With 40 million global downloads in its first four days, Super Mario Run has already broken the App Store record set by Pokémon Go. But when Apple CEO Tim Cook and Super Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto first announced that the manic Italian plumber was coming to iOS back in September, many gamers were surprised that Super Mario Run wasn’t designed in the typical endless-runner format that so often makes it to the front of the app store.
To play addictive iPhone games like Temple Run, Subway Surfer, and Minion Dash, the player swipes or tilts to guide the character as it races forward. But the latest addition to the Mario cannon has much more in common with the original Super Mario Bros. game from 1986.
“This is a traditional side scroll. And Mario will automatically make a jump to save himself, so you have a hard time dying,” says Jeff Ryan, author of Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America. “I’m still amazed Miyamoto chose that direction instead of the much more popular type of runner game.”
Miyamoto addressed the decision in a recent interview with BuzzFeed, explaining that he took inspiration from a community of obsessive gamers known as speedrunners, who are dedicated to drowning Bowser in a pit of lava as fast as humanly possible. The current record holder on the original Super Mario Bros. is Brad Myers, known in the speedrunning community as darbian. Last October, he completed the game in 4 minutes, 56.878 seconds.
“You get an adrenaline rush when you’re doing the speedrun,” Myers said. “You put all this work into studying every single level and practicing it. As you nail each trick over and over the next one becomes all that much more important because nothing you do up to that point matters if you don’t finish it. Obviously, most attempts end in failure, but you live for that one that just never dies.”
Myers, like most speedrunners, plays on an original Nintendo Entertainment System hooked up to an old tube television from the 1980s, because connecting the classic hardware to a modern screen creates an input delay. To practice he uses “flashcarts,” DIY memory cartridges that allow gamers to replay the same segment over and over. He learns tricks from glitch hunters, like sockfolder, who disassembles code in search of bugs yet to be exploited. One of sockfolder’s greatest contributions to the community was the discovery of the flagpole glitch, which allows players to bypass the fireworks at the end of the level. But Myers said speedrunners learn best just by watching other runs.
Andrew Gardikis, aka andrewg, held the Super Mario Bros. record for seven years, longer than anyone else. He gained legend status in 2011, at the age of 21, when he became the first speedrunner to complete the game in under 5 minutes. “Andrewg’s dedication to Super Mario Bros. was an early example of the fact that even a seemingly simple game can become an incredibly complex speedrun that is impossible to perfect,” Myers said. “Back in 2013, when I joined the community, I’m not sure there were many other runners that had dedicated years and years to optimizing five minutes of gameplay.”
If any one player brought speedrunning to Miyamoto’s attention, it was Gardikis. At the peak of Gardikis’s speedrunning career, Nintendo flew him to New York to play live next to Miyamoto. The Quincy, Massachusetts, native didn’t perform very well under the gaze of the creator and dozens of spectators, but Miyamoto beamed as he watched his greatest achievment played by its most skilled challenger.
Gardikis is glad so many people have joined the speedrunning community, even if it means he’s lost the top slot (he is currently tied for third). “I think the recent popularity has a lot to do with Nintendo embracing the idea of speedrunning,” Gardikis said. “Last year, they launched Super Mario Maker (on Wii U and Nintendo 3DS), which had time trials in the stages you create, and now they’ve come out with Super Mario Run. They’re tapping into an untapped market of people who are interested in speedrunning.”
“The game is about branching paths where you can either make the jump and take the high road or stay still and take the low road,” says Jeff Ryan, who has reviewed more than 500 video games over the last 16 years. “It’s an intellectual choice. Miyamoto’s kind of made a choose-your-own-adventure game that will challenge speedrunners.”
It’s still too soon to tell whether this direction was the right choice for Miyamoto. Despite record downloads, Nintendo stocks have dropped thanks to lukewarm reviews. That’s especially concerning for the company since it was investor pressure that drove Mario to the Apple kingdom in the first place.
The game has, however, already made it to the official speedrun leaderboard. A player named Auchgard currently holds the record at 28 minutes and 40 seconds. According to Gardakis, the game has been well-received in the speedrunning community, but it hasn’t exceeded any expectations. Both he and Brad Myers agree it was the right move for Nintendo — that the game brings back the simplicity and accessibility that made so many people fall in love with Super Mario in the first place. Some of whom loved it so much they spent years trying to make it infinitely more difficult.