Andrew Gardikis is sitting on the edge of his twin bed on the second floor of his family’s house in Quincy, a boxy old video game controller in his left hand, ready to go. He reaches down with his free hand and starts a DVD recorder, hits the reset button on the Nintendo Entertainment System that came out a few years before he did, and starts playing “Super Mario Bros.” Again.
For the past 10 years, beginning when he was 14, Gardikis has been on a very particular quest. He doesn’t just want to play “Super Mario Bros.” better than anyone else in the world. He’s already done that. At 24, he has long been considered the best to ever play “Mario,” one of the most popular video games of all time. Since 2007, he’s held the world record for the fastest time.
What he wants is to defeat Bowser and rescue the princess in the fastest time mathematically possible. In short, he wants to play the perfect game. It’s something no one has ever come close to in any of the video games that players “speed-run” competitively. Gardikis is less than a second away.
“Let’s see if this is going to be the one,” he says as he takes control of Mario, pushes hard on the control pad, and once again leads the plumber from Brooklyn into the land of the Goombas and Koopa Troopas.
“Super Mario Bros.” came out in 1985, five years before Gardikis was born, and essentially launched Nintendo into a global brand. For nearly three decades, it was the best-selling video game of all time, with more than 40 million copies in circulation. Gardikis started playing with his older brother and sister, quickly discovered he was extraordinarily good at it, and after seeing a speed run on a television show in 2004, he took on the challenge of playing “Mario” better than anyone ever had.
At that time, the world record was 5:11, and it was video game scripture that no one would ever break 5 minutes. In 2010, Gardikis did. But the game had become so optimized, every shortcut and glitch well-established, that it was possible to figure out the lowest possible time: 4:57. And so that became Gardikis’s only goal.
Chasing perfection, and only perfection, means living with constant failure. It’s been two years since Gardikis lowered his world record to 4:58, and there are now three players just behind him with sub-5-minute times. He says he is not competing with them; he is only competing with himself, to see if he can finally pull it all together, just one time, “and be pixel perfect.”
Other than his stardom in the gaming world, Gardikis leads a rather low-key life. He still lives at home, and is still dating his high school sweetheart, Laura Mahoney, who is a student at Tufts Veterinary School. He studied math in college and is thinking about becoming a teacher, but at the moment he works at a local bank and spends most of his free time hanging out with Mahoney and playing “Mario,” something she supports, with a few caveats.
“He also has to participate in my weird hobbies,” she said. “I show cows. He has to come to that.”
As Gardikis hits the reset button for the umpteenth time to play a game for a reporter, he’s perfect for the first few levels, then makes the tiniest of mistakes, throws the controller on the bed. Reset. This is how it goes, often for two to three hours a night.
Gardikis is tall and lanky, with a pleasant goofiness about him. He doesn’t come across as obsessed, or even terribly frustrated with each failure. He still loves to play. It’s not a chore, he insists, though he has walked away from the game for long stretches out of frustration.
Sometimes, he’ll pick up the game and just mess around. He’s beat it blindfolded. He’s beat it while juggling two balls in one hand (when he has both hands free, he can juggle seven balls). And he will occasionally get serious about other games. He holds the speed-running world records for “Super Mario Bros. 2” and “3,” as well as a few others. But mostly, he’s just a guy trying to finish what he started, which is to do what no one has done before.
“The ultimate goal of any speed runner is to get the lowest possible time, to push their game to the absolute limits,” according to a friend of Gardikis who goes by the handle Sinister1, and is known for speed-running “Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out.” “But even though it’s the ultimate goal, it’s kind of an unattainable goal, and most people quit well before that. That’s why the community is really excited that he is so close.”
But for all the built-in frustrations of his quest, there are those moments when everything is going well, when he makes it to the final level perfectly, when the stars have aligned and he can feel an energy coursing through his body. “It gets to this moment where it’s like, ‘If I do this, it’s over, my quest is done,’ ” he said. “And I’ll get about halfway through the stage and just freak out. But the fun is getting to the point where you can get that thrill.”
And on those days when it’s not going well, there’s always the reset button, the fresh game, the belief that this is the time that he will, for 4 minutes and 57 seconds, be absolutely perfect.
Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.