This is a love letter, a (hopefully) honest introspection, and a personal mission statement.
This is Super Mario 64.
Over the last twenty-two years (good lord, is that the time already?) it has enthralled and entertained millions of players, including myself* – a pioneer of the 3D platformer genre, and one of the most popular video games ever made.
This is Sean Buchanan (or, rather, his YouTube profile picture): a 23-year-old Dutch-American computer science major, better known by his online moniker “pannenkoek2012”, or “Pannen” for short (pannenkoek is the Dutch word for pancake, hence my ingenious post title).
Pannen knows Super Mario 64 better than you know your own eyelids. In fact, he probably knows it more intimately, more comprehensively, more unnecessarily, than most people will ever know a single topic in their entire lives. He played it as a child and enjoyed it a great deal, but, unlike us mere mortals who leave “completing” the game at retrieving all of the collectibles, beating the big boss and rescuing the princess, Pannen decided one day that he wanted to go further. Since 2008 (not 2012, funnily enough) he has undertaken a series of challenges, some set by others and some for himself, in an effort to truly leave no stone unturned, no coin uncollected, no enemy unquashed, absolutely nothing yet to be discovered, explored, analysed and evaluated to exhaustion.
And there is far, FAR more to it than you’d think. (This does come back to something more generalised later, so bear with me, non-gamers out there. Or skip to just past the picture of the brown mushroom thingy, we’re cool.)
His most famous accomplishments (subjective use of “fame”, I know) are in working on the A-Button Challenge – to wit, collecting all 120 Power Stars and defeating Bowser in as few presses of the “A” button as possible. To clarify, this means overcoming all of the obstacles, enemies and puzzles in 100 or so levels of a platforming game whilst doing literally anything and everything possible NOT to push what functions as the primary “jump” button (the “B” button allows for a horizontal dive, but little in the way of height).
On his first challenge attempt, Pannen took a total of 232 A-presses to reach the end of the game; over the following decade, through a mind-boggling array of tricks, glitches, shortcuts, and several pages of actual kinematic physics equations, charts and diagrams, he has proven it can now be done, at last count, in either 28, 29 or 30 presses, depending on which localised version you’re playing (different glitches in each, y’see).
Some of these “saved” presses are quite straightforward, trivial even; some require a bit of forethought for planning routes through the levels, as well as a bit of knowledge of exactly where and when to exploit enemies and environmental features to catapult Mario onto platforms that would otherwise be an issue to reach without an “A”. Others, however, involve some truly astounding efforts in order to work around the lack of jumping as an option.
In this playlist, the first video is an updated record of the remaining A-presses that Pannen has yet to eradicate from his playthrough. The second video, Level 1-1 as it were, is one of the straightforward ones to do without jumping. Level 1-2 requires a moment of planning to clear the ledge after the see-saw bridge, but nothing that can’t be overcome with a bit of practice. But by Level 1-3… well, here is Pannen’s own description of how it’s done:
A little further down the playlist, video #45 for Level 6-6 “Watch for Rolling Rocks – 0.5x A Presses (Commentated)” is the one that launched Pannen to internet superstardom, and first brought him to my attention. Without going into much detail on his achingly thorough 25-minute explanation of how he obtains this Star with half a push of the “A” button (don’t ask. NO, DON’T), let’s just say it introduced me to such concepts as Tool-Assisted Superplay, Scuttlebug Transportation, Scuttlebug Raising, Hyper-Speed Walking, and Quadruple-Parallel-Universe Alignment. And takes over 15 hours to pull off in real time.** “But first, we need to talk about parallel universes…” has become a joke in its own right, as has the phrase “Scuttlebug Jamboree” (which, if it isn’t already, I’m calling dibs on as my prog rock band name du jour).
And other than this A-press challenge, he has another 250 or so videos on his channel dedicated to exploring other SM64 phenomena. He completes various levels without pressing any buttons. He completes others without touching the joystick at all, thus relying solely on momentum from punches, kicks and jumps to move around, and bouncing off walls or sliding on slopes or being knocked about by enemies to change direction. He concludes that 81 Stars can be collected without picking up a single coin on route (considerably harder than it sounds) and all but one Star can be obtained without either utilising a power-up Cap, or blasting out of a cannon, complete with extensive spreadsheets detailing these.
There’s a video ranking every Star in the game in order of how many distance “units” it hovers above the ground. There’s a 37-minute pseudo-documentary detailing the differing behaviours of wall, floor, and ceiling surfaces. There’s an eight-minute video dedicated to how each character’s blinking animation is coded and synchronised.
