Sufficiently Spooky: A Review of Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon

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It’s been awhile since a game has made me smile quite as much as Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon. Everything about the game, from the way that Luigi hums along with the music to the fact that mission updates come at you through a launch Nintendo DS aptly titled the “Dual Scream.” The doorways all have a creepy Beetlejuice quality to them, there are massive suits of armor everywhere, and nobody ever wants to go into the basement. It’s a loving homage to horror movies through the half-shut eyes of a ten year old who hasn’t seen The Exorcist but has seen every single episode of The Munsters. It’s the Saturday morning cartoon version of Tales from the Crypt.

Would Dark Moon be the perfect game for 10 year old me though? I’m not so sure.

Dark Moon eschews the more open ended approach of the first Luigi’s Mansion for a mission driven structure, with anywhere from four to six levels set across the game’s five major settings. The various locations are slowed expanded upon as you accomplish different tasks while hunting for the game’s MacGuffin: shards of the titular Dark Moon, which has been shattered and spread all around Evershade Valley. It’s a basic setup that allows for you to explore spooky locales, suck up ghosts with your Poltergust 5000, and escort Professor E. Gadd’s useless assistants.

darkmoonreview-scaredThe tiny details are where the game really shines. Luigi, the perpetual bridesmaid to Mario’s bride, has no problem being the focus of his own game. Exquisite effort has been lavished on his every movement, granting him a level of personality that his red-capped brother has never really achieved. His constant fear is captured in every tentative glance over his shoulder, the way he seems surprised every time he gets warped into the mansion, and his exasperated sighs of resignation as he realizes that yes, he must go into that creepy abandoned mine.

His character is matched by the spritely specters that stand against him. Occasionally you’ll be given the opportunity to peek through some slightly askew boards or a broken window and spy on what the ghostly inhabitants are up to. You might catch some of the low-end green ghosts playing catch with a helmet, or one of the brutish red fellows reading a newspaper on the toilet. Then there’s the Polterpup, a mischievous little dog with a penchant for gnawing on keys and key-like objects who, despite being supremely annoying, always managed to bring a smile to my face when he showed up.

The different mansions themselves are practically characters as well, loaded down with secret coins and gems that encourage you to explore their every web-covered nook. Practically everything in the game can be manipulated in some way, be it a coat hanging on the wall that you can suck up—unleashing a torrent of coins—or a series of paintings depicting a mouse eating cheese that’s covering a gold-filled hole in the drywall. While the later mansions trade interactivity for more elaborate set pieces, the first level is a veritable playground of ghoulish tropes.

darkmoonreview-spookyhouseIt’s when you’re unleashed on a spooky location, free to explore the wonderful details that developers Next Level Games have crammed in, that Dark Moon is at its best. The kid in me who desperately wanted to go to adult haunted houses (and snuck viewings of Friday the 13th while at my friend’s house) giggled with joy every time I discovered a hidden passageway or tucked away coffin. It’s like being given the run of a low-rent fright show in the back of a pumpkin patch, filled with unlicensed pop culture references and teenagers in crappy latex masks.

Where Dark Moon starts to falter is in its more ambitious moments. Boss fights can be frustrating instances of trial and error, where you’re forced to relentlessly try everything in the room in hopes of discovering how to actually hurt them. The lack of in-mission checkpointing means that even if you’ve reached the very end of a mission, which take 15-20 minutes on average, death sends you all the way back to beginning. There’s also no way to suspend the game mid-mission and come back to it later.

darkmoonreview-captureIt’s an uncharacteristically frustrating misstep for a Nintendo game that’s ostensibly marketed to children. Despite all the joyous detail that Next Level have lavished on Dark Moon, they never quite reach the heights achieved by Nintendo’s internal EAD team, who designed the original Luigi’s Mansion (as well as such sublimely tuned games as Super Mario Galaxy and New Super Mario Bros.) The bosses follow the usual “discover the weakness, exploit it three times, profit” pacing that have driven Nintendo games for decades, but in Dark Moon the solutions were always slightly more obtuse than necessary. Sometimes it required manipulating something in a strange way, other times it took a few deaths before the mechanics became clear, but it never felt quite as precise as in Zelda or other Mario titles.

It’s a pity, because outside of a few spikes in difficulty, the game is loaded with really solid and well-designed puzzles, with solutions that are organic extensions of gameplay. It’s only when players are under attack by a boss that the process falls apart.

Dark Moon’s multiplayer component takes place in the ScareScraper, a giant building chocked full of ghosts just asking to be captured. You can chose either a limited or unlimited number of randomly generated floors to explore in one of the game’s four modes: Hunter, Rush, Polterpup, or Surprise. Unlike a certain recently released title *cough* Monster Hunter 3 *cough* Dark Moon does allow you to join games either locally or over the Nintendo Network. One nice touch is the addition of Download Play, which allows people to download a temporary copy of the game to play locally. At higher levels it can get surprisingly hectic, which makes for a great experience sitting with three friends at home.

I don’t know if 10-year-old me would ever have beaten Dark Moon. As the game loses steam while chugging on towards its conclusion, the soaring difficulty and lack of checkpoints might have overcome the adorable setting and characters, sending me on to another title.

Adult me though? He loved remembering, even if only for a moment, what it was to be a kid again, creeping around a spooky mansion on the hunt for every last coin. Even if Dark Moon doesn’t quite hit the same effortless highs of Nintendo’s EAD designed games, its wonderful characters and heartfelt details managed to make me forget about Luigi’s cocky short brother for a while.

Pixels or Death gives Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon a 4 out of 5.