Inside one man's quest to master Dr. Mario
“I know with Nintendo,” comedian and writer Glen Tickle tells me over the phone, “usually a new Zelda game is the benchmark question that everybody asks when they announce a new system.” He’s not wrong, either. It’s all about the latest and greatest Legend of Zelda, with a few hopefuls still looking for a Metroid or Star Fox. But Tickle isn’t interested in that stuff. “I’m much more interested in Dr. Mario.”
It helps that Tickle’s rather good at Dr. Mario in all its incarnations. The idea behind the game is to clear out a set of viruses in a pill bottle-shaped level with pills that drop from the top of the screen. Think of it like a more complicated Tetris, though Tickle’s not a huge fan of that comparison. “It is like Tetris insomuch as things fall down and you have to organize them,” Tickle says a bit reluctantly. “I would and have argued that Dr. Mario is a much better game.”
And that’s why Tickle’s decided to try for the game’s world record. It’s not a popular record to shoot for in general. “I don’t think anybody’s thought about the score in Dr. Mario,” Tickle explains. For most players, the score is just something that exists in a corner of the screen--a mostly unimportant aspect to the overall experience of trying to clear the level. There’s just not a whole lot of interest in it.
The current record for the NES, which was set in 2011, is held by one Will Nichols with a score of 2,922,600 points. That’s the current Guinness World Record, mirrored by the current Twin Galaxies record, for the highest speed setting the game has. There are other records at Twin Galaxies for the lower speeds, but Tickle’s fairly confident in his ability to beat Nichols’ high-speed score--despite, in his own words, being “not particularly good” at video games in general.
The world record attempt itself stems back to a bit of a mistake on Tickle’s part. “I was like, ‘I’ve been very good at this game since childhood. Is there a world record? If so, what is it? And could I beat it?’” He checked, saw Nichols’ record, and decided he could trump it. “I turned the game on and played around to level 10 to see what my score was, and it was 20,000 something, but I read it wrong and thought was 200,000.” Given the mistake, he thought it was a snap, and so started training.
It wasn’t until later that he realized his mistake. “I was overly confident that I could do it,” he says, but that didn’t dissuade him. “I was like ‘Oh, no yeah, I can still beat it, it’s just going to take me a little longer.” His current high score? Somewhere around 1,500,000.
But why try at all? What got him interested in Dr. Mario in the first place? The desire for a color television, it turns out. See, back in the day, young Tickle had an NES, but a black-and-white television. Being terribly clever already, he schemed to get them to buy a color television by asking for a copy of Dr. Mario. “I thought if I asked my parents for Dr. Mario,” he says, “they would realize it is color based, and then they would get us a color television… I knew if we asked for a color television that was too big of an ask[.]”
The ploy failed. Though she bought Dr. Mario, Tickle’s mother did not take the bait and think, “Oh, this requires color, so, I should buy a color television,” so much as, “Glen wants this game, so, I’ll buy him this game.” That didn’t stop Tickle from playing, however, though it made the game much, much harder given that he had no way to tell the yellow and blue pills apart.
“You’re just trying to get rid of red and hope for the rest,” he says of his time with the black-and-white television. “But I would try.” He tried so much, in fact, that he got good at the game despite the handicap. “I would bring it to my friends’ houses and we would try to play it there [on a color television,]” Tickle continues. “And then I started getting very good, and nobody ever wanted to play it.”
This continued on throughout the years, and Tickle’s only gotten better with time. The first time he thought about taking on the world record, he was playing Dr. Luigi for the Wii U on a mode that specifically uses the old Dr. Mario rules. “The highest level you can start at is level 20,” he tells me, “the game lets you keep going, but you play that level over and over again, because it can’t make it any harder.” But it also lets you start at zero and work all the way to level 20, which then repeats.
So, that’s what he did. He went from zero to level 45 on a single life. That’s when he started paying attention to the score. Dr. Luigi doesn’t keep a cumulative score, opting instead for a score per board. It wasn’t important to him before, but suddenly it was. “There’s a score in Super Mario Bros., but who cares,” he says, “you’re just trying to beat the level.” He started tracking combos, which earn more points, and trying to determine how to get the highest score possible.
Which is where he came to a realization: setting the world record for Dr. Mario would be less of a sudden sprint and more of a marathon. “You can just endure,” he says. “If you play long enough, you will set the world record.” The problem is building the score-important combos, which itself takes time. In his practice runs, it can take Tickle between five and ten minutes to clear level 20. “You’re basically waiting for the right pill to come down while you’re figuring out where to put the rest of them,” he tells me, “and you have to clear some pills to make room, but you don’t want to clear too many, because you want to get rid of them in a combo.”
When playing like this, he regularly earns between 50,000 and 100,000 points a level. To hit Will Nichols’ score of 2,922,600, at an average of 75,000 a level, Tickle would need to complete around 39 levels at his current pace. That’s somewhere between three and seven hours given how long it takes to complete a single level, which is not exactly an easy feat.
Even so, Tickle remains confident in his ability. Given that I’ve known him personally and even worked with him off and on for years and the only video game he’s ever talked about is Dr. Mario, so am I. He’s certain that, one day, he will topple the score that Nichols set back in 2011. It’s just a matter of time.
“Dr. Mario is the thing that I’m best at in life,” he tells me at the end of our conversation, “but that doesn’t translate. There’s nothing I can do with those skills. If you’re super good at Call of Duty, I don’t know if that makes you qualified to be an actual soldier or anything, but being very good at Dr. Mario definitely doesn’t qualify me to be a doctor or a pharmacist. Or a Mario! Certainly not a plumber.”
“It’s not the only thing I’m good at, but it is the thing I’m best at, hands down. I put it on my resume and it’s been there for years. And no one’s ever really called me on it.”