When I was young, my brother used to insist he was better than me at Super Mario Bros. I remember challenging him by noting that Super Mario Bros. was not a competitive game and that neither of us had even been able to finish it. He then asserted he was bigger than me and could beat me up. It wasn’t exactly the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but it was the format that defined disagreements in our early years.
So while younger siblings everywhere may be looking forward to the recently revealed Super Mario Bros. 35 simply for the chance to settle these arguments once and for all, others are understandably hesitant. Do we need a Super Mario battle royale title in the style of Tetris 99? Tetris is at least a game with a rich history of competitive modes. Even children of the ’80s knew that Super Mario Bros. was not a competitive game.
Except that’s not really true. There’s a precedence for this new take on Mario. If it succeeds, Super Mario Bros. 35 could capture the thrills of one of gaming’s most underrated pastimes: competitive speedrunning.
The competitive nature of speedrunning is somewhat downplayed. While speedrunners often compete against each other for world records, many go out of their way to emphasize the value and contributions of a game’s community, who often spend hours trying to shave seconds off a run. Every now and then, though, we’re treated to a run that pits some of the very best players of a particular game against each other in a head-to-head matchup.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll direct your attention to this video of an incredible Super Mario Bros. speedrun race from Games Done Quick, which hosts speedruns to raise money for charities:
Once you get past the shock of watching four people complete Super Mario Bros. in under 24 minutes (without the help of warps, mind you), you start to appreciate a lot of the little things about that video. The subtle differences in technique, the brilliant way the runners utilize mechanics you probably didn’t know existed in the game, and the ways that even these expert players must adjust to slight variations in enemy patterns that throw off their best-laid plans.
Most of all, you have to appreciate the purity of the thing. Besides the sportsmanship of everyone involved, there’s the fact that they’re competing in a game that may now be 35 years old but remains mechanically demanding. It may not have the reputation for difficulty that Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania, and other NES action games have, but Super Mario Bros. floaty jumps, bottleneck sections, and surprisingly tricky moments of item management ensure that any shortcuts and technical exploitation the runners utilize ultimately don’t dilute the pure skill that’s required to play the game at this level. Nobody tell my brother, but maybe it is possible to simply be better at Super Mario Bros.
With Super Mario Bros. 35, maybe we’ll all get a chance to prove just how good we are at Super Mario Bros. Sure, the game utilizes elements of randomization and player triggered chaos, but even those mechanics tap into the idea that speedrunning is all about pushing a game to its limits and testing your abilities against a set of challenges that most players would never encounter through a traditional playthrough. Besides, there are already randomization runs in speedrunning that require players to sprint through a game in fundamentally different way than the developers intended.
Yet, the aspect of competitive speedrunning that I hope Super Mario Bros. 35 captures actually has little to do with the idea of competing against other players. The best part of competitive speed runs is the way that they allow us to revisit classic games in a new light with other people. It used to be the player versus the game, but competitive speedrunning has uncovered the thrill in sharing in the pursuit of victory and breaking a record. The joy of competitions like this isn’t always in being the best, but in finding new ways to enjoy something we all love.
Besides, if Super Mario Bros. wasn’t meant to be played competitively, then why was a nail-biting race in Super Mario Bros. 3 the climax of arguably the greatest film ever made, 1989’s The Wizard?