Suppose Mario is walking on the surface of a planet. If he starts walking from a known location, in a fixed direction, for a predetermined distance, how quickly can we determine where he will stop?

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More formally, suppose we are given a convex polytope $P$ in 3-space, a starting point $s$ on the surface of $P$, a direction vector $v$ (in the plane of some facet containing $p$), and a distance $\ell$. How quickly can we determine which facet of $P$ Mario will stop inside? (As a technical point, assume that if Mario walks into a vertex of $P$, he immediately explodes; fortunately, this almost never happens.)

Or if you prefer: suppose we are given the polytope $P$, the source point $s$, and the direction vector $v$ in advance. After preprocessing, how quickly can we answer the question for a given distance $\ell$?

It's easy to simply trace Mario's footsteps, especially if $P$ has only triangular facets. Whenever Mario enters a facet through one of its edges, we can determine in $O(1)$ time which of the other two edges he must leave through. Although the running time of this algorithm is only linear in the number of edge-crossings, it's unbounded as a function of the input size, because the distance $\ell$ could be arbitrarily larger than the diameter of $P$. Can we do better?

(In practice, the path length isn't actually unbounded; there is a global upper bound in terms of the number of bits needed to represent the input. But insisting on integer inputs raises some rather nasty numerical issues — How do we compute exactly where to stop? — so let's stick to real inputs and exact real arithmetic.)

Is anything nontrivial known about the complexity of this problem?

Update: In light of julkiewicz's comment, it seems clear that a real-RAM running time bounded purely in terms of $n$ (the complexity of the polytope) is impossible. Consider the special case of a two-sided unit square $[0,1]^2$, with Mario starting at $(0,1/2)$ and walking in direction $(1,0)$. Mario will stop on the front or the back of the square depending on the parity of the integer $\lfloor \ell \rfloor$. We can't compute the floor function in constant time on the real RAM, unless we're happy equating PSPACE and P. But we can compute $\lfloor \ell \rfloor$ in $O(\log \ell)$ time by exponential search, which is an exponential improvement over the naive algorithm. Is time polynomial in $n$ and $\log \ell$ always achievable?

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    $\begingroup$ I thought of a simpler problem, that is: we have a plain polygon and a beam of light traveling from a given point. When it reaches an edge it just gets mirrored. We want to know where the beam will end its travel after the given distance. It could (almost) be reduced to this one, by taking a polytope that is a prism of a very small height with the top and bottom sides in a shape of a given polygone. Maybe solving this first could help. $\endgroup$
    – julkiewicz
    Commented May 2, 2011 at 0:57
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    $\begingroup$ “[T]ime polynomial in n and log l” does not make sense to me. If it depends on l, it must also depend on the coordinates of P, and if you add log of all the numbers in the input, that is exactly the number of bits needed to represent the input when the input coordinates are restricted to integers. I think that you are looking at the time complexity on a real RAM when the input is given as a bit string. $\endgroup$ Commented May 2, 2011 at 11:21
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    $\begingroup$ Even deciding if Mario ever hits a vertex (independent of $\ell$) seems difficult. I think here we run into the many unknowns in the area of billiard dynamics. $\endgroup$ Commented May 3, 2011 at 11:10
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    $\begingroup$ Not really related, but this paper about the NP-Completeness of Super Mario is really amazing: arxiv.org/pdf/1203.1895v1.pdf $\endgroup$
    – Lamine
    Commented Mar 16, 2012 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ "Maybe that's why it's so highly rated," said someone completely apathetic about complexity theory. $\endgroup$
    – Jeffε
    Commented Jun 7, 2013 at 3:00

2 Answers 2


This problem is very very difficult. We could simplify it to make it easier, as follows.

  1. We can add the assumption that the angle sum about every vertex of the polytope $P$ is a rational multiple of $\pi$. This gets rid of most "polytopes" but there are still many interesting possibilities: for example, the platonic solids.

  2. We can assume that the polytope is not truly three-dimensional, but instead is the "double" of a polygon; this looks a bit like a pillowcase. We can simplify even further and suppose that the polygon has equal and parallel sides; for example a square, as in the game Astroids.

