Friday, March 22, 2013

Review: Bending Genres in Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon A look into the underpinnings of an unlikely sequel reveals the value of Luigi's spin-offs.

On the surface of it, Luigi's Mansion seems a strange choice for Nintendo to explore in a sequel, especially one arriving nearly 12 years after the first (and only other) entry in the series. The 2001 GameCube launch title was met with resounding jeers and criticism at its debut, disparaged as an insubstantial piece of fluff that exposed the tragedy of a Nintendo in sharp decline. As one of he company's first-ever large-scale critical duds, Luigi's Mansion marked (in spirit if not in fact) the beginning of a very difficult console cycle for Nintendo -- one salvaged by the Wii, though its spectre looms over the Wii U like the snickering apparitions Luigi is tasked with capturing in these solo outings.
Yet this counter-intuitive sequel works; and in fact Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon works not only as a game in its own right, but also in recontextualizing its predecessor as merely misunderstood rather than outright poor. Of course Luigi's Mansion didn't go over well. Every Nintendo console before the GameCube debuted with a core Mario title; we expected to be wowed with something revolutionary as the Emotion-Engine-crushing GameCube took to the stage. Instead, we got a compact confection of a side-story starring Luigi rather than Mario and shockingly light on anything resembling action -- not to mention completely absent platforming.
A decade removed from the expectation and precedent of reinventing games for a new generation, however, Luigi's Mansion was a charming, self-contained title that demonstrated Nintendo dabbling outside their usual wheelhouse. Dark Moon revisits that same ground, expanding on it without fundamentally changing the core play values of its predecessor. And the truth of the matter is that the Luigi's Mansion games are, at their heart, classic point-and-click adventure games. But for its trademark Mario elements, Dark Moon could easily have been the latest Telltale or Double Fine project: An approachable front-end presentation constructed onto a durable, time-tested foundation.
Granted, Nintendo already has a few classic adventure games in its past; the Japan-only Famicom Detective Club series did pretty well for itself in the 8-bit era. Yet while those games were fairly traditional takes on the format inspired by the likes of Yuji Horii's pre-Dragon Quest classic The Portopia Serial Murder Mystery, Dark Moon feels much more like a "Nintendo" approach to the genre. The crew at developer Next Level Games proved its ability to color in Nintendo's with the fantastic Punch-Out!! remake for Wii, but in Dark Moon they've gone a step beyond by creating a sequel that exceeds the original in nearly every way and oozes Nintendo's personality like a poltergeist dripping ectoplasm.
And no, that has practically nothing to do with Luigi shuffling and shivering his way through the dusty halls of a Boo-inhabited mansion; Dark Moon's strength is much deeper. What sets this particular adventure title apart from its peers is the approach it takes to allowing the player to poke around. Its interface abandons menus, lacks a detached free-floating cursor, and barely has any story to speak of after the opening text dump. Progression revolves around discovery and exploration, poking and prodding every corner of the game. When you get stuck -- and you almost certainly will at some point -- the failing lies in you for being unobservant enough to overlook a cord dangling from the ceiling or forgetful enough to fail to remember the switch you couldn't activate at the beginning of the area.
Dark Moon, like Luigi's Mansion before it, replaces the traditional point-and-click interface with a suck-and-blow interaction. Luigi wanders around in full Ghostbuster regalia, but rather than toting an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back he simply wields a bi-directional vacuum and a flashlight. Suction (or, failing that, the reverse switch) holds the solution to solving nearly every puzzle in the game: You use it to pull cords, tear away shrouds, push back rugs hiding secret switches, and of course catch ghosts.
In other words, Luigi's Mansion differs from most adventure genre fare because Luigi uses his innate abilities to work his way through the game rather than relying on a hefty inventory of collectible objects that must be combined in complex and sometimes counterintuitive ways. Just as the stage design of a Mario game revolves around the limitations of Mario's ability to jump, Dark Moon constructs its gloomy mansions and the puzzles within in such a way that Luigi is precisely capable of completing them with the tools he has at hand. His chatty guide, Professor E. Gadd, nudges him toward occasional upgrades to enhance his ghost-capturing skills, but by and large there's no fussing about to be done with inventories and collectibles.
This isn't to say the game offers nothing to collect. Quite the contrary, Luigi suctions up far more treasure than he does ghosts. However, these tchotchkes do nothing more than unlock small, progressive skill upgrades and give players a goal to aim for when they replay a stage. Yet that encompasses a large part of what makes Luigi's Mansion so appealing: For all its adventure game roots, Dark Moon owes just as much of its heritage to Nintendo's arcade legacy -- even more so than its predecessor, in fact. You work your way through each of the game's multiple mansions through self-contained missions, returning to familiar territory to unlock new paths and seek new objectives as the changes you make from one mission to another persist. Structurally, Dark Moon doesn't stray too far from the 3D Mario games, though it's considerably more focused on a specific set of skills and scenarios than the wide-ranging adventures of Luigi's brother -- not to mention rather more linear.
The action game tangents run far deeper than tugging on ghosts with a vacuum cleaner from time to time. Luigi's objectives include boss battles -- again, always with the tools at hand, and always in relatively low-stress scenarios where victory comes through indirect action rather than head-on confrontation -- as well as contemporary staples like escort missions. (They're not as bad here as in most games, blessedly.) The multiplayer mode eschews the adventure elements altogether in favor of a fun, if insubstantial, cooperative mode that resembles Zelda's Four Swords spin-offs if you squint right.
While Dark Moon's deft combination of two very different genres entertains, what really sells the game is the sheer love Next Level has poured into the aesthetics. No lie: Dark Moon looks and sounds better than any other game on the 3DS, and the level of detail invested in its mansions makes the environments of big-scale blockbusters look like sterile boxes in comparison. By focusing on a few self-contained locales, Next Level could afford to cram every inch of the game with interactive elements. Even if most of the game world consists of permanent scenery, the fact that nearly every object shakes and rattles when Luigi directs his vacuum toward it creates a surprisingly vital atmosphere despite the overall gloom.
The dynamism of the environments makes the puzzles far more convincing, too. Where so many other games feel compelled to point out their environments' few interactive points by making them glow, Dark Moon goes the opposite direction and makes the key puzzle elements look the same as the rest of the objects in each room or courtyard. Aside from occasionally pop-up button prompts for doors, cabinets, and certain other interactions, Next Level never draws conspicuous attention to the things you can manipulate, instead preferring to coax you to experiment and explore. You'll leave no stone unturned, and you'll be rewarded amply for it as the game constantly disgorges prizes for the curious.
The audio design in particular demands attention, as it makes brilliant use of the stereo sound stage to provide clues and guidance. The rattle of a haunted tool case or the muffled squeak of a mouse hiding a gem in the walls serve as essential pointers to solving many of Dark Moon's core and optional puzzles. And even when there are no clues to be found, you'll want to listen simply to enjoy Charles Martinet's brilliant non-verbal turn as Luigi. He mumbles to himself, he hums the game theme, he makes awkward little grunting noises as he tries to pry open doors and investigate strange objects. Like the environments, Luigi himself helps bring the game to life in a way you rarely see, especially on handhelds.
Dark Moon's thoughtful design and overall excellence don't just make it an essential for the 3DS library; they also help redeem its unloved, neglected predecessor in retrospect as well. Who'd have thought that the most benighted Mario spin-off would inspire such a compelling sequel?

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