Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Luigi’s Legacy: Reflecting On 30 Years of Second Place

A year ago this month, someone at Nintendo must have snorted awake at their desk, shaken off their New Year’s hangover and said, “Hey! Luigi has been around for 30 years now. Should we do something about that?” The result was a branding of 2013 as “The Year of Luigi," a hastily-manufactured tribute to a character which Nintendo seems to think nobody cares about. All the marketing focused on Luigi stealing the spotlight from his older brother Mario by adding Luigi-flavoured content to pre-existing games, and releasing sequels to first-party titles in which Luigi plays a supporting role. The attitude seemed to be one of playful mischievousness, hinting that while we want to give Luigi his due, don’t worry – the hero you all know and love will be back in 2014. Well, I’m going to give the downtrodden underdog the benefit of the doubt, and explore why he might just be more interesting and memorable than his extremely famous Bro.

Mario is quite literally the face of Nintendo, and as such, his identity is locked; Nintendo doesn’t allow him to stray even an iota from his established character for fear of somehow alienating a potential customer. This leaves plenty of space for Luigi to change and grow, as his brand identity is nowhere as crucial to Nintendo’s public image, and he remains pretty much the only character in the canon who is an actual character, with a personality, hopes and dreams, and weaknesses and strengths. How many times have I helped Mario rescue Princess Peach from the clutches of the evil Bowser? That’s no longer a compelling narrative, if indeed it ever was to begin with. I’m delighted to encourage games that focus instead on the “lesser” brother, whose few solo efforts stray from the established formula in refreshing ways.

Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon for Nintendo’s massively popular 3DS handheld system is a sequel to the original Luigi’s Mansion, which launched alongside the Gamecube system in 2001. These two titles – in addition to the painful 1992 educational game Mario Is Missing – constitute Luigi’s only starring roles, in each case because the dependable protagonist, Mario, has been incapacitated, and his inexperienced younger brother must take up the hero’s quest. Luigi is consistently painted as a diffident, reluctant hero, which contrasts with his brother’s dependable bravery and unwavering competence. Yet there’s a strong literary precedent which favours the big-hearted pacifist sidekick over the zealous warrior protagonist. Portraying Luigi as a coward only helps me empathize with his plight, and his successes feel richer than those of his brother, who’s been winning the same fight over and over again for decades – saving the princess is now less of a predictable element and more of an inexorable certainty. Luigi’s adventures feel fresher and more innovative, because that’s exactly what they are.

Dark Moon sees Luigi returning to his role as a sort of Italian Ghostbuster, ridding cartoonish haunted houses of their spectral inhabitants with the help of his trusty vacuum. The setting is charming and fun, but it’s Luigi himself who sells me on the game – he’s brimming over with personality. His face is delightfully expressive, and he endears himself by doing quirky things like humming along nervously to the game’s soundtrack. When confronted with a spooky apparition, every part of his body wobbles in terror as if he’s made of Jell-O. Mario is nowhere near as expressive – in fact, he doesn’t express anything in his games, beyond an impossibly sincere excitement about crushing innocent turtles under his boot-heel. Luigi makes a relatable and lovable protagonist, and that does wonders for my estimation of his worth.

Even when he’s not playing hero, Luigi manages to be quietly interesting in the background. In any of Nintendo’s multiplayer game series, like Mario Kart or Super Smash Bros, you can always choose to play as Mario, whose stats are unerringly level across the board – an instantly accessible and completely balanced character. Luigi, by contrast, is also often playable, but with differing strengths and weaknesses (his kart might have a faster top speed, for example, but also have worse handling). This often means that playing as Luigi is more difficult, as the player must overcome his inequities in order to make him competitive. To me, this is a microcosm of the entire thing: Luigi is not perfect, like his Bro; he must try harder than Mario if he wants to win. As a player, I find it more rewarding to pick Luigi, whose success is not guaranteed. Facing those actual, tangible stakes as a team – as player and character together – makes it way more fun and rewarding to cross the finish line first.

Luigi attracts me simply by setting himself apart from the Nintendo norm, which – as a seasoned veteran of the company’s oeuvre – is like a breath of bracing alpine air. Whether the Year of Luigi was a sincere attempt by the company to honour this neglected plumber or a cynical and half-hearted marketing gimmick is immaterial to me. Let Mario have the spotlight – like Dr. Watson and Samwise Gamgee before him, Luigi is a more human hero: one who shuns attention and recognition in favour of a quieter, nobler existence.

And now you’ve got a reason to pick him the next time you play Mario Kart. You’re welcome.

–  Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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