from beginning to end much better than almost every game out there.

Fun - 7 - All my roommates last summer loved this game. Despite their original condemnation of its triteness, they ended up waiting until I was asleep and playing it through to the end themselves. It's a little too slow and linear to really be a classic, but, from the sound effects to the visual gags to the ghost wrangling, it's a whole lot of fun.

Overall - 7 - This game is a head and not-quite-shoulders above the pack. If you get the chance to play it, I suggest you give it a chance. Don't believe the hype on either side of this game; believe me, the game speaks for itself. It speaks in tongues and gives you flashbacks, but it definitely speaks for itself.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 11/27/02, Updated 11/27/02

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