This article was originally written in May of 2015 and may be updated in the future.
In the opening scene of “Super Mario 3D World,” the player gets a glimpse of the game’s four heroes and some good insight on their personalities. Bowser’s at it again, only this time he’s kidnapped seven magical princesses called Sprixies and dominated each of their castles. After Bowser dives down a mysterious warp pipe, captured Sprixie in tow, our heroes follow thusly: Peach, clumsy damsel that she is, falls into the pipe by accident; Mario and Toad, selfless hero and devoted flunky respectively, jump in after her without hesitation.
The last character to go down the warp pipe is Luigi. It seemed to me like he’d realized that he has been left alone, and that thought scared him more than the possible danger that lay in store before him.
I have been grappling with the fact that I have some deep-seated anxiety issues that have been a part of me for so long that I never even noticed they were there. As of writing this article, I am on no medication and I have no therapist. I know I should look for one, but the old excuses — money, time fear of the unknown — have kept me from doing so. Also, my brain has not fully accepted that help is necessary. I have gotten very good at managing my anxiety by myself. My friends help. Doing things I think are useful to others helps. And most of the time, video games help.
However, I find it hard to identify with most video game heroes. They’re created to be strong, fearless, unsinkable. Mario, for example, puts himself in danger daily, no questions asked. Why? Does he do it for glory? Fame? A chance to save Peach’s sweet ass one more time? A selfless hero’s motives always feel suspicious to me. There has to be something they’re getting out of saving the day so much.
That being said, I feel a certain amount of affection toward the other Mario brother. The shy one, the simple one, the awkward one. When I think about the kind of hero I want to be, I think about Luigi.
When “Super Mario Bros” was introduced on the NES in 1985, the Mario Brothers themselves didn’t have personalities to speak of. Mario, in red, was Player One and Luigi, in green, was Player Two. For completely arbitrary reasons, Mario is the one who gets to travel the map first.
In subsequent games, the developers gave Luigi traits that made him stand out, mostly related to gameplay. In “Super Mario Bros 2”, for example, he can jump really high. In “Super Smash Bros” he has the same move set as Mario (mostly), but he’s a little lighter and harder to control. But by the time these physical traits were put in place, players were already accustomed to choosing the shorter, stouter brother. Mario didn’t have special powers, but he was solid, dependable — your go-to choice for Player One.
At some point, the folks at Nintendo noticed that Luigi had a substantial cult following (after all, lots of people identify with Player Two), and they made efforts to fine-tune his personality, casting Luigi as a put-upon but loveable sidekick for Mario. The Mario RPGs, specifically the Paper Mario series and the Mario and Luigi handheld adventures, shouldered the bulk of these additional traits. With more focus on dialogue and story as part of the gameplay, Luigi was allowed space to grow without necessarily being part of the spotlight.
Luigi makes his first appearance as a comedic foil to Mario in “Paper Mario” for the N64. You can find him waiting at the house he and Mario share, and with a bit of ingenuity, you can find his secret diary in the basement.
I’ve tried to keep diaries many times in my life, and even though I consider myself a writer I have a hard time consistently documenting my own life. Luigi’s diary reminded me a lot of the ones I used to keep as a child. At first, its mere existence is cause enough for celebration (Luigi writes in his first entry about how proud he is that he’s hidden the diary someplace Mario will NEVER find it), and Luigi tries his best to write regularly about things he’s passionate about. We learn in the first few entries that Luigi is somewhat resentful of the fact that Mario is called upon to go on adventures while Luigi has to stay at home. Luigi never expresses a desire to be a hero — he just wants to see the world, do cool things like ride Cheep-Cheeps and take care of Yoshi kids, maybe one day meet some people who can know him as “Luigi” and not “Mario’s brother”.
However, like my own diaries, Luigi’s diary runs out of steam. He writes in spurts, more often than not about things that Mario is doing instead of what his life is like. When Luigi does write about himself, he betrays the simplicity of his life as well as his lack of ambition. In one entry, Luigi has a moment of panic after writing down what he’d wish for upon a shooting star. He is embarrassed by the wish and tries to erase it, but you can still make out what he had written down in faded letters.
