In the 30 years since the release of the original Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System, it has been extensively analyzed, dissected, and nearly perfected by its devoted fans. Time has done nothing to diminish the appeal of this game—in fact, the mystique behind its inner workings has only become more attractive over the years. Many have wondered: Just how perfectly can a human being play through SMB? As of last night, we may be closer to an answer.
Darbian is a speedrunner and Twitch streamer who has attempted over 20,000 speedruns of the original Super Mario Bros since 2014. Together, with another well-known SMB speedrunner, Kosmic, the two have pushed the game to levels of speed once thought humanly impossible.
The world record time for completing the game has lingered under five minutes for a while now, but these two runners have gradually been finding additional tricks and techniques to lower than time even further. The world record for the game has been constantly changing hands between the two, and last night, Darbian achieved an incredible feat: finally getting a SMB record below four minutes and 57 seconds.
Though Darbian's timer says 4:57:02, the actual time is 4:56.878. This tops Kosmic's 4:57:194 from just three days ago. Watching the video is quite a trip, as Darbian makes incredibly difficult maneuvers and bugs seem near effortless in an incredibly smooth playthrough. (As slick as they seem, they are profoundly difficult to pull off—you'll notice that Darbian has a heart rate monitor on his stream layout to show just how tense things can get.)
Darbian has a heart rate monitor on his stream layout to show just how tense things can get.
As happy as Darbian is to achieve a record once thought humanly impossible, he's thankful that he has competition in the community to push him further and further. "Kosmic and I are very good friends within the community," says Darbian (real name Brad). "I don't look at him -- or anyone, really—as a competitor as opposed to someone else who enjoys speedrunning the same game. Kosmic was one of the runners that inspired me to stick with Super Mario Bros. way back in 2013 when I was just starting out with speedrunning / streaming. I enjoyed watching his stream and seeing him go for all of these nearly impossible tricks just to save fractions of seconds—I think it's awesome that I'm able to do it with him now, three years later."
Tool-assisted speedruns (TASes), which use carefully preprogrammed inputs from a computer to run through a game as quickly as possible, have proven invaluable in helping discover new bugs and exploits in SMB's programming -- but for years, many of the things TASes have done have been considered nigh-impossible for humans to replicate.
With Mario's route seemingly perfected, however, runners have turned to trying to adapt once TAS-only techniques to cut down their times. Forget the minus world and turtle-shell exploits for extra lives: the bugs speedrunners use to shave milliseconds off of their times require frame perfect inputs that are incredibly difficult for human beings to pull off.
"Years and years ago the wall jump you see me do in the second room of 8-4 was considered TAS only, since it is a pixel perfect and frame perfect trick- you must hit a specific pixel on the pipe AND jump in a window that's 1/60th of a second long)," Darbian explains. "This is still a 'tough' trick, but top runners are generally have a success rate of at least 50 percent."
Here's one of them, the "flagpole glitch":
Darbian elaborates further on this trick. "A community member named Sockfolder came up with a setup that allows us to do this trick on World 1-1 and World 4-1, which you see in this run - notice how the flag doesn't actually come down? Compare it to World 8-1 where you see the intended animation. This trick is super precise and requires very tight inputs, but it's early in the run. On an average night I might have 3 to 9 runs make it past 4-1 with the flagpole glitch on both 1-1 and 4-1."
Darbian has actually made a couple of video explaining how several of the more befuddling bugs he utilizes work to save precious frames. Here's him explaining how to avoid climbing a vine to get to the warp zone in 4-2:
And another, explaining why a seemingly random stray Bullet Bill in 8-2 is actually crucial to the run:
"The bullet bill glitch you see me do at the end of 8-2 was considered TAS only until 2014 when a runner name Blubbler took the time to figure out how to incorporate it into the run," says Darbian. "By doing so, he got the first time below 4:58. This trick requires some luck, unfortunately, but the actual execution for a human is pretty easy."
As wonderful as shattering the 4:56 barrier is, however, Darbian expects his glory to be short-lived. "[I expect Kosmic] to beat this time in the next couple of weeks - he's incredibly good at this game," he says. In other words, thanks to the efforts of speedrunners, we may be seeing Super Mario Bros' limits broken even further before the year's out.
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