Interview with a Super Mario 64 Expert

Super Mario 64 is a 1996 Nintendo 64 classic that introduced to a wide audience the possibilities of the 3-dimensional platformer. It preceded and laid groundwork for Super Mario Sunshine and the Galaxy games. It was also one of the most important games of my childhood: I played it for hours, beat it multiple times, marveled at its depth and complexity, and messed with it with a Gameshark.

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that about a month ago I took time to read Kotaku and AV Club articles on a recent development about the game. Frankly, though, it should attract attention that this game has any news at all, even without my rampant nostalgia factor. When was the last time anything exciting came out of Wave Race 64? C’mon!

The news? Scott Buchanan, or “pannenkoek2012” on YouTube, was accomplishing major feats within Super Mario 64 that had gone unresolved for years. Notably he had obtained the “impossible coin” through tool-assisted gameplay and significant experimentation. More recently he discovered a “mystery Goomba” and tested different methods to stomp it.

I was very interested in what a person who dives this deep into a game (that I was also heavily invested in) has to say about their experience. I was curious how his relation to the game has evolved, and if he still feels that sense of immersion when breaking the software so completely. For all the attention his discoveries were getting, I didn’t actually see him being contacted directly! So I decided to do so myself.

How old are you?

I am 20 and in college at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in Computer Science.

What portion of your time is spent on your channel versus other activities, and what are those?

It really varies how much time I spend on my videos. During the school year, it varied a lot depending on how much work I had for classes. Of course, sometimes I was so excited to get back to working on it that I’d doodle about it in class. Here’s a little blueprint I drew in class while I thought about how to build a goomba bridge to the island in Bob-omb Battlefield, since I needed to get to the island without pressing A (for the A Button Challenge).

Once summer started, I really focused on my videos, doing the videos that were too time exhaustive and involved to do during classes. I spent hours each day either (1) looking for ways to improve the A Button Challenge, or (2) making explanatory videos about glitches (such as the mystery goomba, the 255 coin limit, etc). Testing around for the A Button Challenge is easier, and sort of my go-to thing to do. But if I don’t find an improvement for a while, I feel unproductive, and go make an explanatory video, which is much more effort.

Let’s see, what do I do when I’m not working on my channel? Well, during the school year, I had classes and homework of course. I also enjoy going to a gaming club and going on runs. During the summer, I’ll hang out with my friends and family since I’m at home.

Is SM64 the only game you exploit to the extent seen in your videos? Why did you choose this game? Do you play other games?

My top 4 favorite games are probably Super Mario 64, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Luigi’s Mansion, and Halo 2. For all of these games, I replayed them a lot and did as many things as I could think of on them, including glitches, Easter eggs, 100%’ing them, and of course watching videos of them on YouTube that did the same so I could learn more. I suppose Super Mario 64 had the most glitches and challenges, as well as a really large fan base, so I ended up leaning towards that one.

As for games not in my top 4, it’s not that I don’t enjoy playing them, I’m just not attached enough to them to invest so much effort into them. For example, Banjo Kazooie is one of my favorite games, but for me it doesn’t have much replay value once you collect all the jiggies. In Super Mario 64, you can collect every star any amount of times. I’ve also beaten (and 100%’ed) Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy, but I didn’t see much replay value in them.

I think another aspect of why I love SM64 so much is that I can play it on an emulator on my computer. That means anywhere I go, I can play it. I also have access to emulator functions like savestates, TAS’ing, and cheat codes. Going from console to emulator opened up so many more possibilities and room for discovery for me, something that’s difficult or even impossible to do with more modern games.

At this point, I know so much about Super Mario 64 that I feel it’s my duty to organize my knowledge and present it on YouTube. I want to push the game to its absolute limits, and so every piece of information, every new trick, every insight about the programming helps me approach this goal. I also engage in challenges (the A Button Challenge and the No Buttons challenge) within the game, and use strategies that really only someone with my knowledge of glitches could pull off (a prime example is my ABC video of Chip Off Whomp’s Block, which took a lot of strategizing on my part and knowledge of the game).

Is there a community surrounding the kinds of things you do?

