On April 7, 2021, speedrunner Niftski set a new world record in the Any% category of Super Mario Bros with a time of 4:54.948. This was the first-ever sub-4:55 series of Nintendo's classic platformer and would become the final second barrier in history. A run below 4:54 is impossible, but is it possible to get a lower 4:54 and break Niftski's record?
Super Mario Bros, released in 1985, has had plenty of time to be mastered by speedrunners. As it stands, the Any% category is one of the most optimized executions in any game. This, added to the popularity of the franchise and the cultural impact of this specific title, makes speedrunning world records in this game one of the most coveted. 4:54, being the last possible second barrier to break the game, makes this world record one of the greatest milestones in the history of speedrunning.
To better follow this discussion, take a look at Niftski's world record:
How was the record set?
To really understand just how optimized this execution is, it's important to know exactly how the game works. Super Mario Bros can only load the next level every 21 frames, a time interval players have called "framerules," which is 21 frames or 0,35 seconds. If a runner reaches the end of a level 11 frames in a frame ruler, 20 frames in a frame ruler, or just one frame in a frame ruler, the next level will only load at the start of the following image rule.
This means that once a level has been optimized to the point of being beaten as soon as possible, it is already at its theoretical limit.
The Any% route is: play to 1-1, take the 1-2 Warp Zone at 4-1, finish 4-1 and take the 4-2 Warp Zone at 8-1. Then play through the last four levels and defeat Bowser at the end of 8-4.
Racers play through eight levels in total. Of those eight, Niftski set the fastest time theoretically possible on six of them. Even the AI programmed to beat the game as fast as possible couldn't beat Niftski on those six levels.
Of course, that means there's still time to save on two levels. We'll get to that, but first let's consider some of the current world record highlights that put this race into perspective. Some of this may seem like jargon at first, but what's important is to note how accurate all of these tips are.
- At the 1-1, 4-1, 8-1 and 8-3 World Championships, Niftski achieved what is known as the mast glitch. These glitches allow players to skip the flagpole animation and enter the castle early, and all require frame-perfect inputs and sub-pixel-perfect positioning.
- 1-2 and 4-2 both include wall clips perfect for the frame. The former is used to get to the warp area faster, while the latter is used to push Mario further to the right side of the screen, a requirement for the first "false warp" glitch.
- 8-1 features what is called a rapid acceleration on the first frame of the level. Niftski had to punch left on the first frame of the level, then jump and punch right on the third frame, and release the jump on the fourth frame. These are all perfect entries that allow Mario to reach run speed faster and should be started on the first possible frame with no indication of when that top level frame will arrive. Doing this, plus the glitch of the mast at the end, allows it to catch the frames rule as soon as possible with zero frames to lose.
- 8-2 includes the infamous "Bullet Bill Glitch" to cheat the level by ending two framerules early; another frame-perfect trick, as well as the "TAS 8-2" setup, which involves getting to the end of the level at a pace that has only recently been determined to be humanly possible through new setups.
- Timing ends on the frame Bowser's ax is grabbed, not the frame ruler it is grabbed, so each frame counts as 8-4. Niftski used a perfect wall jump and insanely hard quick acceleration before the second bad string to get a fairly low time of 4:54.
This only covers the key moments of the race. Each level features at least one pixel-perfect trick, and Niftski hit each of them in succession, in addition to overall perfect movement through everything in between.
So what are the two levels that runners could theoretically save time on, and are they humanly possible to save time on?
Where to save time?
The most realistic zone to save time is 8-4. There are 20 possible frames to record at this level, although the fastest 8-4 ever in practice recorded only 17, also made by Niftski.
These 20 frames can be saved by performing first frame quick sprints in each piece of 8-4, similar to what is done at the start of 8-1. Given the incredibly low success rate of the 8-1 trick by the most accomplished sprinters, it's unlikely we'll see anyone hitting it multiple times in a single level at the end of a record-breaking pace run. of the world, anytime soon.
Fast acceleration means that Mario is programmed to decelerate from run speed to zero faster than he accelerates from zero to run speed. The software determines the deceleration when you try to move in the opposite direction that you are facing. So, by facing left and jumping back to the right, you will “decelerate” faster to top speed.
The other level to save time on is 4-2, where only one image rule can be registered. This is done by performing a trick known as “Lightning 4-2”. The trick here is to push Mario 20 pixels further to the right of the screen than is normally possible.
By doing so, Mario may enter a tube before the screen has scrolled to the right enough to overwrite the tube's transition data. Instead of taking you to a cache of coins as usual, it takes you to the aerial region which you usually have to watch a vine climbing cutscene to reach.
Niftski uses the wall clip to nudge Mario far enough to the right, but there's a faster way to do it. By bumping into the corners of blocks the right way, while facing backwards but standing to the right, Racers can force Mario to the right 7-10 pixels per bump. Two perfect bumps would thus give you the exact amount of pixels needed, and going down the first pixel from the pipe would take you above the ground. This saves a few frames compared to Niftski's record.
Once above the ground, runners should then hit a fast acceleration from the first frame, just like 8-1 again, then enter the 8-1 warp zone tube on the first possible frame to register a rule extra on aggregate at 4-2. When Niftski practiced this trick, it took him six months of intermittent attempts to hit it once.
In conclusion, there are 41 possible frames left to save in Super Mario Bros, so yes, the record can and will be broken. Most likely, future saves will involve small time saves on 8-4 as simple fast speedups are added, but a frame rule save on 4-2 is unavoidable. It's just a matter of time and practice.
Knocking down those 41 frames would result in a 4:54,265, the fastest possible time for the game to be beaten. As we get closer to perfection, upgrades only get harder, and right now those upgrades are next to impossible. To see Niftski's run compared to the theoretically perfect 4:54.265, and see those potential 4-2 and 8-4 time-savings for yourself, check out this comparison video: