I’m a big fan of challenge runs in games. Often I will be struck with the desire to revisit a game I’ve played before, but the lack of a new way to experience it turns me off soon after I start. The self-imposed restrictions of a challenge run require you to approach an old favorite game in clever new ways. The potential for new strategies, new discoveries, and new experiences help to revitalize a game that otherwise might not grab your attention anymore. Sometimes, though, I’ve played a game so much that even a challenge run doesn’t have a lot to offer me. I love the core mechanics of the game but I need a new context to really help me dive back in, a change more significant than just challenging myself to play in a different way.
This is where the world of fan games and mods comes in. The players who love a particular series or title and see value in revisiting it in a new context make the effort to create their own new experiences and then share those experiences with others like them. Fan games allow us to revisit a core experience while breathing fresh air into it; when well-executed, they remind us of what we loved about the original while also instilling appreciation for the unique spin that a new creator brought to an old favorite.
Over the course of the last month I’ve spent a few hours each weekend playing a fan game of Paper Mario 64 called Paper Mario: Black Pit. Black Pit has a simple elevator pitch: what if Paper Mario was a roguelike? But although the basic premise is pretty easy to explain, Black Pit is a fan game that has a lot of layers. Each week I’ve been able to highlight and focus one of the three major game modes: the Roguelike Pit, the Maze, and the Classic Pit. The way these modes interact and present unique challenges and rewards makes for a compelling new challenge that truly puts to the test your mastery of the mechanics of Paper Mario 64. In this article I’ll be bringing together my final thoughts on each mode into one place, as well as talking about how the overall experience comes together to make Black Pit a fun and fresh experience.
Black Pit’s story seems simple enough at first blush. Mario accidentally falls into the Pit of 100 Trials, a location present in both The Thousand Year Door and Super Paper Mario that presents you with 91 combat challenges interspersed with rewards. He’s not the only one trapped down there, and with the help of characters like Cheato, Oaklie, and Fishmail, Mario will try to conquer all 100 floors of the Pit in order to find a way for everyone to escape together. Along the way, Mario will encounter familiar faces primarily from Paper Mario 64 but there are some guest appearances from other Paper Mario titles as well. I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum here but from a story perspective, the characters that appeared and in what manner they were implemented into the story felt great to me – the final villain in particular wasn’t someone I expected to see but they were perfect in their role as the master of the Black Pit and made for a compelling final boss battle.
Structurally there are four “modes” to Black Pit. Accessible immediately are the Classic Pit and the Roguelike Pit. The Maze is unlocked after you clear a Pit for the first time (this will almost certainly be the Roguelike Pit), and there’s a fourth challenge appropriately called The Black Pit that appears when you’ve cleared all the other modes. Each area focuses on a different type of challenge: Classic and Roguelike test combat execution and resource management in different ways while the Maze focuses on movement tech and the Black Pit is a boss rush. While you can move freely between the modes once they are unlocked, I found that the most natural progression through the game for me involved focusing on specific modes to build up Mario enough to reach specific thresholds in the Classic Pit, which I could then use to make more meaningful gains in the other modes until I mastered all three.
This structure is possible because how progression works is very different compared to vanilla Paper Mario 64. There is no leveling up with star points earned by winning battles. Instead, Mario needs different resources to upgrade different aspects of his combat suite. The hammer and jump upgrades as well as partner levels are all purchased with coins, which are obtained in all three modes but are the primary reward of the Roguelike Pit. Partners are earned in the Classic Pit, and classic is also the primary way you’ll get badges to change up Mario’s build. Upgrades to essential stats like HP and FP come from the spending star pieces earned in the Maze. And finally, every mode features achievement-style challenges which give you star points that earn you star powers at specific thresholds. Every mode is important because every mode is tied to an essential part of your skillset that you’ll need to in order to take on the game’s toughest challenges. With that in mind, let’s take a deeper dive into the modes themselves.