In 2014, Pannen became the first player in history to obtain the “Impossible Coin” on Tiny-Huge Island, trapped behind a wall texture and unreached since its discovery in 2002 – the Fermat’s Last Theorem of gaming. He also discovered the “Mystery Goomba” enemy, that spawns for a single frame underneath the final level and is, as far as is known, impossible to reach. His hypothesis of the Goomba’s existence and why he believes it to be so, his discovery thereof via manipulating camera angles (a grainy snapshot that would make a Nessie-spotter baulk), an explanation of why it (dis)appears where and when it does, and a ten-minute video exploring everything he has tried to reach the Goomba without success, are all painstakingly chronicled.
Hypotheses, experiments, results and proofs – literal science. I am fairly serious when I say he could obtain an actual PhD for the sheer scope and meticulousness of his investigations. And it’s no longer a mere hobby for him – with over 100,000 YouTube subscribers, Pannen is now able to make a legitimate living from his SM64 escapades, and he is currently offering a $1,000 “bounty” to anyone who can replicate a particular teleport-like glitch that one player triggered once (inadvertently) during a recorded speedrun in 2015, but that nobody has ever been able to reproduce since. If you fancy a bash at getting that cash, looky here.
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Right, all very interesting (or not – your mileage may vary), but what has this got to do with me, your humble narrator? Good question, and I’ll tell you – I want to be like him.
His accomplishments in his particular field of research stand alongside Leibniz and Newton’s discoveries in calculus, albeit I doubt he’s going to become a household name like them (okay, bit of a stretch). Even after these triumphant milestones, he still returns to see where he can improve in every element of his runs in the vein of a world-class athlete. Or he pursues ever more unorthodox methods of splitting, splicing, dissecting, deconstructing and rearranging the game, like an artist finding new materials or techniques to paint, sculpt, film. Moreover, his love, passion and dedication to the craft is like that of Gomez and Morticia Addams for one another – a singular and undying adoration, a symbiotic relationship that blooms ever more over time. Super Mario 64 and pannenkoek2012 bring out more in one another than most couples do, and are wholly more than their individual selves.
There are plenty of comments under his videos deriding his efforts as a “waste of time” (as are games and art in general, if you want to reductio that absurdum), and that there’s no higher purpose to any of these restricted challenges, and best of all, that all the credit being given to him should go to the toolkits he uses to implement precision movements (by the same logic, all the credit given to Da Vinci should go to his paintbrushes). And maybe there won’t be some concrete, usable service gained from anything that he does, though some argue it may have implications for the mathematics and physics of games programming going forward, as well as exploring sociological questions like “Why do we so enjoy taking things apart / imposing constraints on ourselves / listening to complex theories being posited even when we often don’t fully understand the mechanics of them?”
But all of that misses the central point. Sean Buchanan has found, and dived headlong into, a subject of his interest, and dedicated himself to attaining the closest thing he can to perfection in his knowledge and understanding of it. He has poured hundreds, probably thousands of hours into his extremely specific skillset over ten years (you may have heard of the 10,000 hours it takes to achieve true mastery of something; it’s half-true), and has entertained tens of thousands of viewers in the process, many of whom have never even played SM64 themselves, but who simply enjoy seeing somebody so wholeheartedly laying bare its inner workings.
I don’t know how good he is at anything else in his life – like, I presume he can take care of himself in basic day-to-day life functions like cooking and cleaning, and he has other interests beyond cracking open video games (not to the same extent, but they’re there). But if my presumptions are correct, then he’s achieved the sort of vocational ideal that game developers Valve look for in their employees, as illustrated on page 46 of their magnificent company handbook – a “T-shaped” person, with a wide breadth of knowledge in a variety of areas (“computer science major” covers a lot of ground), and one specific, hardcore, deep-rooted area of expertise.
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So, this is where I want to get myself as well – “T-shaped”. I have the starting problem of not knowing what my area of expertise ought to be – I definitely have the breadth of knowledge to be a threat in any pub quiz you care to bring me to, and knowledge bases and skillsets that cover things such as linguistics, etymology, lexicology, and other language-based and writing-based fields of study; motor racing, especially Formula 1; Nintendo video games (shock horror); internet memetics; some degree of competency in music theory and practice… I’d say something relating to my undergrad studies in game development but I’ve forgotten/suppressed nearly all of it. I know, without resorting to self-aggrandisement, that I’m an intelligent guy with the privilege of time and freedom to pursue some highly dedicated self-teaching. The question, then, is where to focus all of this time and energy that, currently, I am putting to waste.
