Review: Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon

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Sean Penn and his musical brother Michael. Owen Wilson and Luke, the erstwhile AT&T pitchman. Peyton and Eli Manning. It’s a sibling equation that’s fairly familiar: Sometimes, one bro overshadows the other, even though both are talented in their own way.

So it is in entertainment and sports, and so it’s been in the Mushroom Kingdom, where the diminutive Mario gets all the love, all the pink-frilled princess time and top billing on all the new platform launches, while his sad-sack brother Luigi gets relegated to player-two status.

But here’s a welcome news flash: Mario doesn’t have the Poltergust-5000, and he doesn’t have Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, the Nintendo 3DS’s new best game—well, at least until the next wave of Zelda/Yoshi/Donkey Kong franchise updates hit later this year. A combination of clever level design and typical A-list Nintendo presentation more than makes up for years of also-ran-itis for the taller Mario brother.

It’s been an awfully long time since Luigi threw down with the spectral crowd on the GameCube, way back when that system launched in 2001, but the premise remains familiar. This time, King Boo has poisoned the purple-hued Dark Moon and broken it into pieces, causing all the spooks in the valley to go rogue. At the behest of the creepy and gibbering Professor E. Gadd, Luigi’s called in to be a (very) reluctant ghostbuster, schlepping back and forth through five different themed mansions to put everything right again.

Thankfully, our man’s armed with the vacuum power of the Poltergust-5000, a tool way more versatile than your average late-night Ronco purchase. Luigi can use Gadd’s gadget to suck up several types of ghosts (and it’s a hilarious blast to watch them desperately swim and strain against the vortex), and/or suck up/move objects in the environment, revealing hidden secrets and stashes of coins. A photocell flashlight stuns specters, activates machines and unlocks safes, while a darklight attachment reveals objects those pesky Boos have vanished with their floating spirit orbs.

Interacting and exploring make up the meat of the action, but little character touches really amp the charm. It’s the exasperated look of resignation on Luigi’s face when Gadd sends him back to ghost-bust for the umpteenth time, or the way he hums along with the game’s soundtrack as he tiptoes the darkened corridors. There’s a real triumph of the underdog vibe that hits when our boy finally scores the key he needs to open a new door or one of the hard-to-reach hidden gems. The ghosts are a blast, too, whether it’s the dopily named hidden Boos in each mission level—Boolean and Boodonkulous, anyone?—or the way you can spy on the ghosts through cracks in the walls and watch them bicker and scheme. Dark Moon has a light sense of humor, and the developers weren’t afraid to show it.

The mansions themselves are as entertaining as the characters, each one embracing its theme in a fascinating way. None’s more engaging so than the spooky Old Clockworks, which finishes up with an epic ghost-wave battle on the face of a fiery clock. The game’s jammed with great environmental touches, from thunderstorms and lightning flashes that add an edgy ambiance to the bizarre croons you’ll hear when certain types of ghost are hovering nearby.

Nearly every mission is a variation on tracking down some key object the ghosts (or the uberadorable Polterpup) have stolen and hidden, but Dark Moon rarely feels repetitive, even though you’ll visit the same rooms and courtyards of each mansion multiple times. Credit goes to the game’s design, which consistently drip-drops in new gameplay mechanics (floating around with balloons, using the Poltergust like a rocket launcher to blast Toad helpers to areas you can’t reach. Etc.) and rarely recycles its puzzles. Given that we’re talking about nearly 30 levels of gameplay, that’s a pretty impressive accomplishment.

Pace and structure are really the only things that spook the proceedings. Most of the mansions are broken up into five missions, a boss fight and a secret and while there are plenty of ghosts to suck up, there’s no saving until you reach the end and Gadd zaps you back to his lab with his goofy Pixelshifter. (After about a gazillion interruptions: Gadd calls Luigi to interrupt the proceedings more frequently than telemarketers call to ruin your dinner. Dude must have the best cell-phone data plan ever.) Screw up on the inevitable mini-boss battle, and you’ll be bouncing all the way back to the beginning of the mission to tread the same boards and re-discover the same secrets yet again. Pray that your reboot doesn’t occur on the mission that ends with an uber-annoying trek up a gigantic guess-the-right path staircase.

Each level features a huge amount of reveals–hidden gems, hidden stashes of coins and bills, hidden Boos and, occasionally, a hidden bonus level. It behooves you to patiently scout every inch of every room, unless you enjoy aimless and copious backtracking. When you’re stuck on a mission—and you will be at least a few times–it’s probably because you haven’t flipped the darklight in the proper direction.

The meaty–or should that be ghostly?–single-player campaign is far from the only trick in Dark Moon’s arsenal o’ fun. There’s a great and heavy emphasis on multiplayer, both local and online. After completing a few missions on the single-player side, the Scarescraper opens up, offering customizable ghost-catching adventures for you and, ideally, three of your friends. Sometimes you’ll be working together to clear every room of specters before a timer runs out; in Rush mode, you’ll just be madly dashing to the top of the tower while avoiding spectral attacks. Completing these modes yields some special buffs not found in the single-player campaign, giving you an extra incentive to round up the Scooby gang and get busting.

In addition to giving Luigi some deserved and long-overdue time in the spotlight, Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon delivers on nearly every promise a gamer could hope for: It’s challenging, it’s funny, it’s beautiful, it’s packed with tons of content for both single and multiplayer. If that’s not enough to convince you, well, there are always plenty of Mario games.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Elaborate and beautiful levels are a joy to explore
+ Clever puzzles remain fresh, interesting all the way through
+ Frantic multiplayer requires strategy, teamwork
+ Polterpup!

Cons:
– Disjointed mission structure
– Gadd! Stop calling me already!

Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Next Level Games
Release Date: 3/24/2013
Genre: Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-4 (local, online and Download Play supported)
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.