First there’s the Roguelike Pit. In this mode, the partners, weapons, badges, and stat upgrades you’ve built up for Mario don’t matter. You are reset to “level one” and must build up Mario from scratch using resources earned on each floor of the pit. To help equalize the playing field, enemies don’t have defense, allowing you to deal your full damage even with limited resources. In addition to a combat challenge, every floor of the Roguelike Pit has a prize with some kind of lock. Some prizes are unlocked with coins or keys, some require an extra battle, others deal damage to you, and many require a specific upgrade or partner ability. The prizes can be stat increases, weapons, items, badges, or partner upgrades, and part of the experience of the Roguelike Pit is carefully choosing when to spend resources like coins, keys, or HP in order to get prizes that will help you make it to the end. Because the Roguelike Pit resets your stats, it is the most effective tool for grinding coins early in the game because it is the mode that is completely unreliant on how much you’ve built yourself up.
Once you’ve spent some time in the Roguelike Pit and beaten it, you’ll unlock the Maze. The Maze is a mode focused less on combat – though combat does still happen – and instead you’ll focus more on speed. The Maze likely takes inspiration from Hazy Maze Cave in Super Mario 64 and is filled with a poisonous mist you can only breathe for so long before losing health. It is also riddled with traps like crushing walls and floor spikes that you have to move both carefully and quickly to navigate past. Avoiding traps and fighting enemies both deplete your limited time, so the key to mastering the Maze is learning to execute both battles and overworld movement as quickly as possible while also making strategic decisions about when to dip out so you can secure the star pieces you’ve earned along the way. Because star pieces are the tools you need to upgrade your HP and FP permanently, the Maze is essential to becoming the best Mario you can be so you can finish the Classic Pit.
Throughout your time with Black Pit the Classic Pit will serve as your measuring rod for progress. Beating it will likely require all the tools you’ve earned from the other two modes, but the partners you earn from the Classic Pit are also essential tools for beating the other modes as well. Because of this you’ll likely revisit the Classic Pit periodically throughout your playthrough. Bombette, for example, serves as the key to the room where you can spend star points to gain star powers, while Watt’s partner ability is essential for getting the biggest rewards in the Maze. These partners then serve as goalposts for you to work towards, checkpoints to measure meaningful progress through the game and keys that unlock new potential to help you travel farther than you could before. More than the other two modes the Classic Pit tests your ability to fight a battle of attrition, changing your badge build to suit different situations and using resources like items, FP, star power, and health effectively so you can survive 90 floors of combat and a superboss.
The interactions of the various game modes and the ways in which they mark your progression through the game felt great for me. During my 30 hours with Black Pit I always had a clear goal in mind and knew what I needed to work on. Sometimes I needed to focus on grinding the Roguelike Pit for coins and star points; others I needed to tighten up my execution in the Maze so I could get a meaningful amount of star pieces in a single run. I enjoyed revisiting Classic from time to time and being able to see meaningful differences in how far I could progress thanks to the rewards I’d earned in other modes. And the level of challenge felt just right. The first time I made it to floor 100 of the Classic Pit I had 5 HP and FP to my name; there was no way I could defeat the boss, but I knew exactly what I needed to work on to get to the point where I could reach that floor in better condition. Beating Black Pit wasn’t just a matter of grinding enough to get upgrades and items to brute force my way through; I legitimately had to get better at Paper Mario 64.
Paper Mario: Black Pit took me just shy of 30 hours to beat the main story, and for me that felt perfect. I hadn’t really done all that much that felt like “grinding;” each time I sat down to play for a few hours I made meaningful progress that could clearly be measured by upgrades or stats or partners or a boss defeated. And for people who really want to go the extra mile, there’s more content than that. I got somewhere between 50-60% of the game’s achievements, just barely over the threshold for four star powers. Both the Classic and Roguelike Pits featured difficulty modes I didn’t even touch. So if you’re a player who really wants to put their Paper Mario 64 skills to the test, there’s easily more than 30 hours worth of stuff to do here.
Paper Mario: Black Pit really took me by surprise. I expected to play a competent but obviously amateur title, with clear seams in the experience. What I found instead was a well-designed recontextualization that took the essential mechanics that I love about Paper Mario and gave me a whole new way to experience them. I was consistently challenged and engaged; the game did not overstay its welcome and I always had a clear goal to strive for in mind. While Black Pit won’t have much to offer to anyone who primarily comes to Paper Mario 64 for the storytelling, I highly recommend it to any fans who are compelled by the game’s mechanics. Paper Mario: Black Pit gave me exactly what I want from a fan game – a way to play a classic title that I love that feels like playing it for the first time.