Mastering the Maze – My Next Phase of Paper Mario: Black Pit

I’ve been playing a fan game by the name of Paper Mario: Black Pit for a couple of weekends now. It’s a romhack of Paper Mario 64 that makes the game into a roguelike centered around The Thousand-Year Door’s Pit of 100 Trials. It also adds new mechanics to the game and changes how character progression works. During my last session I devoted a lot of my energy to the first major game mode you’ll be able to spend time in – the Roguelike Pit. The purpose of that challenge is to grind for gold which you can then spend to improve Mario’s main attacks as well as giving attack boosts and additional moves to the partner characters. Beating the Roguelike Pit also has another purpose – it unlocks a location in the game called simply the Maze, a new challenge to take on with new rewards to find. When I first unlocked the Maze I was eager to jump in – I suspected this would be the area that finally gave me the ability to give Mario essential boosts to HP and FP – but it turned out I had a few things I needed to knock out before I would be ready.

The Maze has two initial hurdles to deal with as you enter. One is an oxygen timer. The Maze is full of a deadly mist (a la Hazy Maze Cave in Mario 64, perhaps?) which deals damage to you over time once you’ve breathed in too much. This means you are on a timer when navigating the Maze, and when you first unlock it that timer is woefully short. When you walk into the maze there’s a small path blocked in places by crumbled pillars or rubble, and I could easily lose a third of my oxygen just there if I wasn’t carefully and moving optimally through the space. The next room is a sort of main lobby with two open doors and a sealed door, two big treasure chests and a special chest with symbols on it, as well as two enemy encounters. My second obstacle, then, were the enemies. The enemies in the Maze were high level foes from around chapters 5-7; we’re talking 3-5 attack power and as much as 15 HP for some foes. While I had Mario and Goombario fully upgrades in terms of damage, I couldn’t take many hits of that level of power and I didn’t have anything useful for clearing a screen of enemies at once. So I needed to train up before I felt I could return to the Maze.

This small shrine serves as the location where you worship the star spirits to gain their power, but you need Bombette to unlock it. This means it is only available after clearing 30 floors of the Classic Pit.

At the end of my last article I briefly mentioned a concept that became of great importance in my Maze preparation: star power. Like Paper Mario 64, in Black Pit Mario can gain access to powers from the star spirits that give him an edge in battle. Unlike in Paper Mario 64, the way they are unlocked is through star points earned by meeting specific conditions. They are, in essence, rewards for getting achievements. These achievements vary in complexity and value from “get a Stylish move for the first time” to “complete the Roguelike Pit on Very Hard difficulty.” As you hit thresholds in your total number of star points, you unlock new star spirit abilities. The one I knew I needed to be able to make a dent in the Maze was the level 3 ability “Star Storm,” but since I only had reached level 2 I would need to go back to the Roguelike Pit and start grinding again. Only this time I wouldn’t be grinding for coins, but for achievements.

This required a different and more hazardous approach to the way I was playing the game. Many of the achievements are related to self-imposed challenges or to accomplishing certain goals a number of times. For example, I needed to spend 100 HP on damage-inflicting padlocks, so I started opening every one of those suckers I could find whether they were guarding a good item or not. I also needed to use the services of “helpers” in the Roguelike Pit who give you a bonus in exchange for some kind of penalty, such as getting a badge at the cost of HP or FP or getting a coin multiplier at the cost of your partner’s ability to attack. Aggressively using these features caused me to die a lot more in the Roguelike Pit but it accomplished my ultimate goal: I got enough star points to get a big offensive move to bring with me into the Maze. Against the right group of enemies – stuff like gloombas and ruff puffs instead of duplighosts and phantom embers – I could use Star Storm to effectively clear the screen and actually get past some enemies in the first chamber of the Maze.

I mentioned that in the initial room of the Maze, there are three different chests: one with special symbols and two large but otherwise normal chests. You can’t open the two normal chests without beating the enemies in the room, but once you clear them out you can open the chests and claim the reward inside: star pieces. Star pieces are the primary reward of the Maze and you have to be careful with them – if you die before you escape, you lose all of star pieces you’ve collected during that particular run of the Maze. With my limited oxygen and low power, I was only able to reliably clear the first room and leave with about 40-50 star pieces at a time. But that was enough to start grinding, and once the grind is going it’s only a matter of time before you build up the resources to make some real progress.

Star Storm deals 7 defense-piercing damage to every enemy on screen. Against a group of enemies like this one, it’s enough to essentially clear the battle in a single turn.

Outside of the entrance to the Maze is what appears to be a machine covered over with a tarp. On the tarp is a sign as well as four unusual objects – three circular emblems with red diamonds and a blue-ish crystal. These don’t appear to do anything initially but once you have star pieces, you learn that you can use them to take these suckers off when you have enough. The circular emblems are Mist Badges, which increase the amount of oxygen you have when maneuvering through the Maze. This opens the way to make more progress there. The gem is the key to the locked door inside the main lobby of the Maze, and it leads to an area I’ve been hunting for the whole game: the room where you upgrade Mario’s stats. Scattered throughout the chamber are large chests marked with star piece costs. Pay the cost and you increase your HP or FP based on the amount of star pieces spent. Now we’re cooking, I thought. Mastering the Maze meant finally gaining the tools I needed to push deeper into the Classic Pit.

