2013 was the Year of Luigi, and with it came several games that put Mario’s oft-forgotten twin brother front and center. Much like the Left Behind DLC for The Last of Us, New Super Luigi U on the Wii U was an amazing example of what companies are capable of when they dedicate some real time and effort into their DLC projects, and it was one of the best titles that I played this year. I gave it an A in my review, and it’s a game that will challenge and delight any side-scrolling platformer fan.
While there have been other less prominent outings for Luigi, including Super Luigi Bros., which can be found within NES Remix 2, and the eShop exclusive Dr. Luigi, the game that most people will remember from Luigi’s year in the spotlight is this game: Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon (from here on out simply referred to as Dark Moon).
Developed by Next Level Games, who was also in charge of the excellent Punch-Out!! on the Wii back in 2009, Dark Moon quickly became one of the most anticipated games on the Nintendo 3DS. Being a fan of the GameCube original, I was very excited to see what kind of a difference twelve years would make.
Those years have been kind, because for the most part, Dark Moon is a success. Luigi carries around an upgraded vacuum known as the Poltergust 5000 (formerly the Poltergust 3000) — invented by Professor E. Gadd, developer of F.L.U.D.D. from Super Mario Sunshine — which among other things is used to collect ghosts, treasures, and pull drapes off of curtain rods. It can also function in reverse to roll up carpets, turn fans, and launch projectiles through the air. He’s also outfitted with a flashlight that can momentarily stun ghosts and open locked doors. One of the neatest additions to Dark Moon is the Dark-Light Device, a black light of sorts that can reveal invisible objects, hidden ghosts, and other clues.
Your Poltergust 5000 can be upgraded throughout the course of the game, but you’ll have it maxxed-out long before you reach its end. At first it feels like it all happens too soon, but you’ll quickly learn to appreciate this as it makes the act of catching ghosts and beating missions much easier and a lot of fun. Another new feature is the Surge mechanic, which rewards you with better treasure based on what Surge level you’re in when you capture a ghost. It’s very strategic and is an important timing skill to learn in order to get the best rankings.
Players are ranked from 1 to 3 stars on their performance in each mission, which takes into account how much damage you sustain, how much treasure you find (getting good at Surge timing really helps out here), and how quickly you complete them. I found the final component — the time one — to run counter to the spirit of the game, which encourages exploration of every nook and cranny of each mansion. I felt like I needed to memorize where all of the best treasures and ghosts were found in order to get each mission’s best 3-star ranking. For some of the longer missions, this became more trouble than it was worth, and while I found every Boo, I stopped short of 3-starring every stage.
Speaking of stages, yes, the singular mansion of the first game has been ditched in favor of several different ones, each possessing their own unique look, inhabitants, obstacles, puzzles, and other challenges. Each mansion is broken up into several distinct missions which have individual objectives to complete, including puzzles, collecting ghosts, finding rare gems, and capturing hidden Boos, which unlock extra levels in each mansion if you find them all. This gives the game a lot of replayability, and it will have completionists reentering missions multiple times to find everything they missed.
It works, but I would have preferred a more integrated structure, since the back-and-forth one in Dark Moon leads to a lot of loading screens, lengthy dialogue scenes between you and the Professor, and it slows the pace of the game down quite a bit. The stages themselves, however, are beautiful to look at. While the 3DS struggles to maintain a solid framerate, which can be anywhere from sub-20fps to 60fps, they are well-constructed, atmospherically lit, and contain all sorts of interactive objects. The 3D works particularly well, since so much of Dark Moon relies on the player being able to detect and locate ghosts in 3D space, so being able to see if a ghost is in front or behind you is critical.
Luigi himself is wonderfully animated, and you get a believable sense that he really doesn’t want to be there! He’s the reluctant hero, and that comes across in his nervous vocalizations, terrified facial expressions, and hesitant body language. The ghosts that you encounter throughout each mansion are distinct, fun to defeat, and really stand out against the mansion backdrops. While most of them are pretty easy to figure out, they can become downright diabolical when they start working in groups against poor Luigi.
