Anatomy of a Speed Run

Earlier this month, speed runner darbian completed Super Mario Bros faster than anyone ever has, breaking his own world record by about three-tenths of a second. The run occurred live on Twitch, and was later uploaded to youtube. Clocking in just under five minutes, it’s an amazing run, and far more sophisticated than one might think from a single, casual view.

Speed running has been around forever, but as the community has grown, so too have strategies evolved. The best runs exhibit strategies uncovered by countless racers, and darbian’s latest run demonstrates the best tactics currently known for completing the game. Theoretically, darbian’s time isn’t perfect, and an individual could still come along and break the record. There are tool-assisted speed runs that prove this to be true, but such runs take advantage of improbable glitches that aren’t currently feasible for live runners.

Of course, not all records even allow the use of glitches. Speed running records are complex and categorized, with different requirements needed for different records. Darbian’s current record allows the use of warps, but there’s also a separate record for a Super Mario Bros “warpless” run; a category that darbian has since set his sites upon.

Other record breaking runs are particularly glitch-heavy, and only require the runner to get to the ending cutscene by any means available. The fastest runs for Super Mario World and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past are fascinating not because of their speed and precision, but because of their ability to manipulate the fabric of the game and break into the ending through apparent force.

Of course, speed running isn’t restricted to classic games from the 8 and 16 bit eras, but they often make great examples due to their speed and simplicity. Other fun runs include puncayshun’s 120 star speedrun from Super Mario 64, and Dr4gonBlitz’s all-boss run from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. But they don’t stop there!

What exactly goes into a world record speed run? Aside from skill, patience, and luck, let’s look at a few of the finer details from darbian’s recent world record run of Super Mario Bros.

hit boxes

Here, darbian demonstrates the imperfect hit detection of the game’s piranha plants. The record video is full of precision jumping, and zipping over (and through) piranha plants is a necessary part of achieving a top time. This is a surprisingly easy trick to pull off. Give it a try some time.


backwards jump

In level 4-2, darbian triggers a glitch, which allows him to manipulate the destination of a warp pipe. By brushing up against the geometry using backwards jumps, he changes Mario’s position on the screen. Without going into loads of crazy details that I barely understand myself, this action confuses the game, and provides a shortcut to the warp zone.



cannon jump

Jumping properly on this bullet bill triggers a glitch that allows some of the end level animation to be skipped. Getting the bullet bill to appear promptly requires a bit of luck, and the jump itself is very difficult, and no sure thing for even the best players.


wall jump

At the end of 8-3, darbian deliberately jumps against a block at the end of the level, costing him a second on the clock. It looks like a mistake, but by doing this, he bypasses the firework show that would occur if his time ended with a “3.”


In a community filled with speed runs for hundreds of games, darbian’s Super Mario Bros run stands out because it’s so close to perfect. Even the most impressive runs often have clear and obvious flaws. More complex games are also subject to random enemy behaviors that can ruin otherwise perfect execution.

While I’m partial to quick twitchy runs like Super Mario Bros, action adventure games like The Legend of Zelda offer an entirely different array of challenges. With a sprawling game like Zelda, much of the strategy comes from planning the fastest route through all nine dungeons while also gathering the bare minimum of necessary supplies.

LackAttack24 owns the record for The Legend of Zelda. His run doesn’t have the visceral speed of Super Mario Bros, but it’s precise, featuring random enemy behaviors and variables that the runner must account for on the fly. It’s amazing to witness the hundreds of exact turns LackAttack24 makes in order to achieve the most efficient route through the game. It’s humbling for me, since to this day, I struggle to consistently find Level 2.

But routes aren’t even half the battle.

Item management provides constant stress throughout Legend of Zelda runs. A certain amount of bombs and coins are necessary in order to complete the game, and these supplies must be constantly replenished without losing time. To do this, players have figured out how to control enemy item drops–at least to a degree.

Each time a player is able to kill ten enemies in a row without taking a hit, they are guaranteed to receive either a 5 rupee drop, or a bomb drop if that tenth enemy is killed with a bomb. Otherwise, enemies drop items randomly, but what they drop is NOT random, and is determined by a known formula. Savvy players know how to look for needed items, and LackAttack24 can be heard counting enemies throughout his world record run. He uses this number to predict the item drops he needs.

dark room

Darkened rooms like this are only a problem if you haven’t completely memorized the game.


darknut bomb

It appears in this image that the Darknuts will not be hurt by the bomb due to the positioning of their shields. In actuality, the direction Link faces when he sets the bomb determines how the damage will be calculated. Because Link himself is not facing the enemy shields, his bomb will damage the Darknuts.


link pass through 2

Here, Link passes directly through an enemy without incurring damage. This is done by stabbing the enemy with the proper timing before walking over them.


The best thing about speed runs is that they’re always improving. As impressive as today’s top runs are, they will only get better as players improve and find better strategies. Even more exciting, new players will continue to take up the hobby and push one another for the fastest times.

Will darbian’s Super Mario Bros run ever be topped? Probably. And I can’t wait to see how it’s done.

This article contains images from darbian’s Super Mario Bros run and LackAttack24’s Legend of Zelda Run. Links to these videos can be found below, along with a fantastic tutorial article for running The Legend of Zelda.

Darbian’s world record

LackAttack24’s world record

The Legend of Zelda Speed Run Guide




  1. Skybutt457

    April 29, 2016 at 9:56 pm

    “So 4% of runs just end in 4-2.”

    Should be 96% of runs just end in 4-2, rather.

  2. Skybutt457

    April 29, 2016 at 9:52 pm

    It’s difficult to convey how hard “fast 4-2” in Super Mario Bros. is without any context. Most viewers may not even notice the wrong warp let alone appreciate how darn unlikely it is to actually pull off. In reality, the top runners pull off this feat less than 4% of the time.

    So 4% of runs just end in 4-2. Maybe 25% of those remaining runs just die to bad luck in 8-1. 75% of the remaining runs don’t get the bullet bill glitch in 8-2. Lots of things can go wrong in 8-4–just getting the necessary wall-jump might be 50/50 at best.

    I commend the author for providing insight into what makes these records so impressive without simply parroting what numbers the timer displays at the end. As you can see, there are even crazier numbers to be aware of going on behind the scenes!

    • Josh Abbott

      April 30, 2016 at 1:45 pm

      Thank you for the awesome insight into the Super Mario Bros speedrun! Those numbers add a lot of great perspective, and I hope it helps more people appreciate what goes into these record breaking attempts. In retrospect, I wish I would have discussed just how difficult 4-2 is, but you articulated it very well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top
%d bloggers like this: