Here's some spooky food for thought. Store shelves are jammed with horror games that can (and will) prompt you to sleep with your lights on for days, but Nintendo's family-friendly fare is never far away from discussions about creepy games. We talk about the murdered Marowak mother that haunts Pokemon Red and Blue's Lavender Town. We talk about the sneering moon that hangs over Termina in The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. We even spin off our own inspired legends from these sources. (Look up "BEN DROWNED" if those words don't already make you shudder a little.)
That's because Nintendo's games occasionally serve up a good reminder that horror knows no ESRB rating. Super Mario 64 sends us on flights of fancy in rainbow-decorated skies, but it also forces us to confront killer pianos. We watch Mario "die" in comical ways, but we also watch him drown (and then float lifelessly!) with a little too much realism. Contrasting themes make for good horror, and Nintendo's a master at weaving contrasting themes side-by-side.
Luigi's Mansion 3 for the Switch is another example of "Nintendo horror" at its best. The latest game in the popular action-adventure series about Luigi never catching a break is silly, funny, and—whenever Polterpup is involved—adorable. It's also sparked nightmares about spiders getting up in my face. Luigi's Mansion 3 is a showcase for Nintendo's masterful tone shifts.
Spoilers for the first few hours of Luigi's Mansion 3 follow!
Luigi's Mansion games are spooky by nature. After all, they're about clearing out haunted houses, and Luigi's perpetually nervous demeanor makes us nervous by extension. But the hotel setting for Luigi's Mansion 3 means its creep factor gets an automatic +1. Putting aside our collective memories of The Shining, the impersonal nature of hotels makes them inherently weird. Nothing is permanent in a hotel; hundreds of people, and therefore hundreds of stories, can move through one on any given day. The hotel in Luigi's Mansion 3 is similarly fluid. One floor has you exploring haunted gift shops, another has you lassoing ghosts in a fancy dining room (which I choose to believe is a reference to Ghostbusters), and still another has you fighting against spiny foliage that's overtaken the area. Luigi's Mansion 3 is a good reminder that hotels, even fancy hotels, exist in their own little pocket universes.
Most of the scares in Luigi's Mansion 3 don't make you think too hard, though. Nintendo usually just serves up thematic contrasts, as per usual. The biggest example is found in the game's opening moments. Mario, Luigi, and Peach are invited to the "Last Resort" (seriously, did nobody connect the dots, or…?), a gleaming first-class hotel with gilded halls and fancy rooms. But when Luigi wakes up from a nap, he discovers his friends are missing and the hotel's halls are suddenly dark and musty. Even the complimentary balloons and fruit baskets he received upon check-in turn into floating demon heads and baskets of skulls.
It's creepy, sure, but also kind of cute and funny. As Luigi exits his room, and we see an oversized black widow spider scuttle out of a crack in the wall. This isn't a googly-eyed Mario series spider, by the way; its walk cycle may as well have been motion captured from a nature documentary about Horrible Things That Live in Your Shoe. I can live with spiders if they mind their own business, but the black widows in Luigi's Mansion 3 have already visited my dreams once.
Yeah, it's kind of horrible, but I love it when Nintendo preys on our primal fears. There's another great example of this in Luigi's Mansion 3, and it's where you might not expect to find scares in a Mario game: The washroom. Psychiatrists, especially old-timey psychiatrists, have written extensively about the weird ticks and phobias we develop after we're toilet-trained as kids. Luigi's Mansion 3 reminds us of these with its flooding toilets (no thanks) and occasional clawed hands that spring out of toilet bowls (again, no thanks).
Ah, but those are just warm-ups before Luigi's Mansion 3 celebrates a real classic fear—Toilet rats. I've got some bad news for you, sunshine: Rats can, will, and have crawled up pipes to paddle around in bowls. It's a rare occurrence, thankfully, but it happens often enough to keep the darkest corner of your imagination lit with possibilities. Visualize shuffling to the can at 3 in the morning and lifting the lid to see Splinter splashing around in there. Worse, imagine sitting down without looking, and seconds later something sinks its teeth into your left butt-cheek.
Luigi's Mansion 3 says, "What if that, but somehow worse—and also cute?" There's a scene where Luigi doesn't simply find one rat in a toilet... though plenty of those jump out at him when he flushes random loos on each floor. Here, he enters a hidden washroom, opens a stall, and a dozen rats piled on a toilet immediately turn to observe him with their beady, red eyes.
It's unsettling as hell, yes, but it's also adorable. Look at their curly whiskers and bent tails! God, I don't know what to think anymore.
I suppose Luigi's Mansion 3 will continue to play hot and cold with my worst phobias as I keep on playing. I say bring it on: I'm a big admirer of Luigi's drive to push on in spite of being perpetually scared to death. Least I can do is stick by him.
Luigi's Mansion 3 comes to the Switch on Halloween. Look for our review soon, and don't forget to take a look at our Luigi's Mansion 3 guides.