Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Let's Talk About Challenge Pits

Well there's been enough examples of this gaming trope for me to write a full on article about it so sit down, get some Quavers and read on. A Challenge Pit is an endurance challenge which is typically broken down into rooms, floors or waves of enemies that get progressively more challenging as you wade further into it. At certain intervals there are opportunities to 'cash in your chips' and leave with whatever loot or bonuses you've earned so far or risk moving forwards to the harder waves in the knowledge that failure along the way will result in not only zero rewards, but the knowledge that you wasted all that time getting as far as you have.

Let me clear up something and say that there's a distinction between challenge pits and rogue-like adventures. Some would say that Spelunky is a challenge pit. Sure, there's a pit consisting of many floors but there's never any incentive to call it quits early as scores are logged at the moment of death if that happens but more importantly, a true challenge pit should be an optional bonus quest in a much larger game. Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door  features the Pit of 100 Trials where the series of fights are an increasingly challenging tour de force of the enemies from all of the other areas in the game. With no checkpoints other than the aforementioned 'wimp out' opportunities, the stamina and strategy required to get all the way to the end is not to be underestimated. 

Then you need to have enough left in the tank to take on Bonetail, the hardest boss in the game.
The real burn with Paper Mario's challenge run is that the reward for what is a disproportionately difficult challenge compared to anything else the game has to offer is a game breakingly useful equip item. The power of the item isn't even the issue it's just that I have nothing worth using it on! I've beaten the super boss, which required me to have enough stats, items (and good fortune) to an extent that I could have sent the story's final boss packing many times over. A Sound Test would have been a much more appropriate reward, or some concept art. Super Mario World had the guts to at least say "No more game left, but we've tried to give you something as a reward" with it's alternative aesthetic mode.  They make some kind of attempt to fix this in Super Paper Mario by having two challenge pits and a further mode where you need to take on King Sammer's samurai so if you finish one of them your reward is... making the other two marginally easier? Exhausting if you ask me.

Reaching this fella required more than a few anguish filled, failure induced tantrums
Nintendo, never one to let an idea not be re-used to death. Included such modes into  
both Wind Waker and Twilight Princess games and by making the rewards for success useful in other parts of the game, they fixed one problem with the Paper Mario challenge but created a new one by making them too easy to give them the same gravitas. Another common feature with these particular pits is that there's no element of chance involved with the challenges themselves. Every time you attempt any of these challenges you can know in advance what is going to feature at every stage if you've seen it once before, which dampens the whole risk-reward element of things. 

Even Darksiders 2 didn't fix this when they threw the most recent example of a Challenge Pit together. Randomness would make the player think twice about progressing and is something that can be done more irritatingly. Final Fantasy 7 showed us this was possible with their Battle Square feature at the Golden Saucer. Although not a true Challenge Pit, the player is subjected to random sequences of battles with rank and file enemies, with the added sting that a new handicap is introduced in between battles. What's more, some of the most powerful upgrades can be earned here, the challenge is satisfying to conquer and the powers that you gain are useful tools elsewhere in the game. Surely it isn't asking too much for concepts that were doing the rounds in a game published in 1997 to be implemented in full scale console releases. Then again maybe a bit of originality and suspense is too much to ask of a gaming concept which is borne purely out of recycling old ideas. Actually it isn't at all, but I thought that sounded clever.  

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