Luigi flees from a gaggle of ghosts in his first starring role in 12 years.
courtesy Next Level Games

The ballad of the second fiddle

How Next Level Games became responsible for gaming’s favourite underdog

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When developing Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, Next Level Games had to live up to some high expectations. After working with Nintendo on previous projects such as the Mario Strikers series and the Punch Out!! reboot, the small Vancouver game studio was approached by one of the world’s biggest publishers and asked to take on a mighty task: to create the long-awaited sequel to one of the most beloved Nintendo games of all time.

Released in 2001 for the Nintendo GameCube, the original Luigi’s Mansion became an instant classic — its mix of cartoony charm and ghost-busting gameplay won over fans who had been waiting to see Luigi star in his own game. In 2010, Next Level Games was asked to begin work on the sequel, which would be released for the then unannounced Nintendo 3DS. With Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, Next Level Games was faced with the challenge of appeasing fans of the original game while still improving and adding to the experience.

“This is a difficult balance and one that requires a lot of thought,” says Douglas Tronsgard, the CEO and co-founder of Next Level Games. “We had some success with the renewal of the video game property Punch Out!! a few years ago, so we had some experience with revitalizing a property with fresh ideas while still retaining the charm of the original game. What we learned from that experience was that we need to retain the feeling or atmosphere of the original version, and by doing that we could make some improvements or additions to the gameplay and not alienate the previous fans. This is what we did with Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon.”

The charm of the original is still very much intact in Dark Moon — the ghosts are all still brimming with personality, the environments are full of hidden secrets and Luigi is still perpetually afraid of everything. The atmosphere of the game has also benefited greatly from the Nintendo 3DS’s glassesless 3D, which Nintendo wanted to incorporate into the game from the very beginning.

“Nintendo always felt like this was a perfect game for 3D visuals, and were waiting for the technology to improve to be able to deliver a true 3D sequel,” says Tronsgard. “We’re very happy with the results because we feel like it’s a diorama that you can play with.”

One of the people that was the most interested in making a 3D Luigi’s Mansion game was Shigeru Miyamoto, one of Nintendo’s lead designers and the creator of the Mario franchise, who chose to personally oversee the production of the game. Known for his high standards, Miyamoto influenced many aspects of the game’s design, including the newly added multiplayer mode.

“Since this game was made in North America we always think about online play and connectivity, so [multiplayer] was incorporated right from the start,” says Tronsgard. “However, it was Mr. Miyamoto who challenged us to make this a large part of the experience.”

Despite the pressure, Tronsgard says the challenge was a welcome one.

“Mr. Miyamoto himself was very active in the development of this game, so we knew that the expectations would be very high,” explains Tronsgard. “It was a great experience to be challenged by one of the world’s best game designers. This experience was one that every game developer hopes for, so we were more excited than anything else.”

Next Level Games is one of many Canadian studios that has entered into the mainstream video game industry, helping to cement Canada as a major epicentre of game development. Tronsgard attributes his studio’s success to the same principle that has made Nintendo successful for so many years: for Next Level Games, fun always comes first.

“The reason that Nintendo and Next Level Games started working together in the first place was that we both have a philosophy of gameplay first,” says Tronsgard. “This means that the game must be fun before all other things — things like presentation, story and art style are all important, but must always be secondary to the fun factor. So we have always been completely aligned with Nintendo on gameplay standards.”