Speedrunning Super Mario Bros. 1 on NES
The original Super Mario Bros for the NES has an incredibly long and rich history when it comes to speedrunning. Its history includes the efforts of a handful of talented runners who have pushed the game to its absolute limits. Early runners like AndrewG, Darbian, and Kosmic helped bring the world record down to an astonishing time of 4 minutes and 55 seconds. In recent years, two runners have been pushing this game to an entirely new level, namely, Niftski and Miniland.
Niftski and Miniland were the first and second runners, respectively, to break the 4:55 barrier. These two speedrunners traded the record back and forth before Niftski eventually reclaimed the top spot. He currently has the world record speedrun of 4:54.881. Niftski’s accomplishments and world record make it very hard to dispute that he is the top Super Mario Bros. speedrunner in the world. However, this past week Miniland achieved something that not even the immensely talented Niftski had ever done before. He tied the TAS up to World 8.
The Super Mario Bros. TAS
For the uninitiated, TAS stands for Tool-Assisted Speedrun. In these speedruns, an emulator is used to advance a game frame-by-frame in order to record a specific set of inputs, completing the game as fast as possible. A TAS can be thought of as a theoretical perfect run and often consists of very precise tricks that squeeze out every possible ounce of timesave. Whether a human could actually pull off the inputs it would take to match a TAS is an entirely different story.
In the vast majority of games, it is practically impossible for a human to keep up with a TAS. The level of precision available in a TAS just can’t be matched by an actual person. This will usually be true no matter how much they practice. However, Super Mario Bros. has a game mechanic that makes competing with a TAS a little bit more possible. This mechanic is Super Mario Bros.’ framerule system.
Framerules in Super Mario Bros. Explained
In Super Mario Bros, the game checks to see if a level has been completed every 21 frames, which equates to about 0.35 seconds. Within these 0.35-second time blocks called framerules, it doesn’t matter if you finish the level on the 1st frame or the 21st frame. That’s because the next level won’t begin until after the current framerule is completed. This means that in order to keep up with a TAS, you don’t necessarily have to end a level at the same time the TAS does. Instead, you just have to make it to the end of the level within the same framerule, or 0.35-second time block, as the TAS.
In short, framerules in Super Mario Bros. are 21-frame cycles that keep the next level from loading until a cycle reaches its end.
While the framerule system makes tying the TAS more doable, it is anything but easy.
It took until 2017 for any speedrunner to be able to tie the TAS through the first three levels of the run. Tying the TAS up to world 8 involves matching the TAS for the first four levels of the run. So why did it take 5 years to add on one more level of perfect gameplay? The answer is “Lightning 4-2”.
What is Lightning 4-2 in Super Mario Bros. Speedrunning?
In the fourth level of the speedrun, 4-2, there is an extremely challenging framerule to catch. The TAS, of course, is able to catch this frame rule dubbed as “Lightning 4-2”. To get this framerule in a run, you must successfully complete several difficult tasks in quick succession.
First, you bump a platform in a specific way in order to adjust Mario’s screen position by 11 pixels. If the bump gives you less than 11 pixels, you can’t get “Lightning 4-2”. Next, you pull off an insanely tricky backward jump into a wall jump which scrolls the screen an additional 9 pixels. This wall jump is both pixel and frame perfect. Then, you have to enter the warp pipe on the first pixel possible to execute a wrong warp. If you are even 1 pixel too early or too late, the wrong warp won’t work. Do all of this perfectly and enter the world 8 warp pipe with optimal movement. With that, you’ve just completed “Lightning 4-2”.
Lightning 4-2 in an RTA Full-Game Speedrun
Now if all of that sounded like it was just about impossible to do, that’s because it nearly is. It took Niftski half a year of grinding attempt after attempt of solely that level before he got “Lightning 4-2” even once. He finally achieved it in January 2021.
It was certainly an achievement to save the framerule in the context of an individual-level speedrun. But Miniland took it one step further and got it during a full game speedrun run. This means that not only did he do all the inputs for “Lightning 4-2” perfectly, but he also tied the TAS in the first three levels of the game as well. Which of course, the first three levels have their own set of challenges. These challenges include two flag-pole glitches, one in 1-1 and the other in 4-1. Additionally, the 1-2 wall clip, and generally really tough movement throughout.
Taking Super Mario Bros. to its Speedrunning Limits
So, what does all of this mean?
Well, first off, it means that Miniland is an absolute legend at Super Mario Bros. In Miniland’s own words, “That was the last framerule that will ever be saved in a run. Ever. …This is a perfect run to World 8.” He was able to accomplish something that no other runner had ever done.
The world record battle isn’t over by any stretch of the imagination. And Miniland has shown that Niftski will have to watch his back when it comes to holding his record. In the broader context of what this means for the Super Mario Bros Any% speedrun, major progress has been made. The gap is closing between TAS and human capability.
The TAS record for Super Mario Bros. currently sits at a 4:54.265. That’s a mere 0.616 seconds away from the current human world record. Miniland has just proven that it’s possible for humans to save another 0.35 seconds as we get ever closer to perfection. With this new timesave being witnessed, we could see the world record lowered by multiple tenths of a second in the near future. All of a sudden, Niftski’s historic 4:54.948 seems like just the beginning of a long push for further improvements. There are big things coming for Super Mario Bros. speedrunning!
And mark my words, Miniland is going to be right in the center of it all.