[Writer’s Note: Boo actually debuted in Super Mario Bros 3 for NES. The game launched in North America in 1990. The context of this article talks about their use in Super Mario World and on.]
The Super Mario franchise has been an essential part of my life for 27 years. From platformers to sports to party games, that plumber has seemed to do everything. While I consider him very lighthearted, Mario games have been a source of horror since 1990. I’ll never forget my parents buying me a Super Nintendo when I was four years old. As someone who played through the three games on NES, I was excited to go on a new journey with my favorite character. All was going well until something caught me off guard, the Ghost Houses. Little did I know that these levels would be my source of nightmares for a few years.
Boos, Boos, and more Boos
When you’re a kid, you’re susceptible to a bunch of different things. My fear of rats started at a young age, and I’m deathly afraid of heights. These are phobias I’ve had for decades. I had no clue that a Mario game would make me afraid to play some levels. From the dark visuals to the terrifying score to those ghosts with the taunting faces, Ghost Houses were nightmare fuel for me. I hated them circling around Mario, and the ones that followed when my back was turned gave me anxiety. Boos were a nuisance and I hated every time they showed up.
Super Mario World wouldn’t be the only time I saw them. Of course, the notorious ghosts would become a staple in the Mario universe. From something that could steal my items in Mario Kart to something that could turn the tide in Mario Party, Boos were the bane of my existence. They provided trouble for me, both from fear and nagging. Super Mario 64 brought the ghostly foes to a new dimension. While they weren’t scary to me when I finally got the game in 1998, the atmosphere and music were the sources of my fear. Nintendo, for a company once known for its family-friendly demeanor, knows how to create creepy environments. The maze-like corridors of Big Boo’s Haunt in Super Mario 64, accompanied by the sinister sounds in the score, make for an unsettling experience.
2001: A horror odyssey
All of this led to Nintendo’s first genuine horror outing in 2001. I’ll never forget the day that I saw the box art for Luigi’s Mansion. Being a massive Mario fan, I knew that Luigi’s first 3D solo outing was a must-buy. When I finally got my GameCube in 2002 for Super Mario Sunshine, I put that game aside to play Luigi’s Mansion first. After all, the screenshots for the game had enticed me for over a year. When I started playing Luigi’s Mansion, I didn’t know what to expect. Most of the screenshots were dark and had the ghosts front and center. Will the ghosts scare me as the Boos did in 1994, or would the experience just be fun, with a slight tinge of creepy?
The result would be the latter, but Nintendo released something unlike anything else at the time; Luigi’s Mansion was a horror game for children. The GameCube game was a gateway to a genre that is mainly associated with an older crowd. In an industry full of games like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Clock Tower, and Dino Crisis at the time, it was refreshing to see the genre on full display for a crowd who may never get the chance to experience it. The tight corridors, unsettling sounds, moments of darkness, and the overall tone were all unlike things seen in mainline Mario video games. Luigi’s Mansion surpassed my expectations, and while it doesn’t hold up today, it revolutionized how I viewed the genre as a whole.
Conclusion: The scares aren’t ending anytime soon
Luigi’s Mansion took the spotlight from everybody’s favorite plumber and gave his brother a much needed moment to shine. Nintendo must know that people have a soft spot for the haunted mystery. Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, a sequel to the 2001 game, was released 12 years later for 3DS, and a remake of Luigi’s Mansion launched earlier this month. To get fans even happier, Nintendo recently revealed that Luigi’s Mansion 3 is in development for Nintendo Switch.
I’m 29 years old and have been a horror fan for the past 15 years. Nintendo unexpectedly started my love of the genre at an early age. I went from someone scared of many things to a person who braves through horror games. From Ghost Houses to the villains in Luigi’s Mansion, Nintendo deviously made children’s games surprisingly creepy. While older gamers won’t be terrified of these cartoony adventures, the fact that the next generation of kids may discover the horror genre because of the most iconic video game franchise of all time is something special. Nintendo didn’t need to make anything with a haunting atmosphere. Fortunately, the company’s decision to try something different ultimately paid off in the end.