When you fall in love you want to tell people. The cliché is that of the lovelorn gentleman, atop a giant building with a megaphone, declaring to the world 'I am in love'. Today Kotaku is my megaphone.
For the first time in what seems like an age I am in love with a video game. I drop its name in conversations where it doesn't belong, I daydream about it as I bash my keyboard. I dangle my legs idly under my desk and sigh. When will we meet again Luigi's Mansion 2? When will I once again sample your wares.
Prepare for hyperbole. Prepare for a gushing the likes of which you've never seen. You will be drenched in gush. Today I abandon cynicism. Today I cast aside my dull grumbles. Today I profess my love for Luigi's Mansion 2.
Nowadays video games don't have weight.
I'm not talking about metaphorical weight; plot points that feel significant or character development. I'm not talking about the weight of player investment — I'm talking about actual physical weight. The feeling that the objects you interact with, and you yourself, are something more than a collection of really small triangles.
When video games don't have weight they don't feel rewarding. They feel cheap. Somewhere in the recesses of our sub conscious the idea of 'heavyness' and 'quality' is hardwired. But video game weight means more than that: without weight there is no consequence. Without consequence there is no reward. And video games have to feel rewarding.
When video games have heavy they feel tactile and Luigi's Mansion is one of the most tactile games I've ever played.
It's the end result of the game's central tool and mechanic — the 'Poltergust 5000'. As a central tool for interaction the Poltergust is sublime. It's used for combat, puzzle solving, finding secrets, manoeuvrability — it's simultaneously simple and endlessly flexible as a mechanic but more importantly it makes every move you make in the world feel like it means something.
The simplest things in Luigi's Mansion 2 are made significant. You can suck up the curtains with Poltergust, but reeling them in is a struggle. You pull backwards and strain, there is resistance. When it finally schlumps into the vacuum you are rewarded with a few coins. But the real reward is how tactile the experience was. You did more than push a button, you struggled, you overcame, and it felt good.
Combat pushes that idea of weight to extremes and it's utterly thrilling.
If Luigi's Mansion is able to make sucking a curtain into a vacuum cleaner rewarding, imagine what it can do when you finally get hold of a massive ghost, pulling and straining, fighting to break free.
You skid around the room, like deep sea fishing on crack cocaine. The numbers drain in visual feedback and you can simply sense the weight. Suddenly the ghost changes direction, quickly you must reorientate yourself.
You charge up momentum in a visible bar, once you have enough charge you can attempt to suck the ghost into the vacuum in a final flourish. Everything is set up to provide the brilliant illusion of struggle, the thrilling feeling of reeling in something significant, something heavy and tactile. The execution is almost flawless.
And it literally never gets old. It's the most compelling mechanic since Halo's 30 seconds of fun: simple, direct, flexible and endlessly rewarding. The swirling music ups in intensity, you tug and pull and eventually conquer. You wipe the sweat from your brow. You've just done something important.
Luigi's Mansion has expert pacing. As a handheld game it's divided into discrete, easily digestible chunks — 20 minute missions that work well sans hours of context. For people with a 30 minute commute, or folks with a short amount of time to spare, it's perfect.
But within the missions themselves, the pacing is brilliantly managed. It balances slow exploration with frantic combat situations.
Combat is usually preceded with a search. You must explore every nook and cranny of the world. Most exploration reaps reward, so players never feel like they want to rush through the environment. Luigi's Mansion encourages you to take your time — to shine your torch into the shadows, to find every secret.
And unlike other games, where looting becomes a burden — a necessary chore — the afore-mentioned tactile nature of the game's interactions stems any kind of boredom you'd expect to experience. In BioShock, for example, players soon feel a dull compulsion to open every drawer, raid every cupboard. That act is as exciting as scrolling through a spreadsheet, but Luigi's Mansion 2's endlessly inventive environment makes every prod and poke feel like a voyage of discovery. It surprises you. It gives you a reason to explore beyond the banal accumulation of loot.
In the last five years backtracking has become a dirty word in video game circles and I find it depressing.
Almost all of my favourite video games contain a significant amount of backtracking. Metroid Prime, Monkey Island 2, Dead Space, Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past: each of these games uses limited environments in unique, inventive ways. Perhaps a new tool transforms the environment, or transforms something that was previously familiar to reinforce the passing of time, or significant plot points.
Done right, back tracking can be a clever technique, investing players in a game's environment, creating a genuine sense of place.
Reviews of Luigi's Mansion 2 often criticised the game's backtracking but my only criticism of the game is that, in later levels, the game doesn't force you to backtrack enough. Backtracking allows for situational irony (ah, that's what that thingy was for...) but more importantly it makes progression feel significant. When you finally acquire the key/object that allows you to go into that room you've been wondering about for the past two hours of gameplay, it means something.
That sense of discovery is lost in linear trots through dressed up corridors. These games can only dazzle you with visual flair, they can't elicit a feeling of mystery. At its best that's what back tracking does — it builds a sense of drama, of tension. It build a familiarity with a place and then subverts it. Luigi's Mansion 2 does all this with its well designed environments and more.
Luigi's Mansion 2 is a series of charming ghost houses and the second you grow familiar with its surrounds, it gives you a reason to reassess. The environments are small, but impossibly dense, filled with secrets and they reward every single prod and poke. Backtracking is an important part of that delicately brewed formula.
———— It's an amazing feeling. Recently I've only felt compelled to write about video game when they frustrate me, because they're crammed with strange design choices or as dumb as a proverbial bag of hammers. For the first time in months I've felt the need to tell people why a video game is great and why people need to play it.
Luigi's Mansion 2 is a brilliant reminder of what is important in games design and, perhaps more importantly, what is not important. Far be it from me to be the arbiter of what video games can and can't be. Games can be anything they damn well please, but I'd like more of them to be a little bit like Luigi's Mansion 2.