When I was at Abertay Uni, I came across a book in the library (quite unrelated to my course) by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi on his concept of “flow”, whereby a person reaches their greatest states of achievement, and of happiness and contentment, when they apply skills at which they excel to a challenge that is in need of such skills to overcome. Too little challenge for the skill, and the person will be bored or apathetic; too little skill for the challenge, and the person will be worried or anxious. How very much like Pannen’s adventures! A seemingly immovable (or unreachable) object, being met with his seemingly unstoppable force of will, is a case study in flow.
A related area of Csíkszentmihályi’s studies is intrinsic motivation, and I think this is where the light is slowly starting to come on in my head (this bit is taking an age to write compared to the earlier paragraphs – introspection is tricky). Certain phrases come back to me time and again from popular culture – my fridge magnet that says “I would be unstoppable, if I could just get started”; a simple lyric from You’re The Best Thing by The Style Council – “I could be a lot / But I know I’m not”; a three-panel web comic by the hauntingly brilliant A Softer World that reads “If you put your mind to it / you can do anything. / But you won’t”. Juxtaposing them like this, it can’t be coincidence that I’ve held onto these particular phrases in my mind.
Man, writing is therapeutic.
Pannen, until recently, didn’t get any recompense for doing what he did, and he still doesn’t do it for the adulation, nor the money, nor even really for the achievements themselves. He does it because the doing thrills him, fills him with fantastic feelings ne’er felt before. I need something intrinsic like this. I still submit to writing contests, but that seems to be the primary source of motivation for writing most things nowadays, and that’s no way to go on in a creative endeavour. It doesn’t have to be done without an external end to the means, but it probably should.
That ought to change.
But it’s not just in terms of my occupation that I’m trying to view things in terms of Pannen. I believe, to an extent, that this can be applied to relationships too. I don’t mean in the Groundhog Day sense of finding out every one of her favourite drinks, restaurants, poets et cetera and trying to woo her with those – I mean in knowing what makes your partner(s) laugh, what habits tick them off, whether they’d appreciate a surprise trip to the Caribbean or whether they’re the sort of person to freak out even at nice surprises on that scale. Knowing, and adapting, and relating to the challenge that is a relationship, or a friendship, or a business or workplace partnership – these are all skills too, and I reckon a sort of social flow comes with maintaining such interactions well.
I can probably get better at those, too.
And, I hypothesise, this can be scaled upwards to a five-year plan of where I want to be living and what I’m doing and who I’m doing it with and so forth, or it can be scaled down to washing dishes regularly, or cleaning some gorram space on my bedroom floor, or taking less than two days, on and off, to finish a blog post.
So. Mission statement. Flow. Focus. Choose life. Choose finishing and posting this blurb. Choose getting to bed not long after and setting an alarm even though it’s a Sunday. Apply for jobs slightly better than I think I can do, because I might just surprise myself – I know more than I think I know. Apply myself to writing things for the sake of writing them – I know I enjoy it, and that it’s a matter of shutting the distractions out for however long it takes – 15 or 20 minutes or so – for that bit of my creative self to unfurl like a flower blooming, and for the words to start coming in a stream, a flow instead of a drip or a trickle, as they’re doing now at last after hours of frustrating stop-start half-sentence-at-a-time tomfoolery.
Learn a bit of Gaelic every day – I made a start last month but trailed off, but a dozen or so new words a day is totally feasible, and the great thing is that I’m not doing this with an end goal in mind (though it may be useful should I ever get a civil service job or the like) – I simply want to speak and write a bit of Gaelic. Cook for myself, and my mum, more often – she deserves it. Insist on doing more around the place in general for both our sakes. A weird and highly unromantic one, but I gotta be brutally honest with myself: brush my teeth twice a day every day, not once a day most days – it’s kind of the opposite of flow, but my mouth, and dentistry bills, will thank me later in life.
Uh… this went off somewhere else, I guess. But this is part of the learning process – I haven’t written something like this in a while, so I’ll need to relearn the discipline of reining in tangential thoughts and keeping my writing taut (and using less of these parenthetical asides; I’m sure they disrupt the flow of the piece).
To tomorrow. To flow. To pannenkoek.
*Near the end of writing this, I realised that, by sheer coincidence, tomorrow – February 18th – will mark the 20th anniversary of my first rescue of Princess Peach in SM64. I remember the date because six-year-old me wrote it in a diary. As time goes by-y-y…
**A couple of months ago, Pannen uploaded an updated version that, while still requiring half an A-press, slashes his previous completion time to a mere five and a half hours. Jamboree!