One of the most formative memories of my early childhood was the day we finally got an NES. After being a studious pupil watching my grandfather play, my five-year-old self finally had his hands on the most powerful gaming console out there. The result was countless hours of my older sister and I playing the amazing Mario/Duck Hunt combo game on an endless loop every which way imaginable. We would play the game upside down to see who could get the furthest, or we would incorporate the infamous player one pause ability to decimate runs at the least opportune time possible.
Screw ready player one. I was all about player two because that meant I got to be the one and only best little brother of all time – Luigi! When it came time to risk the blue shell of death in a Mario Kart match, I was quick to call dibs on my main man Luigi.
Throughout many aspects of my life, Luigi or a similar concept has played a large role. My favorite two colors – his trademark green and blue. Even in other media, I gravitated toward the Luigi character. Batman versus Robin? Give me Robin any day of the week. I read all 150+ issues of his solo series multiple times. Hell, I even married a Robin! These second fiddles could totally be the top dog if they wanted to, but they’re just being super polite and letting their counterparts soak in the limelight that they seem to love so much. So, upon starting a new game in the recently released New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, I began it like I do any Mario game that gives me the option. I picked Luigi.
After the first world, a weird feeling started to take hold. I wasn’t actually enjoying playing as the awkward and tall Luigi. Sure, maybe it’s because the actual gameplay of New Super Mario Bros U Deluxe is kind of stale and no where near as resplendent as other recent Nintendo platformers like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (seriously download that instead), but something else was gnawing away at me.
Some serious introspection led me to several troubling realizations about my recent Luigi-based behavior. Aside from some quick bouts to try him out, I never touched Luigi in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. This was despite the fact that my second most used character was his brother. I mean I was hoping to pawn this off as just having too many characters to choose from in that game, but clearly if I’m taking down challenges with Mario, the most basic Nintendo character of all, then there had to be more to it. Luckily, there were two other recent Mario titles to help me examine things more in depth. Super Mario Odyssey was my 2017 game of the year, and I didn’t even care that Luigi was missing completely until some later DLC that has him giving out challenges. Looking even further back, though, the breakthrough finally came. I played as my Mii in the latest Mario Kart, not as Luigi! Holy shit. Maybe there was a reason no one ever challenged me for control of the lesser heralded mustachioed plumber.
Suddenly, the world around me was spinning. Almost 30 years of undeniable gaming truth about myself had just come crashing down. Was my love of Luigi just a remnant of being a little brother and not because the character himself was any cool? Had I convinced myself that Luigi was awesome to deal with always being player 2 to my sister’s player 1? And wait, was that player one pausing trick game even fun, or was it just a way for my sister to have a laugh at my expense?!!? This unearthed betrayal was somehow even worse than the time she paid me $5 to clean her room and then held a “garage sale” where she netted back her initial investment plus another $3 for good measure.
Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought. Perhaps, I could test the waters with Toad. This semi-comforting middle ground lasted for about two more worlds. Begrudgingly, I knew what I had to do. It was time to switch to Mr. Jumpman himself, Mario. And that’s how the final 5 worlds played out – enjoying myself slightly more as the short and stocky big brother. Sure I’ve got the short and stocky down, but the big brother part just isn’t me.
I felt kind of dirty about it, and then I walked away from finishing this post for a long time. This paradigm shift still somehow felt wrong. In one last ditch effort to confirm my true underlying feelings about Luigi, I booted up New Super Luigi U, where Mario isn’t even an option.
After the first few levels I noticed I was enjoying myself a lot more than in the Mario version of the game. The frantic physics of the game compared to Mario U instantly set it apart. As Luigi, you jumped higher, slid further, and were given much shorter time limits to finish more chaotic and compact levels. I realized I was having a blast because this game celebrated the anxiety and uncertainty of Luigi instead of muting it like Mario U did.
More often than not, we look to video games as a way to escape. We want to be the ultimate hero and romance the princess. We don’t want to be reminded of the clumsy and anxious nature of our actual lives, but maybe that’s the charm of Luigi. He’s how I’d probably act in the Mushroom Kingdom but with much better hops. Reflecting back on our childhood, my sister was, without a doubt, the confident leader, who I could count on to take down King Koopa, and I was the awkward and faithful, yet surprisingly competent sidekick. Additionally, at 4’9″ and 5’4 (and a half!)”, respectively, my sister and I do kind of pull of the Mario/Luigi dynamic. Perhaps my lifelong love of Luigi isn’t just about being a nerdy, easily stressed little brother but also about celebrating all the fun of having a great older sibling.
At last, my gaming life made sense to me once again, and when I found myself playing Super Mario World with someone else the other day, I knew exactly how to begin.
“You can be player one.”