The fastest anybody has ever beaten the original Super Mario Bros. is with a time of 4:57.427. The man who currently holds that record isn’t happy with it, though. He knows he can do it faster.
Meet Darbian. During the day, he’s a software engineer. At night, he’s a speedrunner who has spent months trying to improve his Super Mario Bros. record—not by seconds or minutes, but rather by milliseconds. Yes, milliseconds.
A speedrunner since 2013, Darbian’s current record is in the “any percentage” category, which allows him to complete the run without having to go through every single portion of the game. He likes to play Mario on the actual console rather than an emulator, but he has the console rigged so it can create savestates that allow him to replay sections of the game quickly. Darbian’s set-up is also special in that it displays his heart rate as he plays the game.
“I get extremely nervous when I approach the end of a speedrun, and showing my heart rate on stream is the perfect way to communicate this feeling to my viewers without having to do or say anything,” Darbian said. “I can just continue to focus on the game.”
The thing about Super Mario Bros. is, beating it doesn’t take very long—so it makes a perfect speedrun candidate. If a run ever goes south, it means Darbian can just start over without losing too much time or progress. “If you’re going to be doing something hundreds or thousands of times, every second of downtime between attempts counts,” Darbian said. To wit, Darbian estimates that he has taken a crack at Super Mario Bros. somewhere around 12 thousand times so far.
It also helps that Super Mario Bros. is a simple game to play, mechanically speaking. “There aren’t any really complicated inputs in this game; it’s just hitting the right buttons at the right time,” Darbian said. “You just run and jump—no need to be good at mashing a button quickly or performing a long string of precise inputs.”
The last couple of years have been a curious time for Super Mario Bros. More people than ever before have been speedrunning the classic platformer, for one. And as more people play the game, the strategies and routes become more optimized, which means that any subsequent improvements on the world record become harder and harder to obtain. In 2013, the record for Super Mario Bros. was held by andrewg1990, clocking in at 4:58. Given that the current record in 2016 is 4:57.427, that means it has taken three years to shave off half a second.
At the moment, the most perfect possible run for Super Mario Bros. isn’t held by a human, however. Using something called a TAS (tool-assisted speedrun), Super Mario Bros. players have determined that the fastest theoretical time for the game is 4:54.03:
It may seem like the humans aren’t far off from achieving perfection, given that they are only three seconds away from the TAS run, but in speedrunning, even a mere second can be an eternity. Darbian’s current goal is to shave the record down to sometime around 4:57.2X. Getting there may take thousands of tries, but he sounds confident that it can be done.
“Speedrunning is an interesting hobby in that the better you get at it, the more you fail,” Darbian said. “While speedrunning is fun, you are almost always doing it with a specific goal in mind: to improve your best time, which gets harder and harder to do.”
Like many gamers, Darbian grew up playing games like Super Mario Bros. Now that he plays the game at such a high level, though, he’s gained a new appreciation of the way the game actually works. “As an adult it’s really fascinating to not only understand how some of these games were programmed but also how to exploit that programming in sometimes hilarious ways,” Darbian said.
Take the record-setting speedrun in the video above, for example. Though it only lasts a little under five minutes, it is full of little tricks that the average person knows nothing about.
There are all sorts of small, granular techniques in a Super Mario Bros. speedrun, from figuring out how to stop Goombas from spawning, to using a Bullet Bill glitch that allows players to skip Mario’s castle walk animation. Darbian goes into many of these techniques in the video below:
Some of the more interesting tricks include:
1) Mario’s fastest speed does not occur when the player runs to the right. Darbian says Mario “will accelerate faster when moving in the direction opposite of what he is facing.” In practice, what this means is that players can make a small hop left then start running to the right (which you can view at the 11:30 point above) for maximum speed.
2) It is faster for Mario to grab the top of the flagpole rather than the bottom. This may sound counterintuitive—doesn’t Mario have to travel a shorter distance at the bottom of the flagpole?—but you’ll note that when Mario dismounts the flagpole from the top, he does the short hop left first. Remember how that trick actually ends up speeding Mario up? Whereas when he grabs the bottom of the flagpole, he simply walks off. You can see this in action in mav6771's video here:
3) The nuances of swimming. Not only does Mario lose speed if he touches the ground while swimming, holding right after he touches the ground also slows him down.
