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A Quincy youth shoots for a perfect run in record time in Super Mario video game

17 year-old Andrew Gardikis, a Super Mario Bros. champ, plays the video game in his room in Quincy.
17 year-old Andrew Gardikis, a Super Mario Bros. champ, plays the video game in his room in Quincy. (Globe Staff Photo / Tom Herde)

QUINCY -- Here's how Andrew Gardikis would capture the holy grail of video game records: He pulls out his battered Super Mario Brothers cartridge, blows on it so it will work, stuffs it into the Nintendo Entertainment System that his older brother and sister bought 15 years ago, hits record on his VCR for posterity, picks up the boxy, two-button controller, and then -- for the next five minutes and seven seconds -- he plays the best-selling video game of all time better than anyone in history. For one shining moment, Gardikis, 17, will achieve the philosophical absolute. He will be perfect.

This is not that day.

"Ugh," he says as he reaches down and hits the reset button for the umpteenth time. "I screwed up. I lost a couple 10ths."

Gardikis, a high school junior from Quincy with shaggy blond hair, is trying to break one of the most coveted video game records in the world -- a perfect run on the original Super Mario Brothers.

"It's the quintessential video game," said Kelly Flewin, a senior referee with Twin Galaxies, the organization that tracks video game world records through a website, who has been overseeing the Mario war. "It was the breakthrough. It launched Nintendo. It's hard to find someone who hasn't played Super Mario Brothers."

Twin Galaxies has been a widely recognized authority on video game and pinball records since 1981, when Walter Day, the owner of an Iowa arcade of the same name, began recording high scores from arcades around the country.

Of the Mario speed run record, "the only thing close to it in the classic gaming world is a record for Donkey Kong," said Flewin. "Any time someone sets a Mario speed run record, it's such big news that it crashes the Twin Galaxies website. They're approaching human perfection. It's for all these reasons that we call it the 'Holy Grail.' "

For a little over a year, Gardikis, who is also a remarkable juggler and seems gifted with superb hand-eye coordination, shared the world record for the "minimalist completion speed run" -- which allows players to take the shortest route through the game using "warp zone" shortcuts and is easily the biggest of the Mario records -- with a time of 5 minutes, 9 seconds.

In October, that record was broken by Scott Kessler, a 31-year-old from Monroe, N.C., who is a heavyweight in the gaming world. Kessler holds 137 world records -- including the speed runs for Metroid, Zelda II, Super Mario Brothers 2, and Super Mario World -- and came out of a two-year retirement to snatch the crown for the original Super Mario with a time of 5:08. (Another gamer, Trevor Seguin, a 22-year-old from New Milford, Conn., has since matched that record.)

"I know I can do a 5:08," Gardikis says as he begins another attempt at the record, breezing through the first world without even a hint of a mistake. "I've studied each level. I can play them all perfectly. Some people think a 5:07 is impossible. I think I might be able to do it, but it will probably take a live performance [in front of judges] to overcome the VCR lag." (Gardikis believes the VCR records just a bit slower than his real speed, costing him about a 10th of a second every minute.)

Gardikis was not even alive for the Mario mania of the 1980s, when the little guy from Brooklyn with the mustache and overalls became the world's most famous plumber. Mario had his own TV show and lunch box; buskers and symphony orchestras played his theme song; more than 40 million people owned the game, which came bundled with the original Nintendo; and countless more snuck off to a friend's house to navigate through the mushroom kingdom on the way to save the princess from the evil dragon, Bowser.

So how did the junior at Norfolk County Agricultural High School get into the mix?

"We've always had this game around the house, and I've always been good at it. I guess I have good hand-eye coordination," said Gardikis, who can juggle seven balls and push a video game button more than 12 times a second (he's timed it). "Then, about three years ago, I saw something on G4" -- a cable channel that covers the video game world -- "about a guy who had the record for the Super Mario speed run. And I was, like, 'I think I can beat that.' "

At that time, the record was 5:20. Gardikis's best time was about 6 minutes, but he practiced for a couple weeks and got it down to a 5:21.

Then, out of the blue, Kessler dropped the record to 5:13.

"Every time I'd get close, someone would lower the record," said Gardikis, throwing his shoulders into the controller as he vault ed Goombas and stomp ed on the Koopa Troopa turtles.

In 2005, Gardikis recorded his 5:09, which tied him with Seguin and another gamer for the world record. ( He thinks his time was a few 10ths faster; Twin Galaxies does not track 10ths of a second for the Super Mario speed run.)

"It's around here somewhere," he said as he dug through a pile of dusty VHS tapes underneath the television that sits underneath a Super Mario clock in his cramped bedroom on West Street. Finally, he pull ed out a tape labeled "Super Mario Bros. 1 World Record 5:09.3. Don't Lose This!"

As the tape starts, it looks like a computer simulation. Mario is moving without hesitation, hitting every jump perfectly, destroying any enemies that get in his way.

Suddenly, Gardikis gets up and pauses the tape on level 4-2.

"See here," he said, pointing at the screen. "I paused before I hopped on the vine. I think that cost me three- 10ths. " He continue d through the tape, pointing out microscopic errors -- "This is a slow execution of the jump over the piranha plant" -- before Mario finally sends Bowser into a flaming pit and saves the princess.

For all his prowess with a controller, Gardikis says he's just a regular teenager. He has a girlfriend, Laura Mahoney, one of his classmates; he runs on the school cross-country team; he enjoys pogo sticks and unicycles. But, he concedes, it's pretty cool to be a gaming star.

"People would kind of freak out when I told them I had the record," he said. "A lot of people thought I was lying. I told my teachers about it, and they were like, 'How?' 'Why?' "

Gardikis currently holds 35 Twin Galaxies records, including nine for Track & Field for the original Nintendo system. (He also unofficially holds the record for the full completion Super Mario Brothers speed run -- without using shortcuts -- with a time of 19:57, though he has yet to submit the tape to Twin Galaxies for verification).

But as he leans back on his twin bed and extends his long, lanky frame, he says that none of the records are as important to him as the quest for the holy grail.

"I've gotten 5:09 six times," he said with a hint of frustration in his voice. "I'll play it for a week and then I'll have to quit. It's kind of driving me nuts."

It is a madness shared by his competitors.

"For that 5:08, I would guess I recorded 50 hours of tape," Kessler, the gaming heavyweight who is a software engineer by day, said in a recent telephone interview. "That's hundreds of attempts, because it only takes 5 minutes to finish and you stop if you mess up. I've never been so stoked about finally setting a record."

Kessler, who said that he and Gardikis are "friendly rivals," believes that if a 5:07 is possible, Gardikis has the skills to do it.

"What they're doing is mind-bogglingly difficult," said Flewin, the Twin Galaxies referee. "You make the tiniest little error and, poof, there goes the perfect run. It just grates on you and makes you go crazy. That little mistake will haunt you.

"But you can always hit the reset button, and away you go."