“My wish,” Luigi writes, “is to sleep in the top bunk bed.”
Such a simple wish. Why doesn’t he just ask Mario if he can sleep in the top bunk?
Maybe Mario would think it was a stupid thing to ask for and laugh.
Luigi becomes a recurring character in the Paper Mario franchise, and gradually becomes a more active ingredient in the game’s story. In “Paper Mario and the Thousand-Year Door”, Luigi goes on his own adventure that runs parallel to your own. You can ask him about it and he’ll tell you the details — and interestingly enough, Luigi’s sidekicks will tell you the parts he left out or exaggerated. Luigi has pride, and will often neglect to say things that will portray him in a weak or cowardly light.
Something poignant and sad always happens when you ask Luigi about his quest, though. After Luigi relates around a paragraph of text, Mario will give a big yawn. After a second paragraph, Mario will fall into a noisy sleep.
Every. Damn. Time.
If Luigi notices his brother’s blatant disregard for his opinions and experiences, he pays no attention. He seems content to talk over Mario’s snoring, excited to hash out the details of his turn as the hero of a game nobody will get to play.
Luigi has an active fantasy life, which is not uncommon for people with anxiety disorders. As such, many of the games featuring Luigi include different, fantastical versions of him.
In “Super Paper Mario”, Luigi is brainwashed into becoming an ally to evil named “Mr. L”, a suave and mysterious thief who thwarts your attempts to collect pure hearts and save the world. “Mr. L” is a largely ineffectual villain, but he’s much more confident than Luigi, perhaps because in his addled state he’s found a cause to follow. His confidence at times approaches self-infatuation; Mr. L routinely boasts about his prowess as a fighter, and when he interacts with Princess Peach, he will flirt with her. Although Luigi doesn’t have agency when he becomes “Mr. L”, it can be inferred that the alter-ego is based off of Luigi’s own imaginings.
Another incarnation of Luigi can be seen in “Mario and Luigi: Dream Team”. The mechanics of this game involve the player, as Mario, entering a mystical dreamscape using Luigi’s dreams as a transport system. In addition, an imaginary version of Luigi, known as “Dreamy Luigi,” exists in the dreamscape to help you overcome obstacles. “Dreamy Luigi” is described as being slightly stronger, handsomer, and sporting a more luxurious mustache than Luigi does in real life, but otherwise he’s not all that much different — Luigi has enough confidence in himself to like the way he is, in other words, but has specific ideas about what could be made better. “Dreamy Luigi” also possesses the ability to perform Luiginary Acts, which allow him to become one with trees, have power over wind, and even on occasions give him the ability to multiply or grow large in order to help Mario progress.
Luigi’s fantasies of himself involve him becoming a man of action, someone who is essential to the task at hand. He dreams of being someone Mario can’t do without, instead of the clumsy “man in green” as he’s referred as several times throughout the “Mario and Luigi” series.
In “Dream Team” we also get a glimpse of Luigi’s fears. In the deepest part of the dreamscape, Luigi fades into the fabric of space and his thoughts become one with the surroundings. The thoughts that crop up the most are thoughts of protecting Mario from bad guys, of helping him, of calling his name.
One phrase, however, echoes through the void, slipped in amongst brave words, as though it’s afraid to be seen: “Don’t leave me.” “Don’t leave me.”
It’s interesting that when Luigi does finally get his own game, the plot involves him fighting his personal fears instead of an all-consuming evil. We learn from his diary in “Paper Mario” that Luigi is scared of ghosts, but another event occurs in both of the Luigi’s Mansion titles — the rescue of Mario.
In both “Luigi’s Mansion” and the sequel “Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon”, Mario is the secret prize of the adventure. You only discover this halfway through the main storyline; before the reveal, Luigi fights ghosts using a glorified domestic appliance all by his lonesome (Sure, E. Gadd is around, but he mostly watches from relative safety, stopping short of doing things that are actually helpful). Saving Mario is an afterthought for Luigi; he does this because of the same reason he rids mansions of ghosts — because he’s asked to.
