Just three months into the life of its brand new HD console, the Wii U, Japanese gaming giant Nintendo did something extraordinary.
In one of its Nintendo Direct online broadcasts to fans, president Satoru Iwata called 2013 the “year of Luigi”, which would see the company focus on Mario’s lanky sibling in new games and releases. For a company accustomed to using brother Mario to sell its systems, it’s a brave move - especially since reports suggest the Wii U has failed to take off. Just what’s going on?
Iwata’s not wrong: 2013 is all about Mario’s often ignored brother. Just last month, Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, hit the Nintendo 3DS. A follow up to a 2001 Nintendo GameCube classic, it sees Luigi traipsing a haunted mansion armed with little more than a vacuum cleaner to suck up ghouls, Ghostbusters style.
The game pulls off a remarkable feat of mixing bump-in-the-night frights with Nintendo’s trademark kitchsz, and the reviews have been solid, with an impressive Metacritic average of 86 percent.
That’s just the start, though. Luigi also gets a starring role in Mario & Luigi: Dream Team for Nintendo 3DS, the fourth installment in the role-playing game series due out later this year. He’s not playing the comedy sidekick either: large stages of the games are set entirely inside Luigi’s mind, in a surreal dream world that’s pivotal to the story.
Then there’s a huge expansion pack to Wii U launch game New Super Mario Bros U, New Super Luigi U, which brings 80 “alternate” levels that let you replay the game entirely as Luigi, with new challenges thrown in. Oh, and no, you’re not imagining that, that is Iwata dressed as Luigi in the announcement trailer.
Clearly, Nintendo’s serious about the Year of Luigi. The mascot’s been around for almost as long as Mario though - why is he only stepping into the limelight now?
The Long History Of Luigi
Mario made his debut in 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong, but for his first starring role in 1983 arcade game Mario Bros, he was joined by Luigi. The two Italian-American plumbers faced off against monsters emerging from New York sewer pipes, setting much of the lore for later Mario games.
Back then, he was a simple “palette swap”, the Mario character with green clothing instead of red. He was also relegated to Player Two status: unless you were tagging along on someone else’s game, you never saw him.
It was still the Mario Show, in other words, and things stayed that way through the 1980s. He was there, lurking in the background of Super Mario Bros on the NES right the way through to Super Mario World on the SNES, but always as an afterthought.
His evolution into his taller self was pure chance too: when Nintendo decided that the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros 2 was too difficult for an international release, it turned an obscure platformer, Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic, into a Mario game, replacing the playable characters with Mario and his friends - Luigi just so happened to end up as the player who could jump higher and further.
Nintendo started show the green plumber a lot more love in the early 90s: he was a starring character in the original Super Mario Kart, and in 1993, he played the leading role in Mario Is Missing! Yes, it was an educational game designed to teach kids about geography, but hey, it was a first.
Luigi became a vital supporting actor in Mario’s spin-off games through the late 90s - the voice behind Mario, Charles Martinet, also brought Luigi to life in Mario Kart 64 with his “Let’s-a-go” catchphrase - but he was completely left out of the next major Super Mario platformer, Super Mario 64.
It wasn’t until 2001 GameCube game Luigi’s Mansion that he got his name in the title. He’s had a bit of a better run of things since, appearing in both Super Mario Galaxy games and plenty of spin-offs, and getting his own evil doppelgänger Waluigi in 2000, but the fact remains that he’s still averaging a starring role once every decade.
Despite his brother hogging the limelight though, Luigi’s a fan favourite - and with good reason, explains Damien McFerran, editorial director at Nintendo news site Nlife.com
“Everyone has a soft spot for the underdog, and that's Luigi in a nutshell. He's been in Mario's shadow since 1983, and I think everyone is keen to see him get a little of the spotlight for a change,” he says.
The Nintendo universe expands
Why the sudden focus on Luigi? There’s a practical reason for it. Super Mario is the crown jewel, and Nintendo is still working on the Wii U edition, which it says it’ll show at the E3 games expo this summer.
In the meantime, Nintendo still needs blockbusters, and Luigi can deliver them - it just so happens Nintendo can also farm him out to other development studios (Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon was made by Canadian studio Next Level Games), and if they do a bad job, it’s not the end of the world.
If Luigi’s an underdog though, Nintendo can certainly sympathise right now. The company’s 3DS handheld faces stiff competition from smartphones, and so far, the Wii U’s failed to repeat the staggering success of the motion-sensing Wii. Dramatically so: in January, just 46,000 of the new console were sold in the US, compared to 348,000 Wii sales in the same month of its predecessor’s release. It needs a hit or ten, now, and the company’s turning to the rest of the Nintendo universe to keep them coming.
The new Luigi games, though, are anything but a bad job - and they’re just the start. With new Mario and Zelda games still years out, 2013 could be the beginning of a renaissance for other forgotten characters.
Nintendo can no longer relax, milking its cash cows with new releases every few year, says McFerran. “It’s true that the company has been guilty of relying on established titles in recent years.”
Thankfully, Nintendo’s seen sense, and is digging into the archives for fresh inspiration, Disney style. There are new Donkey Kong and Yoshi (Mario’s green dino ride) games on the way, and even a sequel to Pikmin, Nintendo’s insane GameCube game which can best be described as Lemmings With Giant Flesh Eating Plants.
“I think the wonderful thing about Nintendo is that it has such a depth of content at its fingertips. Mario, Pokemon and Zelda are the big draws of course, but franchises like Metroid, Pikmin, F-Zero, Fire Emblem, Advance Wars, Wario Ware and Donkey Kong are all worthy of AAA status,” says McFerran.
That should help Nintendo steer its way through stormy weather.
“Nintendo has some of the most talented developers in the business, so I'm sure we can expect more original games as designers start to truly get to grips with what the Wii U GamePad can offer.”
Who knows? Maybe by the time the next Mario game rolls around, Luigi will be topping the bill. Either way, gamers win.