Luigi is the most exceptional, brave, and loyal character Nintendo has ever created. Because despite knowing all too well what others think of him, he carries on regardless.
Super Mario’s World is a look at the characters that turned the Mario franchise into a household name for 35 years.
Every single Mario RPG spinoff contains at least one scene or character (if not an entire subplot) devoted to highlighting his inadequacies, his cowardice, his well-meaning (but always unsuccessful) attempts to be as good as his brother. He stars in a trilogy of games built around his inability to tell if a house is haunted or not. He is universally forgotten, dismissed, or ignored to his face. And that’s only the tip of the yikesberg.
But he’s a hero anyway. Because he lives life on hard mode.
All of Nintendo’s main creations can be boiled down to a core emotion or character motivation: Bowser is evil, Peach is kind, Mario is cheerfully heroic. But Luigi is defined by his glaring, universally-derided flaws and shortcomings. He is treated like a spare, an afterthought, an unwanted requirement for being in the presence of Super Mario.
In essence, that’s exactly what Luigi was created to be. He has never been, nor ever will be, called “Super Luigi”.
Mario was designed as a placeholder avatar for gameplay mechanics. He was originally called “Jumpman,” because that’s all he was good for. Of course, a name, a personality, and an empire followed. But even today, his origins as a cipher for player-directed action shine through his billion-dollar mustache. Mario exists as the avatar for Nintendo’s gameplay-first approach to creating art, and it’s made him a superstar.
But what about Luigi? For his debut 1982 appearance in Mario Bros. arcade game, Luigi was simply the result of another pragmatic design decision by Shigeru Miyamoto. Players needed to be able to tell their characters apart while playing cooperatively, so the Mario character’s red shirt and blue overalls were swapped for a blue shirt and green overalls. Luigi was born, and he was a palette swap.
As the decade went on, Luigi’s only real character development was to become Mario but slightly more difficult to control. From that point onwards, the message has been clear: when you’re Luigi your life is harder, by default, forever. He is defined by his flaws, and we are restrained by them every time we pick up a controller.
Video games are, by and large, power fantasies. The Mario games are no exception. We’re always one Super Star away from becoming invincible dayglo murder machines with our own theme music. Flaws and inconveniences, from a gameplay perspective, are relatively rare. Even the most flawed and broken characters — your Max Paynes, your Old Snakes, your Spoiler Cowboys Dying From Tuberculosis — still control perfectly and achieve superhuman physical feats outside of cutscenes. We inhabit flawed characters that nonetheless perform flawlessly.
Luigi’s flaws have compounded throughout his existence. His slippery, floaty approach to platforming has remained a constant throughout every subsequent generation of Nintendo hardware. But a constellation of game developers have passed the baton from game to game, putting their own spin on Luigi’s shortcomings while still keeping them all remarkably consistent with one another.
Super Mario RPG on the SNES was the first time Luigi’s inner life was articulated in a game, and the standard was set. When the player brings Mario to Star Hill, a place where the wishes of everyone in the world are physically manifested before coming true, you can find a single, as-yet unfulfilled wish: “I wanna be a great plumber like my brother Mario.” Someone looked at the entire unspoken history of the Mario Brothers and decided that even Luigi looks up to his brother in awe. The rest has been collaborative history.
By Paper Mario, Luigi was reimagined as a dopey homebody waiting for Mario to save the world. Its Gamecube sequel doubled down, turning him into a clueless slapstick disaster who wins his own (unseen, lesser) adventure accidentally and with great harm to his own team of companions, most of whom hate him. At the same time, Nintendo officially rebranded him as The Worst Ghostbuster in Luigi’s Mansion, and in doing so this jokey, spinoff-only idea of Luigi The Tragic Clown was brought to life in full 3D.
As a company that caters to literally everyone on the planet, Nintendo has had a bumpy relationship with how it approaches the concept of difficulty levels in its games. From hand-holding tutorials and simplified controls, to items that literally turn you invincible forever, Nintendo’s efforts to make its games more accessible continues to this day. Ironically, they’ve never struggled to make their Mario games harder. Luigi is their hard mode. You only need to look to New Super Luigi U Deluxe on the Switch to see how Nintendo views him today.
Because what’s harder than living your life next to a better, universally-beloved version of yourself? What’s harder than being judged and found lacking on a daily basis because your best will never, ever be good enough? What’s harder than knowing it’s true?
Luigi can jump just as high as his brother-who-is-famous-for-jumping. In fact, he jumps higher. He can run, grow, even breathe in space, just like Mario, too. He has defeated the literal King of Ghosts three times, and was murdered and turned into one at least once for good measure. He’s loyal, he’s kind, he’s up front about his various fears and insecurities, and faces them anyway.
But Luigi’s flaws are so distinct that they bleed into his gameplay. He’s so clumsy he breaks the clockwork precision of Nintendo’s otherwise finely-tuned platforming games. He’s so cowardly and inept, half of the damage you take in the Luigi’s Mansion games is self-inflicted. They aren’t limited to cutscenes or character moments, Luigi’s flaws are there all the time. But his biggest sin is entirely out of his control: he’s not Mario.
Luigi’s flaws might be human and understandable, but Mario lacks them entirely. In a world without his brother, Luigi becomes the most exceptional man in existence. But Mario, of course, is there and will always be there. So Luigi’s light will always pale in comparison.
We all have moments where we feel like Luigi, or encounter people who treat us like we’re him. Times where our best qualities are still quieter than our most obvious faults. Mario was designed to be a perfect catalyst for joy in motion, the literal blueprint for how good it can feel to play a video game. Luigi, via decades of small choices, is the blueprint for how hard it can feel to be a person. He’s the most heroic character in Mario’s world, and his laundry list of flaws comes from a place of empathy, of connection.
I don’t know what it’s like to be Mario. I have never saved a kingdom single-handedly. I don’t receive universal praise for existing. I will never have a parade thrown in my honour or a cake baked for me by a grateful Princess.
But I do have a brother who I look up to. He’s athletic, and brilliant, and has survived more challenges than I ever will. I can open Twitter and feel inadequate compared to thousands of people who are far beyond where I am right now in my creative pursuits, or in life milestones. I have been in personal and work situations where all my good qualities didn’t outweigh a handful of flaws in someone else’s eyes. I know what it’s like to be Luigi, because we all do.
Luigi is insulted in every game he appears in. His only solo titles involve the Mushroom Kingdom equivalent of unpaid pest control. He has no canonical princess to save, no sworn enemy to conquer, and his rival is an elevated meme from a tennis game. (Do. Not. @. Me.)
He is not loved. At best, he is tolerated. Navigating the world is harder for him. And even Nintendo has decided that it’s ok for literally every character in their worlds to treat him like a wilted side salad alongside a ribeye steak. Luigi knows all this. He is often within earshot as he’s being roasted.
And still, he saves the day. He’s terrified, demoralized, and insecure. But he still has all the tools to help, so he does. Every single time.
It doesn’t get more Super than that.
Mike Sholars @Sholarsenic.