It Ain’t Easy Being Green Mario

In the Year of Luigi, Nintendo gave gamers the hero they needed.

Image courtesy of JD Hancock

On June 22, 2013, the enigmatic Twitter user @dril asked, to nobody in particular, “how dare you fuck with me. how dare you fuck with me , on the year of Luigi.” Clearly, this so-called “Year of Luigi” was serious, but why was it being held in such high esteem?

To explain that, we have to go back to the morning of February 14, 2013, when Nintendo revealed the year’s upcoming games during one of their frequent Nintendo Direct livestreams. But there was something different about this particular event. Satoru Iwata, the company’s president and CEO, appeared against a white background, wearing a green cap: the Cap of Luigi. Other than the hat, Iwata wore standard business clothing.

2013 marked the 30th anniversary of Luigi’s debut, Iwata explained. “Even though he has appeared in many games, he is still timid after 30 years.” Luigi has always been a deuteragonist, viewed only in relation to the accomplishments of Mario, his brother. But on February 14, the most romantic day of the year, Nintendo decided to cast aside Mario and begin a torrid, year-long public affair with Luigi. It was deemed, appropriately, the Year of Luigi.

It was finally Luigi’s time to shine. The Year of Luigi kicked off with the release of Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, the sequel to a cult-favorite Gamecube launch title. But on top of getting a sequel to his own franchise, Luigi also invaded the turf of his shorter, fatter, worthless brother. Nintendo announced New Super Luigi U, an add-on to New Super Mario Bros U, that replaced Mario with Luigi as the main character. They also announced Dr. Luigi, which was like the puzzle game Dr. Mario but starring Luigi, who had finally completed his residency, I guess. There was also Mario & Luigi: The Dream Team, a new RPG released to coincide with a Luigi-themed 3DS XL handheld console. Nintendo had gone Full Luigi.

I should state up front that I did not play any of these games. Yet, I still loved the Year of Luigi. On top of being being fun to say out loud (say “Year of Luigi” with your human mouth — it’s a very good sequence of syllables), I love that Luigi is a total goof. He is usually unlocked as a playable character after beating a Mario game. Luigi can jump higher than Mario but also has less traction when running, making precise changes of direction more difficult. In other words, Luigi is literally programmed to be clumsier and goofier.

Much of the enthusiasm for El Año de Luigi coalesced in the Miiverse, Nintendo’s service that allows gamers to chat and play online together. But the Miiverse is structured in a charmingly idiotic way. For every piece of software on a Nintendo platform, there is an accompanying message board where anyone can talk about it. You can post text or draw pictures. These posts do not, in any way, have to be related to the software.

There is, for instance, a Wii U game called Funky Barn, and the Miiverse section for it houses little discussion of the game and a lot of drawings of animals and disco balls. Even generic services like Hulu, YouTube, and Netflix have a message board, where people — mostly tweenage children — discuss random things (“CAN ANYONE IMAGINE RICK ROSS IN SKINNY JEANS xD”) and post sketches of anime characters. Also, on the Miiverse, a “Like” is known as a “Yeah!” It is adorable.

The Year of Luigi Miiverse is a constant stream of Luigi fans, all speaking directly to Luigi, a fictional character. “My last year was an awful year,” one fan wrote, “but thanks to you, Luigi I saw a little hope in my future! Thank you my green friend!!” Another thanked Luigi “for being the ‘other brother’ (just like me).” Some went with the obvious joke: “Wii want more Luigi.” As far as I can tell (or choose to believe), every single post is made in earnest and there is no ironic Luigi fandom. Posters also set about publishing, quite frankly, amazing fan art of Luigi.

Images courtesy of Nintendo

On February 18, 2014, Shigeru Miyamoto, Luigi’s creator, announced that the Year of Luigi (by that time, 369 days old) was coming to an end. “As a means of bringing closure to the Year of Luigi,” he wrote. “I would like to ask you to leave a comment for Luigi in this post.” More than a thousand people responded.

Why did we celebrate Luigi for an entire year? What was it about this lanky Italian plumber that appealed to the hearts of so many?

Luigi is obviously an also-ran, always identified in relation to his sibling. In the live-action (and non-canon) Super Mario Bros. film, it is revealed that the siblings’ last name is, in fact, Mario. As in Mario Mario and Luigi Mario. That stupid joke makes sense in the context of our nomenclature though, since it would be absurd to identify a group by its most popular member. Calling the pair the Mario Bros. is a bit like referring to the Baldwin siblings as the Alec Bros.

The first game to star Luigi as the main protagonist was 1992′s Mario Is Missing!. Though you play as Luigi, the game was framed as a mission to find the more popular brother. Luigi is not characterized by who he is, but rather, who he is not. It would be almost a full decade before Luigi’s Mansion, the first game with his name in the title.

The Year of Luigi was a subversion of this power dynamic. Luigi became the star of the show. “Mario and green Mario” turned to “Luigi and red Luigi.”

This reversal spoke to me deeply. I also have an older brother; he’s two years senior to me. We went to high school together, and teachers who had previously taught him would often accidentally refer to me by his name. I also ended up going to the same college as him, where our interests overlapped substantially.

It’s tough to try and define yourself while others default to defining you by familial connections; you want to be an individual without simultaneously casting away those you are closest to. For everyone who has ever wrestled with this emotion, they found their mascot in Luigi.

Nobody will argue that Luigi is perfect. Who is? But the Year of Luigi was a concerted effort to stop viewing Luigi as someone’s sibling and start seeing him as an individual, with his own green cap, his own kart, his own golf club, and maybe one day, his own party. I can’t wait to play Luigi Party.

This is not to say that the Year of Luigi was not also incredibly stupid. The event was a marketing ploy. But I suspect that the online gaming community (as much as it can be lumped into a singular entity) rallied around the Year of Luigi because of the hardcore gamer’s history of being judged by others for their hobby instead of their humanity. Luigi is the original archetype for the “outcast gamer” — judgment is rendered on Luigi by virtue of the objects and people that surround him. In Luigi, gamers caught a glimpse of themselves.

The Year of Luigi is over, but those 397 days changed how we see Luigi, and more importantly, how we see each other. The humble Luigi waited 30 years for his time in the spotlight. As one Miiverse commenter put it:

Luigi; a hero for all the neglected little brothers of the world. Determined to get his time in the spotlight, yet hesitant to do the task. Oh, dear green-clad hero: We salute you!

This past January, Satoru Iwata announced that Nintendo had suffered $355 million in operating losses in 2013 and that as penance, he would be cutting his salary in half for five months. The company that meant well and tried to be genuinely different had fallen short. It was classic Luigi.