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Luigi's Mansion has always offered Mario's world in domestic close-up


A close-up of Luigi looking terrified and lit from below by a torch.
Image credit: Nintendo

Ghosts are a close-up. Eventually they are, anyway. After they've been a sudden movement at the back of the frame, a shimmer or glitch that may or may not have happened, you cut in close and you hold the image tight and you take it all in. Anybody there?

At these moments, ghosts are the rocking chair that may have just moved, the painting or moose head whose eyes have flickered to track you as you pass. Ghosts are details, which means that games have often struggled with them. Action games particularly have often lived in the wide shot, the camera way back, the broad approach to scene-setting applied. Up until the last few decades, most props were stuck to the tables in games, most doors were all-but painted onto their walls.

As it happens, doors are a pretty good place to start when approaching the Luigi's Mansion games, a series that's fairly bursting open with ghosts. With Luigi's Mansion 2 coming to the Switch this week, I've been looking back at the series as a whole, and these games work eager magic with doors. I can still remember firing the first game up on the GameCube and that moment where Luigi, who'd just won a haunted mansion in a competition he didn't enter, first reached for its brass door handle. A reference to Resident Evil? Maybe. But also a statement of intent: close-ups, details, the glinting play of light on metalwork. Here was a game in which the little domestic things would matter.

For the last week or so as I've been replaying the games, I'm struck by how tightly they cleaved to this idea, despite a shift in developer, a shift between platforms, and a shift in scale and scope: one house, a bunch of houses, a weirdo hotel. Luigi's Mansion has an enviable consistency throughout, I think, particularly for games that come out so infrequently. Unlike Luigi, anyway, you know what you're getting into. This is the series that always dims the lights, that always invites you inside. It's the series that revels in doors and what doors conceal. It's the Mario game that's in love with human clutter.

John dives into the latest Luigi's Mansion remake.Watch on YouTube

Yesterday I tried to make a list of some of the games' clutter, a sort of Luigi inventory to bring the design's spirit most clearly into view. "Rolling pins, lawnmowers, yarn," the list reads in one section. But it misses the point a little. The rolling pin shifts back and forth and eventually clatters off the kitchen table. The lawnmower rattles and huffs as it chews a path across a raggedy midnight lawn. The yarn is caught and yanked and then spins and spins until it's all flown off its reel. It's not enough to say that Luigi's Mansion games are about domestic objects. They're about domestic objects animated, brought to life, spinning around you and knocking at the walls and ceilings.

Yet for games, because games are weird, it's the domestic stuff that seems the most dazzling. This is what still makes me stop and think every time I play a Luigi's Mansion game. Ghosts? Lots of ghosts in games, and ghosts of all kinds. But back on the GameCube I reveled in the game's use of mirrors that would accurately reflect the hero, in its chandeliers that you could rattle around in their fixtures. I marveled at your vacuum that worked like an actual vacuum. Ghosts and bosses and floating candelabras, sure, but I was entranced by the fact that here was a Nintendo game that had noticed cutlery.

This has been the case throughout all the games. A dinner table set for a feast. A laundry room. Ladders, watering cans in the shed. Grates with mice moving behind them in the darkness. So many rugs - and they move like rugs and can get snagged on your vacuum. So many standard lamps that will rock back and forth and have lightbulbs that might dim. I never really think of Nintendo's designers as living around standard lamps and having to deal with lightbulbs. They've always seemed so removed, so mysterious, and as a result the domestic stuff from which the Luigi games are made has the force of weird revelation.

Luigi's Mansion 2 HD key art.
Luigi's Mansion 2 HD. | Image credit: Nintendo

Ghosts often animate this stuff, as Luigi walks the haunted halls and tries to straighten everything out. But it's the designer's minds that really lurk in the walls and rap on the false panels. There's a bit in one of the games where you use the vacuum to spin some DJ mixing decks stuck on a wall. In the third game you use it to sound out the rattly insides of an old jalopy down in the garage, while later on you summon a jelly Luigi to move through spaces you can't access and uncover the truly hidden parts of the world. Mario's always been imaginative, but the main games have increasingly looked outwards: whole mountains, whole islands, whole planets and star systems. Here's the close-up response. Luigi pulls down a Murphy bed. Luigi shatters an old suitcase and finds a stack of coins inside.

And in these moments, I see - well, I see two things actually. The first is the sort of 16-bit impact that Luigi's Mansion still has, regardless of which entry and which platform. Back when games moved from 8-bit to 16-bit, I remember that I mainly registered the change in terms of incidental detailing. Platformers were still platformers, but Sonic would tap his foot if you left him waiting, while Mystical Ninja let you stick your head through weird sculptures for no reason. The broad strokes of the games hadn't changed that much. What had changed was that the games no longer had to be purely broad strokes anymore.

I saw that with Luigi's Mansion back on the GameCube. Here was a 3D game that didn't have to expend all its energy just making the 3D work. It could embellish it - with rugs and mirrors and cobwebs and all that other stuff. It felt like 16-bit 3D, so to speak, compared to the 8-bit proof-of-concept 3D of the PS1 era. Just me?

The other thing takes me further back. Slapstick. Luigi's Mansion feels like an old silent comedy, regardless of the colour, the gadgets, the fact it has dialogue and audio and sound effects and all the rest. It feels like that because Luigi walks along and encounters what gag writers used to call "bits of business". A wardrobe might be a bit of business. A shower curtain hiding a bath might be a bit of business. A baby's crib might be a bit of business.

Mario games have bits of business too, but the scale is expanded and imagination has replaced the domestic confines of a house, a room, a single piece of furniture. In Mario a bit of business might be racing a giant penguin down a snowbank or it might be drop-kicking a meteor into a sun. You gain a lot with that stuff, but you lose the hand-made, moment-to-moment feel of the Luigi's Mansion games. These are Mario games that feel like they have practical sets, practical effects.

It's funny to see how much I end up talking about film when I'm talking about Luigi's Mansion. Going into this I didn't think I'd reference film at all. This is hardly what people talk about when they talk about games becoming more cinematic. But by shrinking the action down to our world, moving in a landscape that mixes in close-ups as well as mediums, the Luigi's Mansion games have a sort of grammar or visual approach that feels like cinema. Like the old days. Like light flickering in the darkness. Lovely stuff.

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