4) The fireworks at the end of the level are determined by the timer’s final digit. A 1, 3, or a 6 triggers fireworks, which can cost a speedrunner time. Funnily enough, sometimes it’s better for a runner to wait for a good number on the timer rather than beat a level right away, because the time lost to the fireworks may be bigger than the time spent idling.
5) Mario can actually wall jump. As Darbian explains it: “You must jump at a wall and have Mario land on the boundary between two of the 16x16 pixel tiles that make up the wall. This is known as the ‘wall-jump pixel’, and when you hit it Mario will temporarily stand in the wall for a frame. If you managed to hit the wall jump pixel AND hit the A button to jump during the frame that Mario is standing in the wall, you’ll execute a wall jump. In the case of World 8-4, this allows you to enter the floating pipe in the second room without revealing the hidden coin block that you’re intended to use.”
Image credit: froggythebob
But one of the biggest things that affects a Super Mario speedrun is something known as “frame rules.” It refers to the way the game is built. Basically, every 21 frames the game will check if the player has finished the level. If the player has finished the current level, the next level will load right away, no problem. If the player hasn’t reached the end within that set of 21 frames, then there is a waiting period until the next check occurs, which then adds time to the counter. The 21 frame loading rule can also act as a buffer: even if a player technically plays slower than another runner, so long as the level is beat within that same frame window, they’ll achieve the same final time for that level. Darbian has an analogy that perhaps will make it easier to understand:
Imagine that the castle Mario walks into at the end of each stage is a bus station, and that Mario must take a bus to the next stage. In the Mushroom Kingdom, buses operate on an oddly specific schedule, such that every 0.35 seconds a bus departs. When Mario reaches the end of a stage, he must wait for the next bus to depart.
When it comes to speedrunning this game, the frame rule means that you don’t have to play each level perfectly to get a perfect time, you just need to play each level fast enough to get on the same bus as someone who did play it perfectly.
Even at Darbian’s level of mastery, pulling off all of these tricks is not a sure-fire thing. Mistakes happen, sometimes often.
“World 4-2 is just a ridiculously hard level when trying to complete it as fast as possible—there are many days when I fail to pass it even a single time,” Darbian said. “After 4-2 you’re then required to perform a number of well-timed jumps to get past 8-1, which I probably fail at about 30% of the time.”
The list goes on. The famous Bullet Bill glitch at the 8-2 mark, for example, is something Darbian can only do around 10% of the time. And if he nails that, there are still other uncertainties in the later levels.
“Assuming you make it to the final room, there’s also the chance that Bowser will defeat you with his hammers,” Darbian said. “There are some patterns where it’s seemingly impossible to survive without slowing down, but it’s impossible to identify his pattern quickly enough so you just need to jump and pray. Looking at the list of everything that has to happen in order to improve my time can be quite discouraging sometimes—but I have fun trying even if the odds are stacked against me.”
As Darbian’s quest to top his own world record continues, speedrunners will keep dismantling Super Mario Bros. pixel by pixel, until they learn how to exploit all of its systems. For these players, the old classic still has mysteries worth untangling. Just last month, speedrunners made a new Super Mario Bros. discovery that explained why they kept losing time during a certain portion of the game despite seemingly playing it to perfection.
“The community as a whole has a better understanding of the game than the creators themselves,” Darbian said. “Obviously the creators wrote all of the code behind the mechanics of the game, so they understand how everything is intended to work. But millions of people playing the game over the last 30 years means that the mechanics of the game have been used in ways that the creators never anticipated.”
“Achieving [a new record] will likely end up being my biggest personal accomplishment in speedrunning, and will give me a huge sense of satisfaction,” Darbian said. “The fact that it’s a videogame isn’t what’s important—it’s that I took something that I truly thought was impossible for myself and worked at it for years and am now on the verge of achieving it.”
Top image: Sam Woolley.