Every day this month, a 20-year-old named Michael “Siglemic” Sigler is playing Super Mario 64 for 12 hours. Twenty-year-olds playing a lot of Nintendo in the summer aren’t so unusual, but Sigler holds the world record for speed in Mario 64, and he’s trying to beat that record to secure it from a Japanese guy named “Honey” who’s nipping at his heels. (Honey actually took the record briefly on Aug. 10; Sigler, inflamed, got it back before Honey could finish uploading it to YouTube.) You can watch Sigler go for it every day, in a live-streamed video chat room with thousands of other anonymous fans.
If you’ve played Mario 64 enough to know how it’s supposed to go—if you spent the fall of 1996 exploring it, trading tricks with your friends, and maybe even getting your gaming-phobic parents competing over who could get more stars—Sigler’s stream is surreal. Mario 64 gives you an unusually deep set of moves—jumps, flips, dives, and more. Sigler, who was four years old when this game came out, uses all of them in ways that seem impossible, doing in seconds what once took a novice player days. When he’s on, it looks like Mario parkour, a virtuosic dance performance in the Mushroom Kingdom.
Speedrunners have achieved impressive feats of dexterity. A guy named Andrew Gardakis holds the world record in the original Super Mario Bros., rescuing the princess in four minutes and 58 seconds. But Sigler’s performances are even more athletic. They last for an hour and 45 minutes and require the precise execution of thousands of moves. The best possible time is somewhere around 1:39; to get much faster than he already is, he’ll have to be almost perfect.
In practice, nine times out of 10, Sigler messes up in the first five minutes—where “messing up” means overshooting a coin by some fractional distance—and hits the reset button, muttering crankily to himself and his audience. His resets are frustrating to watch, but they also heighten the excitement when he makes it past the first few hurdles. At those moments, I’ve found myself biting my nails with a nervousness not usually associated with “sitting alone in my apartment watching some guy play video games on the internet.”
A few nights back, I watched Sigler make it all the way to Tall Tall Mountain, a world about four-fifths of the way through the game, with a 30-second lead on his record time. His viewership mysteriously doubled, as if the internet had a collective premonition that someone was about to beat Mario 64 really fast, and the tone of the chat room became more anxious. Then, halfway through Mario’s labors on Tall Tall Mountain, he was struck by a cannonball, which made him fall off a cliff, which made him bounce off a mole (there’s really no dignity in this line of work), which made him fall off another cliff, which killed him. While Sigler presumably looked around for a cliff to jump off himself, the chatroom exploded in page after page of variations on “No… NO… NOOOOOOOOOO!” until moderators shut it down.
Avid speedrunning fans are generally pretty warm and supportive. But Sigler has attracted a wider audience, and they offer a mix of cheerleading, rote heckling (”Choke! You fucked up! Reset!”), funny heckling (”Guys, be nice—I remember when I first started playing this game and I was as bad as Sig”), random racial slurs, animal faces, and the wordplay and running jokes that tend to metastasize in chat rooms. Every few seconds, someone will yell, “THIS IS THE RUN!” Except no one has said “run” in ages, because they’ve all been saying “THIS IS THE URN!” since the first time some sap mistyped it.
Sigler seems untroubled by his peanut gallery, offering occasional remarks in the narcotized tones you might expect from someone who’s been playing 12 hours of Mario 64 every day for the past month. He’s stoic in the face of what must be serious frustration. Playing the game is literally his job: His subscribers pay $4.99 to watch him play, and everyone else watches ads every few minutes. One needling question about his social life earned the laconic response, “Fuck real life. It’s basically…overrated.” (I’d argue, but then again, I’m alone in my bedroom watching him play Nintendo.) Most of the time, he says nothing—you just hear his controller tapping.
I was once talking about games with a psychologist friend, reflecting on how much of my parents’ “stop rotting your brain” message I’d internalized. “On the other hand,” I said, “I don’t know of anything else that lets you travel so deeply into a fictional world.” He grinned and said, “Psychosis?” Games demand that you disappear down their individual rabbit holes, usually alone. That’s part of their appeal, but it can be isolating, too.
So watching a guy you’ve never met, whose face you’ve never seen, play Mario 64 for a chat room full of invisible watchers should be kind of lonely, shouldn’t it? But I actually feel a weird sense of communion. I might not want to have dinner with most of these knuckleheads, but their enthusiasm’s contagious, because it’s live; if I watched the run later, the excitement would be gone with the crowd.
What might last after the real-time thrill is gone is what Sigler’s runs say about Mario 64 and the old-school design philosophy it embodies. Many newer games deliver a more polished experience at the expense of the player’s feeling of control. In relative terms, they’re less about inhabiting a space and more about being pinballed through a series of impressive set pieces—a trend that makes them more dazzling, but less likely to last.
An example: Sigler’s goal is to collect all 120 stars in Mario 64 in less than an hour and 44 minutes. Super Mario Galaxy, a decade newer, has the same 120 stars, and speedrunners think that seven hours is a reasonable mark. That’s a lot of extra padding for the same basic goal. Galaxy leads you down certain paths at its own pace, halting your progress to play up the drama of its story or to explain things that don’t really need explanation. It’s a roller coaster, but Mario 64 is a playground, throwing you into a dynamic world and letting you make your own way. In that sense, Mario 64 performs an act of game design generosity and humility: it allows itself to be not its own story but a venue for yours.
Of course, some stories are more gripping than others. Like the kind of athletes who aren’t holding Nintendo controllers, Michael Sigler is telling a story that’s not entirely in his control. If you head over to his channel now, you may yet catch the last chapter; whether it’ll end in glorious triumph or mole-bouncing defeat is, delightfully, still up in the air.