Speaking of the Classic Pit, I did pay it a visit after my first stat upgrades – partly out of a misunderstanding of how to deal with the traps in the Maze. Even with just a +5 boost to my HP and FP stats, that combined with level 3 star power and a fully upgraded Mario arsenal allowed me to push all the way to level 50 of the Pit. I was trying to reach Bow, the boo partner whose Vanish ability allows you to become intangible and avoid obstacles in the overworld. However, while the big chests on each floor normally give a partner, the chest on the 50th floor instead gave me the Strange Sack, which doubles your inventory size. It was a nice reward but not the one I was hunting, and I was momentarily dejected as I realized that I’d have to keep grinding just the main lobby of the Maze until I got enough HP and FP to reach Bow…or so I thought.

You see, unlike the two Pits I’d played up to this point, the Maze isn’t just about battles. The two rooms on either side of the upgrade room in the main lobby lead to trap rooms. Deadly spikes or smashing walls wait to eagerly ruin Mario’s day, stripping him of life and star pieces and sending him back to the beginning of the Maze. “Ah,” I said, “I need Bow here to dodge these obstacles.” But that isn’t the case, because you can’t use partner abilities in these rooms at all. The Maze – with its oxygen limit and overworld traps – is actually a test of your ability to optimize movement and find safe patterns through hazards. I didn’t need Bow to get deeper in the Maze; I just needed to learn when to be fast and when to slow down, and learn to path carefully and move optimally in order to make the most of my limited oxygen.

Please pay no mind to the wall of spikes threatening to skewer Mario alive.

There are two main types of trap rooms in the Maze: spikes and walls. The red spike traps feature long sections of floor dotted with threatening holes out of which red spikes will pop out to stab you at regular intervals. The spikes aren’t an instant kill; they deal 10 damage, though, as well as putting you back at the beginning of the room and costing you time. Because they move in a predictable pattern, taking a second to learn that pattern and then moving through them without getting stabbed isn’t too much of a challenge as long as you are willing to slow down. The walls, as far as I have been able to tell so far, are always an instant kill. At regular intervals they pop out and crush you. In most rooms where they appear, you want to wait until they pop out for the first time and then after they disappear, use your spin dash and jumps to move quickly through the space before the wall pops out again.

While the traps themselves function essentially the same regardless of the room, the room shape can also influence the degree of challenge. Some rooms are one long path through the traps while others have walls with safe sections in between where you’ll need to take shelter halfway through. The traps rooms sometimes have treasure chests with star pieces in them, and making a brief stop to scoop up the star pieces is important for more than just saving up towards your next upgrade; each chest also contains a slight oxygen refill. This is how you make truly meaningful progress in the Maze: as you move from room to room opening chests, you’re not only collecting star pieces but also storing your oxygen. Can you progress fast enough to beat the timer and get all the chests in the Maze open? That is the essential challenge the Maze presents. Of course, your progress is also barred by enemies, and battles are easily the most time consuming part of the Maze for me right now. Well, battles and fuzzies.

There’s one final room type in the maze I haven’t touched on yet. If you’ve played Paper Mario 64 you may remember the segment in the Koopa Village where the whole place is overrun by fuzzies, who hop around in the overworld and need to be driven off by bonks of your hammer. Occasionally in the Maze there are rooms with three fuzzies jumping around a treasure chest. You have to knock out all three fuzzies to open the chest, but those suckers are jumping all over the place and are quite tricky to hit with your hammer. After a few Maze runs I am starting to see strategies I can employ; the fastest fuzzy, for example, never stays in place for long but has a short cycle of static positions they jump between, so you can find a spot where they typically land and hammer them as they fly in from somewhere else. But while the fuzzy chests are twice as rewarding as normal chests, it is still my least favorite room type to find in the Maze.

It is honestly wild how much of a boon a simple 5 HP increase ended up being for my progress.

At the time of writing, I’ve just gotten to the point where I can really engage with the Maze not just in short bursts for grinding but in legitimate attempts to clear the mode. I’ve only got 10 FP but my HP is up to 25, and I’ve gathered enough coins to get Kooper as well as one more partner I haven’t chosen yet upgraded to max level. I have all the Mist Badges, which means my oxygen is as good as it is going to get. While I can still learn to clear the Maze faster by finding more appropriate partners for the battles and increasing their damage as well as getting badges that help me clear screens quicker in battle, the main barrier between myself and total Maze domination at this point is execution, not resources. Pushing through the Maze to max out my stats so I can really make a deep dive into the Classic Pit is my next goal.

It’s hard to say where I am at exactly in Black Pit in terms of progress. A third of the way through? Closer to halfway? But what I appreciate about the game is that it has good measures of meta progress that I can use to see that I’m truly beginning to master the game. I suspected that once I unlocked the Maze that the momentum of the game would really pick up and that suspicion turned out to be correct. I’ve made a lot more progress in this weekend’s play sessions than I did during the previous weekend and in a shorter amount of time. I want to ride that momentum to a full clear of the Maze and then make a concentrated push into the Classic Pit – not just to get a specific partner or to farm some badges, but to truly clear it out and complete the game’s “main story,” such as it is. I continue to be impressed with Paper Mario: Black Pit’s quality as a fan project, and I’m looking forward to my next leg of adventure with the game.

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