the-inbetween.com is a weblog by Mike Nowak.
December 8th, 2009

A Super Mario World Champion’s Sweatshirt

I’ve previously mentioned my official and certified title of regional Super Mario World champion. I still have the proof, in writing, from Nintendo itself.

Super Mario World high scorer

As it says there, my skills and talents won me a sweatshirt. During my cleaning and packing prior to coming to Paris, I found it. I photographed it. I reminisced about winning it.

Super Mario World

The first thing you might notice about the above form letter is that I was the high scorer of Super Mario World. This in itself is weird because scoring has never been a goal of any Mario game. Sure, the early games tallied points but it was always acknowledged as a legacy of videogames’ arcade roots and not something inherent to the game design. No one paid attention to it as the goal always was to beat the game. Indeed, all the obsessive challenges around these Super Mario revolve around beating it as fast as possible. There are many speedruns[1], but playing Mario for score isn’t an expected thing.

By the time the competition arrived in Mississauga, I was already well versed in Super Mario World. I was twelve and I had already beaten it multiple times, found all 96 levels, including the star road, and beaten those, and discovered a few weird exploits. This, of course, was in the days before the likes of gamefaqs.com so all of it was earned the hard way: by sheer will of persistence. Never underestimate a twelve year old’s ability to make the most out of a single game. Of course, in all that time I never played the game for score so this competition required some adjustments.

I had previously, however, maxed the score out at 9,999,990 using one of those found exploits. As anyone that has played an old Mario game knows, continually jumping on enemies (or chaining them with a hit shell) without hitting the ground basically doubles the amount of points you are rewarded. Jumping on one goomba gives you 100 points, hitting a second, without landing, gives you 200, then 400, 800, 1000, 2000, 4000, 8000, and then a 1UP. At this point you stop getting points, but you start accumulating lives.

In the forest area of Super Mario World, about half-way through the game, there are caterpillar enemies, called Wigglers, that have unique characteristics in the game. Jumping on a Wiggler would net you points as normal, but it wouldn’t kill them. It’d just make them angry. Pissed off Wigglers would turn red and mean and start frantically moving around their area becoming more of a nuisance. You could keep jumping on them in this state, but it’d do nothing and it’d net you no points.

What I noticed was that if you went a screen away from an angry wiggler and then back again they’d respawn in their calm states. This meant that if you were adept enough with the cape and flying through the air, and if there were enough wigglers in a level, you could float back and forth continually, crash landing on them, and accumulate as many 1UPs as you wanted. I figured this would be a good way to collect lives for some of the harder star road levels, so I found a good, open space in one of the levels and went to work. What I didn’t account for was the game glitching out completely after you earned your third or fourth 1UP.

A pointer in the memory must have gone astray because the “1up” pronouncements soon became scrambled graphics and the lives gained became arbitrary additions and the score started to increase by seemingly random values. Scores increase almost exponentially and in less time than it takes to complete a level you can accumulate the maximum 9,999,990 points. Something about those damn Wigglers must have caused an overflow and all the counters went crazy. An example of this can be seen in this video here, although this player did it in a more clever way, and easier location, than I remember doing it. This glitch might be relatively common knowledge now, within the right circles, but back then it was privileged information. I was on top of it, I knew the game back to front, and I was ready for any Super Mario World competition.

The Competition

The Nintendo Power Play Tour’s Mississauga stop was stationed in the Woolco parking lot at the Square One shopping mall, the depressing “heart” of the city. Cordoned off in the area were a few sponsor stalls and one giant trailer, inside of which was a single aisle with encased televisions and Super Nintendos on either side. The right side had the latest games to try and the left were all the competition Super Mario Worlds. People would line up outside until a group was let in. They’d flow in to the trailer and lay claim to a machine and a controller and once everyone was ready the machines would be reset. After five minutes the controllers would be deactivated and the rear doors opened. The staff would take a survey of the Super Mario World machines to see if anyone beat the current high score and, if they did, record their name and contact information. Then the machines would be reset and the next batch of people let in.

As long as you lined up after each go, you could play as many times as you wanted. I thought of the wigglers out there in the Forest of Illusion, but they were too far in the game to reach. For a moment I considered rushing the game, saving as often as I could, and then resuming from that point each round but the problem with that approach was that I wasn’t guaranteed the same machine each time. Not to mention the risk that someone would overwrite the save. There wasn’t even any guarantee that I could reach that point via five minute increments. I had to make due with World 1 and figure out strategies to maximize my score within that.

