1. This is a 24-minute video explaining how to beat a Super Mario 64 level with only half an A-press. It’s the most compelling film I’ve seen in years.
More than the countless hours of research behind the video and the 12 actual hours it took to make, the genius is in the commentary (complete with graphs and charts), from the internet’s foremost Super Mario 64 savant Scott Buchanan.
3. Basically a half A-press is when you press A to jump into the level, and hold it throughout the level, never releasing it, and thus, never performing a complete A-press.
The above is the first graphic introduced by pannenkoek2012. It’s the first moment when we the viewer realize, shit, this video is serious.
4. But, like, why would you want to beat a level without pressing A?
After beating the game as a kid, Buchanan sought out further challenges within the game. That lead him to the forums of a website called SM64.com, where users shared detailed knowledge of coin maps, and more importantly, glitches. It was on SM64.com that Buchanan discovered the A-button challenge. It’s just a constraint to add infinite replayability to the game, but Buchanan and his collaborators have elevated the A-button challenge to an artform.
In the SM64.com days, people were completing the game (getting all 120 stars) in about 212 A-presses. Buchanan, with the help of online collaborators, has got that number down to about 32. That’s beating the entire game while only pressing jump 32 times. And he’s still looking for ways to save A-presses.
5. So how does he do it? The secret is in the glitches. “I’m on the breaking edge of new glitches,” Buchanan told BuzzFeed. “I want to push Super Mario 64 as far as I can.”
The first glitch employed in the Watch for Rolling Rocks video — and I’m simplifying complicated things explained in the video — is a technique called scuttlebug transportation. This involves gaming the unique properties of an enemy called a scuttlebug, and the limitations of its movement. The scuttlebug, it turns out, exists in a cylinder that extends infinitely upward. So with a particular set of movements, you can actually raise the enemy up into the air.
Though scuttlebugs can be moved upwards, they have constraints, such as an inability to move through doorways.
“If your dream was to bring all the scuttlebugs together for one big jamboree,” Buchanan says in the video, “I’m sorry, but its’ not gonna happen.”
7. Then Buchanan charges Mario for 12 hours to build up enough speed to travel through parallel universes. Bear with me for a minute.
By making Mario walk in place at a very particular location, a spot where the unique collision properties of walls, floors and underwater slopes all coalesce, Buchanan builds up Mario’s speed.
8. This is where it’s important to note that Buchanan is playing on an emulator, not a Nintendo 64 console.
An emulator is a program that runs video games on your personal computer, which, obviously, is much more powerful than a video game system from 1996. Most of the glitches performed in Buchanan’s videos can actually be performed on a console, but they’re made much easier with an emulator.
“Everything I’d been unable to do because of dexterity, and my inability to play perfectly, now it was solved,” Buchanan told BuzzFeed. “I could play with save states. I could advance frame by frame. I could slow down the game.”
9. With the emulator, the task of charging Mario for 12 hours in game time took only 7 hours in real time.
“I have a little box of all the possible inputs,” Buchanan told BuzzFeed. “I can check a box for the A-button, and there’s a circle that says what direction I put the input in.” And because of the speed of a modern computer, the process can be sped up to 3X real time.
10. With Mario charged up, it’s time to transcend dimensions.
Buchanan prefaces his introduction of the concept in the video with “If you thought my other tangents were complicated, just wait.”
And, honestly, the process is mostly beyond my comprehension.
“All of that was done in Excel,” Buchanan told BuzzFeed. “I had to do a lot of math with, like, trigonometry and cosines to get all the angles right.”
But essentially, there are near infinite, invisible copies of every level in the game. And using glitches, you can travel to the parallel universes (PUs), if you have the right amount of speed. The PU’s are empty of the items, enemies and obstructions of the home level, so they can be used to navigate through the level in unique ways, before popping back into the home level.
Then, traveling in parallel universes, Buchanan moves along a set of triangular floor pieces he’s identified to have slopes that will allow him to get to the goal (the star) with the minimum amount of speed saved.
Finally, using the scuttlebug he maneuvered earlier, strategically placed beneath a misalignment (a discrepancy in the collision code between floors and walls that allows Mario to snap onto a particular 1×1 unit of floor,) Buchanan transports back into the home level, bounces off the elevated scuttlebug and grabs the star. All without ever taking his finger off the A-button.
All the above is a profound simplification of just one popular video from Buchanan, who has used YouTube to solidify himself as the premier SM64 scholar.
“People like to see how far I’m willing to go to save an A-button press,” he told BuzzFeed. “Some of these strats take hours to execute and to plan out, finding and honing new glitches.”
And it’s no accident this particular video caught my (and 800k+ other people’s) attention. It’s the most thorough commentary he has produced. As the glitches Buchanan used in his videos became more complex, fans asked for an explanation. As compelling as video game trickery is, it’s the not-so-serious manner of narration, with little jokes and asides, combined with clear, accurate, legitimately helpful graphics that makes the explanation videos so compelling.
“My goal was to make a video that even someone who wasn’t knowledgeable about SM64 would still be able to follow along.”
And he succeeded, even though it took me four watches to really get a grasp on what was happening.
But he isn’t done.
“I’m on the breaking edge of new glitches,” Buchanan told BuzzFeed (he has a secondary YouTube page where he details emerging glitches he is researching.) “I want to push Super Mario 64 as far as I can.”