The world of fan games is one I have long been aware of but rarely engaged with. I first saw them on YouTube for the Pokemon fandom – I followed a lot of Poketubers circa 2014-2016 and in addition to competitive battle videos, many would do Nuzlocke challenges or play romhacks of Pokemon games. These fan games varied from patches that added quality of life features and new difficulty levels to whole new storylines created by fans. Later on I would learn about the kaizo Mario fan games often played by speed runners, and last year I dipped my toe into the world of fan games by fiddling around with FE Builder as well as playing a significant portion of Fire Emblem: Vision Quest.
Recently in a moment of boredom I decided that I wanted to do some research into fan games for another favorite series of mine: Paper Mario. I follow a couple that are currently in development on Twitter but I imagined that there must be some completed ones out there that I could try and check out. After a brief bit of poking around the first one I found that looked pretty legit was a game called Paper Mario: The Black Pit. The game has a full-length trailer you can check out on YouTube, and I was intrigued enough by the premise that I navigated the intentionally-vague world of ROM-patching in order to try the game out for myself. What follows are my first impressions of the game.
The premise of The Black Pit is simple: Mario falls into the Pit of 100 Trials and must complete the trials in order to escape back to the surface. If you’re not familiar with Paper Mario lore, the Pit of 100 Trials is a location in The Thousand-Year Door as well as Super Paper Mario. Black Pit is a romhack of Paper Mario 64, so the music, visuals, and gameplay are all built on that system. My first impressions here are based on two attempts each at both of the games pits: the Classic Pit and the Roguelike Pit.
The Classic Pit most closely resembles the Pit of 100 Trials in Thousand-Year Door. You navigate 9 floors of battles and then on every 10th floor receive a reward for your troubles, as well as an opportunity to duck out and regroup before starting the pit over again. As you battle you earn coins that you can take back with you to spend on permanent upgrades for your character like a boost to your hammer or jump abilities, the purchase of badges, or upgrading the partner characters you meet as you descend deeper into the Pit. After each 10th floor there is a notable difficulty spike. If you lose, your drop all your money on the floor where you failed and must make it back to that floor to reclaim your coins. If you die again before reaching them, they disappear.
The upgrades you earn in the Classic Pit carry over into future runs of that same pit. In my playthrough for example, I found Goombario in the first chest along with a badge for the hammer supercharge. I can bring these with me into subsequent runs, making those runs easier increasing my chances of completing the pit on subsequent visits. In addition to the coins you earn, you can also collect star points by completing metagame challenges like getting a certain number of coins collected or buying a certain number of items. While the combat mechanics, badges, and items function much as they do in Paper Mario 64, the ways you upgrade and level up have been modified in this game to make it function more like a roguelike, building your character up over time by doing repeated runs of the same procedurally-generated content.
This is particularly relevant in the Roguelike Pit, the second type of run available in the game. In this pit the upgrades you’ve accumulated don’t matter. You always start with 10 HP, 5 FP, no badges, and no partners. In addition to at least one battle, each floor also presents challenges to take on in order to gain access to items or badges that help you along in your run. Because you can’t build your character in the metagame for the Roguelike Pit, you are a lot more dependent on lucky draws in terms of the resources you get access to in order to be able to progress. However, the Roguelike Pit is also a lot more generous with coins, giving you half of what you earned when you die and everything you earned when you live – even if during the run you spent that money on unlocking bonuses or in shops. This makes the Roguelike Pit your grinding area, earning you coins faster to spend on permanent upgrades that can then help you finish the Classic Pit.
So what kinds of unique challenges await you in the Roguelike Pit? Honestly because I haven’t made it too far past the early floors, most of it is about resource management. Badges or items will be locked behind spring pads that can only be opened by paying with coins, keys, or health. It’s pretty common for the benefits behind these seals to be too good for the early game, so they cost more resources than it is even possible for you to accrue by that point in the run. The types of puzzles expand as you get deeper, though, as gaining your first partner allows more creative options for what you could theoretically be capable of doing.
If you’re familiar with the base Paper Mario 64, you’ll find it doesn’t take long to start discovering unique features or quality of life touches in Black Pit. One such addition are stylish moves from Thousand-Year Door; these are flourishes you can do by pressing the A button at specific moments during an attack animation. While I haven’t unlocked star power yet in my time with the game, I assume that stylish moves will restore your star meter similar to TTYD. There are also a number of menu shortcuts in battle that allow you to quickly open up specific screens with a single button press, helping battles to go by more quickly. And perhaps most essential of all are the badge loadouts – you can save specific combinations of badges in up to four different loadouts that you can quickswap between with the press of a button. These features are great timesavers on screens that you would otherwise spend a lot of time on due to the combat-focused nature of this game.
Now if you’re someone who has never played Paper Mario 64, I wouldn’t say there’s much here for you. The game is not tutorialized except for features that are brand new to Black Pit; it is assumed you know how to use the game’s action commands, what functions the various partners have, and that you’ll recognize the items and badges and know how to take advantage of them. Given the nature of the game as a fan game and a patch applied to the original, I think it makes sense to assume that most of the players will be series veterans. Still, it’s something worth thinking about if it has been quite some time since you’ve played. If you don’t have good block timings, for example, the Roguelike Pit is going to present a serious challenge even on the base difficulty. For those who really want to push themselves, you can increase enemy health and damage by 50%.
Overall, Paper Mario: The Black Pit is an interesting way to experience the mechanics of Paper Mario 64 but recontextualized and with some nice quality of life touches. I find the Roguelike Pit a bit too on the random side for my tastes and the coin cost on the upgrades to the Classic Pit too steep, but the premise is fun and I feel like the game probably gets more interesting once you’ve built up enough to make progress into deeper sections of the Pit and can try different strategies out. I’m curious to try out more and as far as fan games go, this feels like a pretty solid start for my foray into the world of Paper Mario.