I am many things, but I am not a speedrunner. I didn’t get taught this skill over my many years of playing video games, Mario games in particular.
But I often find myself watching speedrunning videos, in awe of the fancy footwork and efforts to save individual frames that are common on Super Mario Bros. in particular. Speedruns follow a fairly common arc, in which the creator, often a livestreamer, is chatting with his viewer base, but then once they realize they’re getting close to something special, they stop talking about nachos and start focusing on the game. Many speedrunners also list their heart rate, showing the rush of energy and pressure in real time. It makes for compelling watching.
In recent years, the focus in the original Super Mario game, from a speedrunning perspective, has been to cut fractions of time wherever possible, getting closer and closer to a perfect game. Saving a fraction of a second can have a huge impact on how fast they can plow through 8-4, with the level 4-2, which contains a key warp screen, treated as the primary way to cut time by many speedrunners.
Recently, a new record was set in the game by the speedrunner Niftski, using a somewhat new technique that saved a few fractions of a second by allowing the user to run through a set of bricks in 4-2. And accidentally, he created a new source of tension on the model because the audio went out on his mic while he was playing, leading to the livestream chat freaking out because this guy was on an apparent record pace but had no way to communicate with him. (He was focused on other things, of course: By level 8-4, his heart rate had hit 163bpm.)
And because of a slight timing difference in his recording, he didn’t realize he had actually done significantly better than the prior record, at which point he had a proper freakout.
His record was exactly 116 milliseconds faster than the prior record, set nine months ago. If you go to Speedrun.com, you will find that the top 300 speedruns on the game are all within five seconds of one another, and the top 20 entries are all within two seconds. The difference between a record and a setback at this point is basically the time it takes to blink.
There is still room to optimize Mario even further, but the space to do so is shrinking, with much of the challenge focused on world 4-2, particularly an area that requires players to jump or slide through bricks. By saving a little bit of time here and there, it can save even more time between levels, as the levels change only every third of a second or so. By being extra fast, players can get through this level screen before the next third of a second delay kicks in, saving even more time.
Niftski’s technique is impressive, but it’s already been improved upon, per Kotaku. One user has figured out how to correctly do a literal corner-cutting technique that can save even more time than what Niftski did, all the more impressive because it was something only computer-driven tool-assisted speedruns were able to do previously. The challenge is to fit the somewhat complicated technique into a speedrun, which will take players like Niftski lots of practice. But now it can be done.
Super Mario Bros. is a game that has probably been analyzed and taken apart more than any other, and there may not be much more room to optimize it beyond the 4 minutes and 54 seconds it’s currently at. But on the other hand, that’s what people thought a few years ago—and more techniques kept appearing.
It’s enough to make your heart rate rise.
Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes
Time left on clock ⏲: Let’s just say this wasn’t a speedrun