In “Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon”, Luigi only has a few lines of dialogue — most of them variations of the phrase “I’ll do it”. Luigi, however freaked out he is by the proceedings in the valley, proves eager to please and willing to fulfill whatever tasks he’s given, especially if they involve doing his actual job: plumbing. Luigi’s not scared of adventure — he’s only scared of ghosts.
Luigi’s afraid of ghosts, I posit, because Luigi fears becoming one, or because he feels like one compared to his brother. No matter where Luigi goes, he can’t shake Mario, can’t extricate himself from Mario’s reputation, cannot be his own man. Even when he goes on adventures of his own, they end up being about Mario at the end of the day.
When Luigi rescues Mario from King Boo (for a second time, mind you), Mario’s response is so blasé that I could scarcely believe what I was seeing upon beating the game. After Luigi springs him from his oil canvas prison, Mario brushes the dust from his overalls, meets Luigi’s eyes, gives him a shit-eating grin and tells him the following:
“Luigi! You did it! You saved Mario! Good job!”
First of all, Mario, referring to yourself in the third person when you’re talking to your brother makes you sound like an asshole. Secondly, Luigi doesn’t need your patronization. I just spent ten hours trying to turn psychotic ghosts back into friendly ones and managed to save your ass in the process. I’m not asking for a kiss on the cheek or anything, but how about a “thank you” instead of a pat on the back?
As the other consequences of beating the game happen around you and the valley turns back to normal, Mario continues to get on my nerves by making everything about him. “That’s my bro!” he crows, placing a hand on Luigi’s shoulder, as if reminding his brother that despite his recent accomplishments, he will never be good enough to be recognized for his own merits, only in relation to Mario, the only hero the Mushroom Kingdom needs.
At best, Mario is oblivious to his hold on Luigi’s psyche. At worst, he’s actively engaging in a long-term con to make Luigi dependent on him and make sure he never attempts to enter the hero biz himself. Either way, the results of his abuse are clear to see; Luigi responds to Mario’s words like a child who’s so unused to praise that he doesn’t know what to do with it once he gets some. He looks down at the ground, clutches his vacuum tightly and manages a stuttering “Thanks, Mario”.
The unwise observer might characterize this behavior as bashful, or humble. I can only think about how in college, whenever an instructor called me “brave” or “strong” or said they were proud of me, my eyes would well up with tears and my heart would sink. It’s not a matter of humility. It’s about the deep belief that when people tell me I have done something well that they are wrong.
I think it’s messed up that Luigi is the one thanking Mario when Luigi did all the work. I think it’s sad that Luigi can’t bring himself to feel proud of his efforts. And I think it’s interesting that Luigi’s true reward for all his hard work isn’t a kiss from a princess, or fireworks — it’s the fact that he gets to go home to live in peace and quiet.
Luigi manages to complete the hero’s journey without feeling like a hero. How amazing. How true.
I don’t trust selfless heroes. I suspect their motives are somehow linked to maintaining their self-worth, or sense of status. When you beat a Mario game, you get a kiss, or a cake, or a festival thrown in your honor. It feels strangely contractual. As if to Mario, the prizes are the best part of the journey.
I don’t feel that way about Luigi. When I play as Luigi, I am right there with him every step of the way. I experience his fear and trepidation as he inches towards success, seeing everything that could go wrong along the way. In a way, when Luigi is my protagonist, I take on the role of the voice inside him that urges him to carry on. I’m not a puppet master forcing Luigi into danger against his will — I AM his will.
And by taking on this role of a guardian angel, or personification of bravery and drive, I find it easier to see the part of myself that wants to accomplish great things, the part of myself that pushes through fear and anxiety and gets shit done.
Luigi teaches me that it’s all right to be afraid of the future. He also teaches me that a real hero doesn’t let fear stand in his way.
Hollis Beck is an actor and writer who crafts narratives about queer identity, found family, and people who try very hard. Recent news can be found on her personal website, hollisbeck.com.