If we make both of these assumptions then there is a large theory. (Finding an $O(\log(\ell))$ algorithm for the square is a difficult exercise involving the continued fraction expansion of the angle of Mario's path. To achieve a similar result for the regular octagon is possible but harder. The solutions for the square and the octagon involve thinking about how to efficiently encode a "cutting sequences for a geodesic on a translation surface". Most other rational polygons will quickly lead to open problems.) An initial reference, which includes a further reference to Caroline Series's discussion of the square torus, are these talk slides by Diana Davis.

If we do not assume rationality, but do assume that the polytope is the double of a polygon, then we are discussing the theory of "cutting sequences in irrational billiards". It seems that essentially nothing is known here; for example see the final sentence of this talk by Corinna Ulcigrai.

If we make neither assumption, well, I can't think of anything in the literature.

Finally - I'll guess that there is an $O(\log(\ell))$ solution to the Super Mario Galaxy problem for the platonic solids. This is a good problem for a graduate student getting started in rational billiards. For example, the case of the dodecahedron "should" follow from Diana Davis's thesis. (But start with the tetrahedron - that will follow from an analysis of cutting sequences for the hexagonal torus.)


I think you can do better than linear. I'm new to theoretical computer science, so forgive me if this is rubbish.

Some general ideas (of varying value):

  • If we give each facet a symbol, Mario's orbit over them can be described as a string, where the final symbol in the string is the answer.
  • We can assume without loss of generality that Mario starts on an edge (just walk backwards and extend l to the edge)
  • The 2D space of starting positions and angles can be partitioned by the next edge. So starting at edge a, x units from the bottom, with an angle of a, we end up in edge V after crossing one facet.
  • At that point we're at another edge with another orientation, so we can call the function recursively to subdivide the space into partitions of 2-symbol strings and so on.
  • At this point we're finished if we say that the space has to be discretized for the problem to be implemented on a TM. That means that every orbit must be periodic because there are only finitely many points on the discretized planet. We can calculate the function described above until we have orbits for all starting points and store this information. Then the problem becomes O(1).
  • Maybe that's a bit of a cop out. Some googling tells me that almost all billiard orbits inside rational convex polygons are periodic (ie. the periodic orbits are dense). So for a (say) square planets the same approach might work.
  • Another approach would be to consider the system as a generator/recognizer of strings (again by assigning each facet its own symbol). If the language has a known complexity class, that's your answer. If you broaden the family of polytopes to non-convex and any dimension, you may capture a very broad class of languages.

This doesn't really constitute an answer, but I need to get back to work. :)

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    $\begingroup$ "At this point we're finished if we say that the space has to be discretized for the problem to be implemented on a TM. That means that every orbit must be periodic because there are only finitely many points on the discretized planet." You've just destroyed the interesting part of the problem. I do not want to assume the input is discrete; I want to solve the actual continuous problem, even though this requires an ideal computer that can do exact real arithmetic in constant time. In particular, Mario's path need not ever touch a vertex. $\endgroup$
    – Jeffε
    Commented Jan 10, 2012 at 11:30
  • $\begingroup$ I figured that was too easy. You could do the continuous version on a finite machine, so long as the starting point and planet can be finitely described. You can just represent the path symbolically (mathematica-style). You only need to evaluate certain bounds to find which facet you end up in. If you can prove that the path is almost certainly periodic (as it is for billiards on rational convex polygons), you can still apply the same trick, but the result wouldn't be very practical. $\endgroup$
    – Peter
    Commented Jan 10, 2012 at 11:45
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    $\begingroup$ Alas, generic geodesics on generic polyhedra are not periodic. (In particular, generic polygons are not rational.) $\endgroup$
    – Jeffε
    Commented Jan 10, 2012 at 16:29
  • $\begingroup$ You (Peter) are, I think, referring to the paper "Periodic billiard orbits are dense in rational polygons". This does not mean that periodic paths are generic in rational polygons. In fact, there are only countable many periodic paths (up to parallelism) so they have no chance of being generic. $\endgroup$
    – Sam Nead
    Commented Oct 18, 2015 at 10:03
  • $\begingroup$ In fact, in a "Veech" polygon the "uniquely ergodic" paths are full measure. So if we send Mario is an random direction, he will (a) never hit a vertex (as Jeffe says in the problem statement), (b) his path will never close up, and (c) at large scales, the sequence of visited faces will look random (due to a "weak mixing" property). This doesn't suggest a negative answer to the problem -- for example, the digits of pi also look random... $\endgroup$
    – Sam Nead
    Commented Oct 18, 2015 at 10:04

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