Well, I always loved playing Super Mario 64 ever since I was little. One day, I realized it would be a fun challenge to 100% the game by collecting every coin in every course. And so, I found a website that provided coin guides for every course, as well as providing up to date news on SM64. This was really the first community that I stumbled upon that focused on SM64. That website also kept track of the recent news in infinite coin glitches, TAS times, individual star times, as well as the A Button Challenge records (which is how I found out about the ABC challenge in the first place). I simply loved going on that website to see the latest happenings. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been updated since 2009, with the sole exception of my having collected the impossible coin!

At another point, I engaged in a leaderboard for the highest number of coins in the courses on console on this website. Using my SM64 glitch knowledge, I cloned coins on my console to beat everyone else’s scores. This didn’t go over too well in that community, and at one point I was accused of using my emulator to get the scores, but I disproved these claims. My scores also led to a fierce competition with Zimer, who was the only other player who mastered coin cloning (though he was later banned). I would later get good enough to collect 255 coins in all the courses where it’s possible, yielding nearly perfect scores on the leaderboard (“nearly” because I haven’t collected all 63 coins in Tower of the Wing Cap and my race times are not perfect). So, that was another fun community.

Today, I’m engaged in the YouTube community. I make videos and I respond to people’s comments and questions. At one point I helped sonicpacker (a popular SM64 TAS’er on YouTube) collect a star for the ABC challenge using TAS. At this point, I collaborate a lot with Plush and Gaehne D., fellow YouTubers who are also committed to making new discoveries and improving the A Button Challenge on SM64.

When did you first play SM64? What was that like?

I first played Super Mario 64 when I was 6, and it was my favorite game when I was young. I loved the free controls/movement and the exploration of the courses. I’d just play it for hours, hanging around in the courses and collecting stars. And of course, I’d test anything I could think of. What happens when you collect a star off the edge? Over a cannon? In the volcano? What if you activate the red coin star and 100 coin star at the same time? Can you bring king bob-omb down the mountain? What happens when the baby penguin hits the death barrier? Through these experiments, I started to learn more about the game. I would also find videos of glitches on YouTube, and recreate these to experiment with. I’d make the light chuckya. I’d clone objects. I’d duplicate moneybags. I’d perform the hat-in-hand glitch. I just loved knowing all these glitches, and seeing all the things they could be used for.

How has your relationship to SM64 changed from originally playing it to exploiting it and learning so much of its design, code, and bugs?

Sadly, I think it has changed. When I played it originally, I liked it because the courses/settings were interesting to explore and it was fun to collect the stars. But as time went on, the settings became familiar and the stars became easy to collect. To keep it interesting, I looked for glitches, collected really high coin scores, and started doing challenges (the A Button challenge, the no button challenge). So essentially, it used to be a magical, nostalgic experience, but now it’s one of scientific testing and discovery, as well as technical challenges and achievement. So it’s fun in a different way now.

How much do you associate your computer science major with this hobby? Do you see any practical benefit, or is it just for fun?

I think they’re definitely related. I’ve loved video games ever since I was young (hence, how I ended up getting into SM64), and so it’s no coincidence that gaming and programming led me into computer science. And of course, having learned about aspects of computer science has aided in my studying of SM64. For example, it was easier for me to understand how objects are stored so as to conserve space, and how the memory works for storing the coin counters in binary thanks to my computer science knowledge.

Given how much you know of the game’s design: is Super Mario 64 well-made? For its time? It’s certainly regarded as revolutionary.

I believe it’s very well made. It’s one of the first 3D games, so it was a pioneer for how 3D movement would work and how the camera would work in 3D. A lot of people don’t like the camera, but I find it pretty good. Even on the Wii virtual console, it’s one of the top games sold, so it must be pretty well made to have stood the test of time. Of course, there are occasional flaws, such as:

1. Yoshi’s typo at the end (“It that really you?”)

2. The coin misplaced in Snowman’s Land so that it’s inside the snowman

3. The impossible coin’s unintended placement

4. The mystery goomba’s unintended placement

Nevertheless, I find the game to be really good. Good level design, and great free controls. I wish more games had controls this fluid. That’s why I love SM64 hacks, such as Star Road – the controls I love and am familiar with, but with new and unexplored worlds!

Has your dive into the minds of the developers of that game changed how you play other games? Can you (or did you ever) lose yourself in another game world or narrative, or is the design and programming inseparable from the experience? (One might ask a similar question to musicians, and if they can listen to music without analyzing chord progressions.)

