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How Tool-Assisted Speedrunning Reveals The Inner-Life Of Video Games

Meet the obsessives deconstructing Mario 64

Featured post A screenshot of Scott's desktop with everything he needs while he plays.

How Do You Find Glitches

But how are these glitches even discovered in the first place? It was a big question I had for Scott, and one that doesn’t really have a concrete answer. Many of them were discovered by average players messing around in the game, either recorded or shared through word of mouth. Others, such as Tyler’s parallel universes, were discovered by popping open the hood and observing how Super Mario 64 works.

In one instance, a speedrunner had recorded a video where a bob-omb followed Mario before he turned and dove to grab it, causing the bob-omb to vanish and instantly appear nearby. “Four or five of us started trying to recreate this exact scenario,” Scott said. “But we didn’t know what was redundant and what was necessary for the glitch to work.”

Serendipitously, Scott remembered a somewhat similar glitch in which Mario can hold his hat and pick up other objects, causing them to teleport when he puts them back down. What Tyler and Scott discovered was that the variable (called the ‘holp’ or ‘held objects last position’) used to store the position of objects Mario is holding will retain the value of the coordinates of the last held object once Mario releases it—even if he enters a new zone. If Mario is holding an object but the holp isn’t updating to the object’s current coordinates, such as when Mario is holding his hat, then when he releases an object it will appear at the holp’s position, not where Mario puts it down.

This similar glitch led them to discover that if Mario grabs an object and bumps his head in the same frame, causing him to release the object, the holp won’t have a chance to update its coordinates, thus moving the object to the holp’s last position. Finally, the team had cracked ‘The Mystery of the Vanishing Bob-omb’. Now, manipulating the holp has become a strategy that Scott uses to shave a few ‘A’ presses off of his videos.

But no matter how a glitch is initially discovered, Scott and the team use the same process for documenting them. First, the glitch must be isolated and recreated. Secondly, it must be understood. Using Mupen64, a popular N64 emulator, Scott can create an .m64 file that records a sequence of inputs and plays them back in the emulator, duplicating the exact processing and rendering of the game. “If we have it on a file like that, I can give it to Tyler and he’ll look into the nitty-gritty code and look at what calls are making it happen,” Scott said.

Earlier this year, Scott became aware of a potential glitch when a Twitch streamer suddenly teleported a huge vertical distance without reason. Given the hardest part of not using the ‘A’ button is gaining height, Scott saw its potential as one of the biggest glitches ever discovered. Because Scott only had the video to go by, he spent hours trying to trigger the glitch. He’s even offering a thousand dollar bounty for anyone who could demonstrably recreate it. But months later, the problem remains unsolved.

Scott isn’t convinced it could be a true glitch, either. During his research, he discovered that hacking and changing a single bit in Mario’s vertical position at the same moment in the original video had Mario teleport upwards in a similar fashion . “If you change the last bit from a one to a zero, you get exactly what we saw,” Scott explained, adding that popular theories suggest a gamma ray entered the Twitch streamer’s computer and happened to flip the bit or that a malfunction in the cartridge caused the miniscule change.

Pure Versus. Tool-Assisted Speedrunning

One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding the TAS community stems from its origins as a form of speedrunning. It’s not uncommon to find people who turn their noses up at TAS, condemning it as cheating compared to the purity of traditional speedrunning. But to do so isn’t only reductive of the work and effort invested by these players, it’s fundamentally ignorant of the reason they do it. “The goal isn’t to show how good we are at playing the game, the goal is to show what’s theoretically possible,” Scott said. “I think a lot of people refuse to accept the difference.”

Perhaps this misunderstanding comes from the way that TAS can so often look like pure sorcery. Unlike speedrunning, much of what Scott accomplishes isn’t immediately understandable by the average observer, and so many dismiss it the same way you’d dismiss someone claiming they beat a game when all they did was turn god mode on.

After talking with Scott, it’s hard to not imagine him and his friends as more akin to scientists than athletes. Like our own reality, Super Mario 64 is ruled by a set of laws that govern the purpose and action of everything contained within it. What’s so fascinating is how much Scott is able to do not with the logic contained within the lines of code but with the gaps in between. It made sense for a programmer to put a hard cap on Mario’s forward speed, but who could have foreseen that leaving his reverse speed uncapped could lead to all sorts of clever tricks?

If speedrunning is a celebration of human endurance and skill, tool-assisted play is a celebration of human curiosity and understanding. And though they might feel distant, both share a common ancestor in the question “how can I do it better?” For Scott though, this obsession to understand Super Mario 64 comes from a simple, almost childlike place: “I loved Super Mario 64, and I never wanted it to end. It wasn’t until I was able to play it on my computer using an emulator that the ceiling of what I could do and test became infinite.”

Perhaps Shigeru Miyamoto put it best when he said, “What if everything you see is more than what you see? The person next to you is a warrior and the space that appears empty is a secret door to another world? What if something appears that shouldn’t? You either dismiss it, or you accept that there is much more to the world than you think. Perhaps it really is a doorway, and if you choose to go inside, you’ll find many unexpected things.”

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Steven Messner


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