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Character Study: Luigi, the Other Mario Brother

For years, the twin in green was defined by the ways he was different from his more famous brother. It’s time we appreciate him for what he truly is.

Liam Eisenberg

This week on The Ringer, we’re hosting the Best Video Game Character Bracket—an expansive competition between the greatest heroes, sidekicks, and villains of the gaming world. And along with delving into some of those iconic figures, we’ll also explore and celebrate the gaming industry as a whole. Welcome to Video Game Week.

Luigi Mario, the ancillary fraternal twin, has, to many Super Mario Bros. acolytes, always been the more intriguing sibling. For a long time he was just there, the loyal deputy, the spare plumber. Eventually we got a better sense of him. He is fashioned of fragile and sensitive bones and possesses a timid nobility, but also a deference to the natural arrangement of things. When it comes to the pecking order of Super Mario Brothers, Luigi understands instinctively the things we also understand. Mario is the guy. Luigi is along for the ride. And though we most often play as Mario, to be him is an impossibility. But on the other hand, after some squinting, maybe you could imagine being a Luigi. A hero’s pal and a confidante. Even Joe Biden knows what’s up.

To understand Luigi, you must obviously first understand Mario. That is fairly easy to do, as he’s your basic all-conquering champion against all comers. For a noticeably short guy who could stand to lose some weight, Mario has lived a blessed life. He’s the anointed one. The face of the franchise until the heat death of the universe. His reputation is bulletproof. He’s even managed to outlast many of his more problematic episodes, such as the animal cruelty against Donkey Kong, interfering in the internal politics of various lands outside the purview of a plumber, and possibly trying to make a cuckold of his brother by quietly pursuing Princess Daisy. He’s perhaps the most recognizable video game protagonist of all time. Victory after victory has ensnared him in a never-ending cycle of confidence. Triumph is a foregone conclusion. His Italian American pluck and heroic swagger will carry him through any number of perilous castles, caves, or clouds. He will have his damn cake and he’ll eat it too. Especially if an aristocratic woman bakes it for him.

But Luigi isn’t about that cake-eating life. Luigi’s concerns are pragmatic. He’s just trying to get through the day without letting his brother down and/or being killed by a Piranha Plant. Though the glory won’t be his, Luigi is always there, shouldering the same weird burdens.

Luigi has existed almost entirely within the confines of Mario’s pixelated shadow since 1983, but in the ensuing years he slowly began to carve out agency for himself, despite his original incarnation being a mere palette swap of Mario. That inauspicious genesis, of course, makes Luigi only more relatable! So many of us also began our adult lives as “palette swaps” of more interesting people before accidentally uncovering exactly who the hell we really are, who the hell we’ll really be. So it’s been with Luigi. Luigi’s identity has, from the start button onward, been about accumulating a personality based on what Mario is not. In the beginning it was the color green. A bit later, he had a small but noticeable growth spurt, and even acquired his own talent: jumping a bit higher than his short-legged brother. (“Jumping slightly higher” isn’t necessarily an ideal lodestar to jump-start the hunt for one’s soul, but somehow it was enough to get the ball rolling.) His dialogue and voice became distinct. Suddenly Luigi was fully formed: tentative, shyly playful, and, of course, still very, very Italian.

Step by anxious step, Luigi has lived one hell of a life by video game standards. Big brother has dragged him along on dozens of high-profile adventures (though unforgivably, Mario didn’t bother to invite him along for Super Mario 64). Luigi has quietly done his share in helping his superstar brother ethnically cleanse the Mushroom Kingdom of Goombas and Koopa Troopas. He’s endlessly careened off rainbow roads atop a spun-out go-kart. He’s probably found a proper love interest in Daisy (a princess acting as your caddie is typically a good sign, but that is more a guideline than a rule).

The Mario Extended Universe is a recognizable place in many respects. Our heroes are working-class normies desperately accumulating coins to forestall certain ruin; true love always seems to be dangling just cruelly out of reach. Mario and Luigi’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, succinctly sums up the universal appeal of the twins and their adventures: “Everyone is afraid of falling from a great height. If there is a gap that you have to cross, everyone is going to try to run to jump across the gap. These are things that are uniquely human and are a shared experience across, really, all people.”

The obstacles of every moment are myriad and deranged. As in our own world, mushrooms contain great power and help with one’s confidence. Sometimes we hit the links, or are forced to play tennis with bona fide freaks, or convince our friends to start Fight Clubs. And there’s hierarchy, of course: Mario first, Luigi maybe second, certainly somewhere after Mario.

For someone who began as a disposable copy, Luigi remarkably grew into something else entirely, hacking away the layers of bland Mario sameness through the years to reveal a sweet temperament, an anxious disposition, and a nurturing spirit, as exemplified by the Mama Luigi incident. Though the animated Mario laughs mercilessly at his brother for forging a connection with a helpless baby Yoshi, Luigi embraces the role. He’s sensitive. This was the developing consensus of the fans, of Nintendo, and of Luigi himself. Consider Luigi’s found diary from Paper Mario. These brief entries are immediately redolent of the passionate vulnerability common in early-2000s LiveJournal: “Once again, my brother went on an exciting journey. Once again, he went alone. It’s so unfair! I remember the carefree days when we played Golf and Tennis and had Parties” and “I heard a rumor that I actually have lots of fans. Wow! What great news! To live up to their expectations, I want to play the lead in an adventure! Of course, my name would have to be in the title. That’d be sweet ... But I know it’ll never happen …”

This is the lean and radical sensitivity of Luigi Mario on an unvarnished, maudlin display. Fittingly, to heighten the contradictions between the brothers, Luigi’s privacy has been violated by the snooping machismo of his twin, despite Luigi’s pains to hide his diary in a secret basement—this is toxic masculinity in action, and we are along for the ride as unwitting accomplices. Perhaps the public’s near-complete acceptance of Luigi’s burgeoning canonical sweetness slightly manhandled our expectations of him. And so, because we thoroughly know this man’s soul at this point, the Luigi death-stare meme was so powerful because of the incongruity of it all: A brief moment of well-earned vengeance against a world that always has taken the affable second fiddle for granted. Some nice “how you like me now” stuff. Just the idea of Luigi doing something so uncharacteristically dickish melted our brains in exactly the right way.

On a primal level, we recognize Luigi. He’s a stand-in for any number of unremarkable types who tag along on adventures that far outpace their pay grade. He’s like us, you and I, clinging to the second-hand magnetism of our cooler siblings, or our more famous friends, or our more accomplished colleagues. He’s damaged, yet somehow still able to look amazing in the latest Tanooki suit.

Fittingly, when Luigi finally earned his first big solo outing, Luigi’s Mansion (and sequels), it zeroed in on his finest qualities: absolute loyalty to his brother, kindness to (ghost) animals, and a willingness to not only face, but trounce his fear. As FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, and haunted mansions, especially when all we have to fight the ghosts is a flashlight and, like, a vacuum cleaner.” This is the type of fella you want in your foxhole, or the type of fella you think deserves access to a fox suit imbued with special powers.

So many decades since his birth, our Luigi has slowly earned a more organic and magnificent achievement than being related to a super famous plumber. He is a testament to masterfully playing the video game cards you were video game dealt. The lesser twin, the gangly mess with an obvious inferiority complex, he began as an afterthought, but through the years he’s grabbed more than enough quirks and foibles to unequivocally emerge from Mario’s redoubtable, if paunchy, shadow. And now the dang president of the United States is picking Luigi. Considering Luigi is basically a beloved national figure at this point, that’s just good politics.