In terms of controls, they’re pretty good, but because there is no standard dual-analog control for the 3DS, you have to physically be facing a ghost in order to shine your flashlight at them or use your vacuum. In more heated encounters where you are against several different enemies at once, the control scheme can become a hindrance and a noticeable limitation. There are also buttons you have to press and hold to run, look up, and look down, so there is definitely a steeper learning curve with Dark Moon‘s controls than most Nintendo games. It makes me think that it would be amazing to see a Luigi’s Mansion game on the Wii U.
The music in Dark Moon is understated, but quite brilliant at the same time. It’s more ambient than the typically melodic fare of Nintendo titles, but it suits the game’s mood perfectly, and the first time you hear Luigi humming along to the music while you’re exploring is one of those moments that elevates the soundtrack from just “being there” to selling it as a truly integrated and necessary component to the experience.
Speech is limited to short phrases and in the case of Professor E. Gadd, unintelligible gibberish that sounds oddly similar to the Ewoks from Return of the Jedi. In-game sounds are nicely done and provide each environment with creaking floorboards, clanging chandeliers, and other spooky noises that bring each mansion to supernatural life.
Each mansion culminates in a boss fight, and while some of them intelligently blend the action with inspired puzzle design, others are simplistic or overly long and tedious. One in particular, which happens about halfway through the game, can be a test of one’s patience, and ultimately feels out of place. Plus, if you lose a life, you have to do it all over again from the beginning, and most of the boss stages have an introductory area that you need to get through first before the fight begins, which adds a little insult to injury.
The game also contains several escort missions, where you have to rescue various Toad Assistants and get them through different obstacles to the exit. While I generally don’t like escort missions, I found these to be a lot of fun and had me thinking about each stage in different ways. I think Dark Moon is at its best when it challenges you with its puzzle design, rewarding the player with satisfying “Aha!” moments. If another Luigi’s Mansion is made, I would love to see more cooperative traversal missions like these.
Dark Moon‘s campaign mode will take most players around 10-15 hours to complete, and likely at least double that to 100% it. Not only that, but a new multiplayer mode known as the ScareScraper is almost an entirely different game in itself, with different modes and challenges that encourage teamwork with other players. It’s a fresh new way to experience the Luigi’s Mansion formula, which when you consider that the series is known so much for its single-player qualities, this really stands out as a highlight.
All in all, Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon is a worthy follow-up to the 2001 GameCube original, with a wealth of content, variety, and replay value. While there are some things about it that I didn’t particularly enjoy, such as the overly heavy focus on collecting, level structure, certain boss encounters, and an inconsistent framerate, it is one of the more unique titles to be found on the 3DS, and definitely worth a look if you’re in search of a more challenging and cerebral experience.
- Visuals: B
Nicely modeled environments, colors, and excellent character animation. However, an inconsistent framerate and dull menus tarnish its overall visual presentation.
- Sound: A
A wonderfully atmospheric soundtrack with solid voice samples, crisp sound effects, and a wealth of convincing environmental audio bring each mansion to life. Headphones are definitely recommended!
- Story: B-
Nothing groundbreaking, but the simple story about recovering the Dark Moon pieces and returning the ghosts to their former state keeps things interesting enough through to its end. The dialogue sequences are numerous and overly lengthy at times, though.
- Gameplay: B
There is a lot to do in Dark Moon, and the game gets a lot of good mileage out of a few well-defined systems. Exploration, discovery, puzzle-solving, and escorting NPCs are all very satisfying. Mission structure makes things a little slow, however, as it breaks up the overall flow of the game. 3-star requirements tend to be vague, and some boss encounters feel like they could have used another design pass as well.
- Controls: B+
Controls are responsive and are surprisingly robust and natural in most situations once you get used to them. Capturing ghosts feels great, but without dual-analog on the 3DS, certain encounters and situations can be more frustrating than they need to be.
- Value: A
Completionists will have their hands full finding everything and obtaining all 3-star rankings, and the ScareScraper multiplayer mode is nicely integrated and will keep players coming back for more.