The Luigi Omen

The Wii U is a disaster. Is Nintendo’s decision to bring the lovable green loser off the bench a bad sign?

It’s easy to feel bad for Luigi. He started as a simple palette swap with his famous brother. His name in Japanese means “similar”. He’s timid and gangly. He was played by John Leguizamo. And after Mario rescues Princess Peach, Luigi always gets left alone holding his plunger.

He’s also something of a bellwether for Nintendo’s fortunes. The first game named after him, Luigi’s Mansion, was the AAA launch title for the GameCube, the second-worst system ever released by the Japanese company (and that’s only because the Virtual Boy will never, ever relinquish the top spot). And the bizarre Super Mario Brothers 2, the first single-player Nintendo game with a playable Luigi, while great, is still remembered as something of a youthful indiscretion for the series.

So it comes as a surprise that Nintendo today named 2013 the “Year of Luigi”. In a searingly awkward Nintendo Direct presentation, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata, his head partially obscured by an enormous Luigi hat, announced a handful of new titles prominently featuring the lovable green loser. These games all fall squarely in the “big-but-not-huge” category of in-house Nintendo games, mostly sequels or expansions to games that have loyal, but not mass, followings. So we have Luigi’s Mansion 2, a new Mario/Luigi role-playing game, a new Mario Golf game, and New Super Luigi U, an expansion to the Wii U Mario launch game.

So, what to make of the announcement? First, it seems clear that Nintendo doesn’t have a major game in any of their beloved franchises (Mario/Zelda/Metroid) coming soon. None of the games announced constitute anything close to a system-seller for the Wii U, which has thus far been a total disaster. The brand-new system sold less than 60,000 units in January, according to Gamasutra. In fact, the focus of the presentation this morning was on the portable 3DS system, perhaps an indication that Nintendo feels their immediate financial future is brighter there than with the Wii U.

Also, Luigi enables Nintendo to release stopgap titles that feel like Mario without diluting or damaging the Mario brand. Jeff Ryan’s Super Mario, a fantastic history of Nintendo, reveals a company acutely aware of the cultural power of their little red plumber, and loathe to associate it with negative press. (Ryan has said that he thinks the Wii U itself is a stopgap system bridging the Wii and a potentially transformative next console). Could Luigi be a kind of scapegoat, a way for Nintendo to stay relevant while also shielding Mario from chatter that Nintendo is on the decline?

None of this is to say that the new games will be bad. In fact, given Nintendo’s record, they will almost surely be polished, charming and addictive. But none of them will be blockbusters, and they will likely be remembered the same way as Luigi’s Manion: great games colored by a period of relative stagnation for Nintendo. And then, while we’re playing Super Mario Universe and talking about Nintendo’s return to the top, it’ll be poor old Luigi left holding the plunger.

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