I think it has changed my views somewhat. Using cheat codes, I was able to see all the invisible objects in SM64, such as the bubble bomb spawners, the 1up activators, and the activators for the secrets. I was also able to see internal variables, such as the total object count as well as Mario’s speed and position. This really opened my eyes to how the game really worked, since I could see what would normally go on behind the scenes. For example, if Mario’s speed is >29, then B does a dive instead of a punch. Also, if his forwards speed is >33 (it might be another number, I don’t remember exactly), then subtract 1, so as to keep his forwards speed bounded (but this was not done for backwards speed, and hence why BLJ’s exist). Of course, this knowledge makes the experience somewhat less “magical” and more formulaic and predictable, but at the same time it gives me more insight into how everything works, which may help me exploit it in some way in he future.

Of course, I am able to get lost in other games. I’ve enjoyed playing Halo games, Animal Crossing, the New Super Mario Bros Wii U. Sometimes I’ll wonder how something was programmed to work, what variables are actually being kept track of, and what actions were from RNG, and so sometimes I’ll test these. Of course, I don’t have the same amount of resources as I do for SM64 (an emulator, cheat codes, and the location for internal variables), so I don’t learn nearly as much as I would for SM64. But also, I’m not nearly as invested in these games, so I don’t feel the need to be as thorough as I am for SM64.

Do you think you’ll move on to another game at some point? Are there games out now that are this exploitable? Are kids growing up on Super Mario Galaxy today going to miss your experience?

I don’t think I’m going to invest in another game the way I do for SM64. This game was with me since my childhood, so it would be hard for any other game to compete with it. Of course, I’m not even done with SM64 yet, so I don’t need to think about other games for some time. Since I use my current knowledge and skills to create more knowledge and skills, it’s like a cycle that promotes itself, whereas starting to do that for another game from scratch would take a while to get to a point no one else has before.

I do feel like there is something missing from current games. I feel like SM64 was complex enough so that it has potential for a lot of interesting glitches and challenges, whereas future games tended to be much more polished to the point where a lot of bugs are fixed and safeguards established. Not to mention, the use of mandatory downloadable patches can completely undermine interesting bugs (I’m looking at you, sword lunge glitch in Halo 2!).

Buchanan’s work reveals the intersection and contradiction of two mentalities I have, which was a personal motivation to interview him and follow his work. I’d like to touch on them, because I believe many others also have this dichotomy.

The first is the fascination I had immersing myself in video game worlds when I was younger: Super Mario 64, RuneScape, Final Fantasy X. These were places I was comfortable, in control, and master of the domain. I still enjoy this to a degree with great games today, but it requires not seeing the edges or the numbers and instead losing myself in a narrative.

The second part in me is the love of science, critical thinking, and analysis. I enjoy breaking things down, discovering how they work, and exploiting them to their furthest extent. This applies in game systems, in my day job, and in my thoughts and conversations.

Buchanan brought those together and showed most starkly to me the conflicts between these two ideas. Seeing him use the game in such unique ways is beyond my 9-year-old self’s comprehension. His experimentation breaks immersion and makes the world seem smaller. It’s not a destruction of my childhood in any sense, but it’s jarring, like hearing Samuel Jackson read a vulgar but tender bedtime story.

His videos, however, favor a maturation: a deeper exploration into the game than its surface level. As a software engineer by day, I can appreciate the subtle mysteries surrounding a program’s design. Who made the game? Why did programmers make this choice? What forces allowed or constrained aspects of the content?

There’s an entirely new story in the lines of code, as well, and it’s real!

How about one more video for fun? This one is best if you don’t know what’s going to happen. It shows off the patience and skill in Buchanan’s planning and execution(1)Even if it’s tool-assisted! of his goal, as well as his depth of knowledge of the game.

I’d like to thank Scott Buchanan for taking the time to answer my questions and give great, insightful responses. He’s really active on his video comments as well, answering more practical gameplay questions and interacting with others. I’ll absolutely be following him to see what crazy feats he pulls off next.

Featured image from the Nintendo Wikia.

Notes   [ + ]

One thought on “Interview with a Super Mario 64 Expert

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