If only the non-gamers knew what we did with our time. On Friday night, I got on my couch, turned on the Wii and entered the Pit of 100 Trials in "Super Paper Mario." Two hours later, I had nothing to show for it. On Sunday, I tried it again. More hours were lost. But I think I learned something about video games.
The Pit is a distraction from the rest of the game. Most of the Wii title is an adventure for players to steer Mario, Bowser and friends through. They raid a nerd's palace, befriend a town inhabited by Mario-style Cro-Magnons. They go to the clouds to fight evil clouds and they go to outer space to battle aliens.
It's all simpler in the Pit. Down in the sewers underneath Flipside Town, Mario can jump into a pipe and embark on his 100 Trials. Each trial takes place in the same size room with walkways and pipes at the sides, a layout reminiscent of the original "Mario Bros." game that took place on a single playing field. Each trial pits Mario or friends against a group of enemies let loose in the room. Once defeated, one of the enemies will drop a key that unlocks a door leading to the next room. Every 10th floor provides a breather and a choice: continue deeper or bail out. If you bail and want to return to the pit, you have to start from the first trial. It's impossible to save the game while in the pit.
On Friday night, I was on trial #38 when I got my characters killed and realized I had squandered the 23 minutes I just spent battling through the pit. As in most role-playing games, the player-characters gain experience points for every enemy they conquer. Acquiring a certain number of points levels the character up, making them stronger and sturdier. The journey to trial #38 had improved Mario. My failure at trial #38 wiped that improvement out. Had I bailed at room #30 I'd have retained that boost.
How does one justify a wasted dip into the Pit of 100 Trials? Do it again. After dying in room #38, I charged Mario back through the rooms. This time he and I made it to the 50s. I gambled wrong and died, this time because of an evil flower. I tried a third time and reached the 70s. A cloud creature did me in. That last time, I had leveled Mario up a couple of notches, but all was lost — his new powers, my evening.
Many people play single-player adventures that can be saved, at worst, every half-hour. You play a bit and you wind up seeing more of the game. The progress is obvious. Other people indulge in multiplayer experiences that may not always provide progression through a story, but can make a satisfying time out of gaming with friends.
What, however, is the worth of sitting home and not quite getting far enough? What's the point of an experience that renders the accomplishment of the evening back to zero? Does it at least give you a memory and sharpen your skills? Is the nerve-fraying sweat of the endeavor prize enough?
This used to be the only kind of experience games provided. Every game was designed to bring the player to failure. You were never going to win "Pac-Man" or "Tetris." You were just going to hang on as long as possible. The measurement of how long it took you to fail — and how magnificently you managed to hang on before then — was calculated by a high score. That was all a player could show for an evening spent gaming. The Pit is a throwback to that.
But not liking the Pit, being driven to frustration by the Pit, cursing the Pit and swearing that "thank goodness games aren't only made like that anymore" — all that wouldn't quite be fair to the old games. That's because the Pit shows up in new games as well. The rest of "Super Paper Mario" appears to be modern. It's got varied environments and characters. It's got adventure. It even has funny writing (see "GameFile: 'Super Paper Mario' Vs. 'Renaissance.Nerds'; 'Halo 3' And More"). But the rest of "Super Paper Mario" and the Pit aren't quite that different. Bounding through adventures in the nerd palace or outside Cragnon Town — stomping the menacing clouds and evil plants out there — levels Mario up the same way all the fighting in the Pit's trial rooms does. Isn't the game world outside the Pit just another Pit in disguise? If you think of it that way, then how much have new games really evolved beyond the "Pac-Man" and "Tetris" design?
On Sunday, I conquered the Pit. I reached trial #100, which consisted of a fight against a giant white dragon. I barely survived. I was rewarded (SPOILER ALERT!) with the ability to make my characters run at high speeds. (END SPOILER!) A greater compensation is that I don't feel the need to dive back into that gauntlet again. Instead, I dove into the next one.
"Super Paper Mario" has a second Pit of 100 Trials. I've read that it actually needs to be cleared twice. I tried it once and got knocked out in the late 20s. That was enough. I can't play the Pits any more. They make me think too much about what these games are really all about. It's a hole I'm not ready to get lost in.