Mario Maker Taught Me How to Speedrun

What looks like chaos is actually a form of education, if you’re willing to pay attention.

by Patrick Klepek
Dec 11 2019, 2:00pm

Image courtesy of Nintendo

You, like me, probably think you’re incapable of speedrunning a game, even one you’re pretty good at. Where do you start? Why bother trying to compete, when many people are so much better than you? Super Mario Maker 2 is not the game that I would have expected to come up with smart, intuitive lessons on Speedrunning 101, and yet, here we are.

Nintendo updated Mario Maker 2 for the first time last week, a massive “2.0” update whose addition of a playable Link earned the most attention. The other addition, however, is Ninji Speedruns, a new mode where Nintendo regularly uploads a new level for people to complete as fast as possible. The big twist: the ghost runs of other players chase you through the level, too. (Interestingly, it appears to be influenced by an old emulator hack.)

The first level is called Rolling Snowballs, a stage that will take even the most cautious and casual player no more than a minute to finish. It’s intentionally short, because Nintendo wants you to explore everything the level has to offer, and start to pick away at its secrets.

When I started Rolling Snowballs, I did what came naturally and moved from left to right. And because ongoing, unending movement seems crucial to finishing a level as quickly as possible, I stuck to the lower areas of Rolling Snowballs, trying to keep up on the gas pedal. This meant quick hops and minimal interaction with the environment. Here’s an example:

This is not my best run, but it does give you a sense of what I was going for on this route.

Eventually, I started capping out at a little over 23 seconds. Maybe it was possible to shave a little more, but it seemed like that was roughly where I was going to end up. My rank was 109,725 out of the entire pool of players. Not bad, mind you, but it definitely felt like I could be doing better. The problem? I didn’t know where to go next, which is the larger problem of asking novices to speedrun. If they don’t know what to look for, enthusiasm can sputter out.

This is where the unexpected genius of the little ninjis that follow you come in.

Mario Maker 2 gives players a few options when it comes to surfacing the ninjis. It’s possible to turn them off entirely, allowing you to focus on the act of playing, or flip between seeing a handful or a “swarm.” The latter is what the trailers have focused on, and it’s basically a nightmare; you’re trying jumps while dozens of little creatures doing actions similar to you.

And while it’s not useful for playing Mario Maker 2, it is useful for the act of studying. See, the Ninji Speedruns don’t seem to pull from a random pool of players but players in the same skill bucket. If you’ve finished in 24 seconds, most of the ninjis you’re seeing are going to be finishing in roughly the same time. This changes over time, as you finish the level faster and faster. And when you’ve run into a wall, that’s when it’s time to pay close attention.

Unsure how to progress after finishing the level in 23 seconds, I flipped the ninjis back on:

Most of them headed in the same direction I’d been trying to optimize. But not everyone. I quickly noticed a handful started going...up?

I hadn’t even considered the possibility there was a high path on the stage, and the moment I started exploring, Rolling Snowballs became an entirely different kind of level. Now, instead of deftly dodging enemies on the ground, I was combo’ing together epic leaps from mid-air snowballs and trying to slide down slopes, ever-so-slightly increasing my overall speed. Nintendo’s 2D stages tend to be pretty focused and linear, with the designer funneling through a single path. This was the opposite.

Crucially, though, it saved me from throwing up my hands and presuming there was no way for me to run the level any faster. And because it chose to show players like me, rather than people who were miles better, it made studying their movements and choices seem feasible. If these people can pull off this jump, why can’t I? So I went back to work, and started finessing the stage.

The result was this run from a recent stream I did playing the stage:

Boom! 20.171 seconds, good enough for the rank of 31,588 in the second-to-last tier of players. There’s certainly more I could do, but already, I’d had experienced a satisfying progress over the course of Rolling Snowballs that was explicitly because of the ninjis.

While the ninjis can, on the one hand, be seen as chaotic visual nonsense, they’re also an example of how raw, noisy data can also become an educational tool. On their own, an individual run might not tell you very much; maybe the player makes the same mistakes as you, or mistakes different than you. But lumped together, the so-called chaos tells a story.

Since this run was recorded on Monday, I’ve since fallen back to 33,950. Back to work.

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