I played through the first few levels of the game a number of times, taking mental notes of what yields how many points, how long it takes, what’s a waste of time, and how much of a time bonus I could get at the end of a level. I was making good progress, and always looking over my shoulder at how others approached it, but it was slow and it wasn’t getting me a really great competitive score. There had to be a better way.

Then it dawned on me.

supermarioworldIntro

The first level of Super Mario World (technically the first level on the right as SMW is the only Mario game that I can think of without a defined first level.) acts as the typical Nintendo-styled introduction to the game. Everything in the level, and everything Mario can do, is organically revealed. There are no tutorials and no tips, just a plain game mechanic driven carrot on a stick.
To the right of the start is a shell lying on the ground with a platform above on which a bunch of koopas are walking. The setup is obvious, but in that instant it shows you a few things that can be done in Super Mario World. You can either kick shells or pick them up. If you pick them up, you can jump with them. Then you can throw them to dispatch enemies. And, most relevant to my needs, if you kill multiple enemies you will cause a chain and eventually get a 1UP.

That means if you play it right, and it’s hard not to, in the very first few seconds of the first stage you can net yourself 16,400 points. After that, all the time you spend collecting pittances, be it from Yoshi coins or other enemies, seems wasteful by comparison. That’s when I remembered one little trick in the game: if you play through a previously completed level, you can press start and select to cancel out of it. Then you can play it again. And cancel out. And, yes, I did that.

I would rush through the first level, just so I had it completed, then for the rest of the five minutes I’d spend going back to that same level for five second intervals. I’d kill those initial koopas and get the points then pause, hit select, drop back out to the map, and repeat over and over and over again. It might not be in the spirit of the competition, but it was damn effective. I honed my technique and did this about, at the very minimum, ten times. I must have spent over an hour playing Super Mario World in this way. Eventually I had a score I couldn’t beat anymore, 656,500, and I was comfortable enough with it to know that I could finally go home. I was right.

The Prize

A couple weeks later I got the above form letter and this sweatshirt:

sweatshirt front

The front features a large Super Nintendo logo adorned with extraneous brightly coloured triangles and circles, as was the style of the time. It’s very much of its era, stuck in that post-80s geometric pre-mainstream-grunge Parker Lewis look. With the fashion trends of the last couple of years, it’s almost fashionable again. Or ironic.

The sleeves have the prerequisite junk food sponsor logos. I remember the Power Tour had, as was popular at that time, a Pepsi Taste Test booth near to the Nintendo trailer. As with every Pepsi Taste Test I’ve had, and I’ve had a few, I chose the competitor’s product. Every time.

sweatshirt back

The back of it has Mario riding Yoshi with more superfluous dots and neon pointing triangles and a green rectangle. Before I left I did try the shirt on and, to my surprise, it fit. It was a little snug, but then it wasn’t designed for someone of my age. That’s probably a testament to the weight I’ve lost these last few years.

Despite my victory, I still wonder what could have been. A few weeks later I received confirmation that I wasn’t the Ontario champion. I can’t remember the exact score, but I think I was bested by a 100,000 to 200,000 points. I think they were from Sudbury or the Sault. I’ve always wondered how they managed that, or what the theoretical best score in five minutes is. I never bothered to try. By then, I was already sick of Super Mario World and I had moved on to the latest and greatest (probably Super Mario Kart.)

I still wonder, in this day of speed-run videos, emulators, and tool-assisted play-throughs, what kind of score can be accomplished in five minutes. More so, I’m curious how close to an optimal strategy I came. As a late twenty-something, I don’t feel as though I have that level of patience and deftness anymore. I look back now and at often times I wonder if I really was more clever as a twelve year old than I am now. That sweatshirt, gaudy as it is, reminds me of that.

  1. Yes, there are some low score runs, like this one for Super Mario Bros., but their inherent goal is the same: just beat the game. The low scoring is just an added obstacle. High score runs are unusual, partly because the score always maxes out.

Addition: A Metafilter user tells of her experiences during the same Power Tour.

Just think: if you were twelve years old today, you could be banned for using an exploit instead of rewarded.

Wasn’t I with you at that competition? and didnt I do very well too, at the age of what, 5? 6? Why am I not mentioned in this entry?!
also, thanks, I live next to the depressing heart of Mississauga. So whats that, the depressing lung?

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