5 Beloved Video Game Realities Broken By Speed Runs
Video games have been a hobby and refuge for their fans for a long time now. They've become even more popular currently, as people find they'd much rather explore fantastical worlds full of challenges and interesting creatures, both friend and foe, than spend every day staring at a different wall in their house during quarantine.
As with any devoted subculture, we also find people that look to take it to its absolute limit, sometimes deconstructing it along the way. Think of Legos. They started as a toy that had your mom quizzically asking of the jumbled rectangles you handed her, "Oh ... it's a rocketship?" (It was supposed to be an alligator.) Nowadays, master builders use this basic toy to construct scale models of Gothic architecture that would probably be worshipped as a religious artifact if sent back in time through a wormhole.
That, in the world of videogames, is where speedrunning comes in. Going from a fairly niche subculture growing on IRC servers and internet forums to today, where speedrunning showcases like GamesDoneQuick have hundreds of thousands of people watching live, raising millions for charity (Earlier this month, AGDQ 2021 raised almost $3 million for charity.)
Which is both great for charity and a cool way to see someone kill Marble Madness in under 3 minutes.
If you're unwise enough to bring up the category to a stranger, at a bar, or even more unwisely, on a date, the response you'd usually get is "Why?" followed closely by "Why does anyone watch that?" The answer to the first: they enjoy it. For the second, I think it's as simple as this: people like watching someone do something they're really, really good at. When Reddit and TikTok are filled with "oddly satisfying" videos and GIFs of fisherman gutting and cleaning fish at high speed, is it that weird that people want to see someone dissect Mario the same way?
Super Mario Brothers - 4 Minutes, 55.314 Seconds
It seems only natural to start with what's probably widely considered the most iconic game of all time. Even though your grandmother may be wrong when she sees you playing any video game and kindly asks, "Is that Mario?" the fact remains that she's heard of the plumber/clone super-soldier extraordinaire. He also serves as a great example of the heights of optimization that these games get to, as well as the fact that they're constantly being improved upon. In fact, this world record was set only two weeks ago, uploaded to YouTube on January 2, 2021, by runner Miniland.
First, the obvious. Miniland is very, very good at Super Mario Bros., and plays through pretty much the entire game without ever coming to a stop. But even getting Mario to and past Bowser without an enemy so much as ruffling a single mustache hair just wasn't fast enough.
Obviously, the player is going to utilize Mario's Warp Zones. Now, that's obviously a massive time save, but speedrunners decided that GETTING to this zone that let you skip almost half the game was simply too slow. So they figured out a way to clip straight through the wall into where the room was hidden.
If you're thinking this looks convenient and want to dust off the NES and give it a try, go ahead! All you'll have to do is go through the entire level without ever slowing down, and then when you get to the end, jump on the exact right frame to clip into this pipe. Given that Super Mario Bros. runs at 60 frames per second, you have all of 1/60th of a second to do that. If you don't get it, no problem, just restart the entire game.
That should give you some idea of the wiggle room you have to work with when attempting a world record speedrun of Mario Brothers, which is about the wiggle room afforded to a mosquito trapped in a block of amber.
And these precise 1/60 of a second, or "frame-perfect" inputs aren't rare in any case throughout not only SMB but many heavily optimized runs. At the top levels, there's another frame perfect jump that has to be done at the end. Mario can grab the flag at the end of the level right at the bottom by jumping at the exact perfect time, and the flag will never descend. For them, the game congratulating them on their good job completing a level is not only a waste of time to be avoided at all costs.
I like to imagine this as a grizzled, furious Mario rescuing Peach for the 10,000 time because they insist on her bodyguards being little mushroom men approximately a foot tall, screaming "NO! NO! NOT AGAIN!" at a small Toad sheepishly setting off fireworks.
Sonic The Hedgehog - 9 Minutes, 14 Seconds
The current world record for the SEGA mascot's debut (not counting his weird soft launch as a rearview mirror decoration in the 1991 racing game Rad Mobile) is 9:14, held by runner Phozonn.
Obviously, the blue hedgehog known for his speed, love of chili dogs, and abundance of nightmarish erotic fan art was going to be a popular speedrun. Perhaps it was hubris when Sonic coined his catchphrase "Gotta go fast." He didn't expect that speedrunners would take this to such an extent that he'd be rocketing across levels in seconds while spinning like a berserk azure dreidel, after which I assume he coats the finish marker in a bodily liquid that at some point was made up of chili and dog.
I mean, look at this clip, where Sonic flies over the top of almost an entire level, only coming down to headbutt a couple of computers and palm trees before slamming directly into Dr. Robotnik, who was probably making a wish on what he thought was a shooting star before getting a mouthful of hedgehog fur (from who knows which body part). There's zero chance whatever used to be Sonic's organs haven't been g-forced into Jamba Juice.
Watching this speedrun makes me feel like an old cowboy who barely heard the word "DRAW" before wondering why their chest cavity was so drafty. As a 30-year-old with the reflexes of a parking garage door, I can barely play Sonic without getting vertigo, so I'm not sure how this player can basically play a video game occurring inside a kaleidoscope.
But even the normal breakneck speed of Sonic isn't enough, so they decided to figure out ways to make Sonic go even faster by doing things like forcing him into a wall, which the game does not like. It responds by spitting him out like some sort of sound-barrier-breaking sunflower seed. In fact, he gets rocketed out so fast that even the game gives up on keeping him on screen.
By the way, if you're wondering, even speedrunners hate the water levels. Everybody hates water levels.
"That song scares the shit out of me" - Jaws
DOOM Episode 1 - 5 Minutes, 53 Seconds
Every time you get murked by a 13-year-old with an unprintable username in Call of Duty, you owe a debt to the OG FPS, Doom. First distributed as shareware and since ported (unofficially) onto everything from graphing calculators to pregnancy tests, Doom is by nature a quick and frenetic game. This run-and-gun style lent itself well to speedruns because if your mom saw you explode a demon on your homework computer, she was absolutely going to make you delete that shit.
Doom contained a feature in which you could save a file of your best runs, which other Doom players could download and rewatch on their own PCs. This naturally led to competition, as people battled it out for the best time across both the game's individual levels (now known as IL runs, for short) and the entire episode. So these days, how long does it take to conquer a region of Hell as a ripped space marine? Just over five-and-a-half minutes, a record currently held by speedrunner Dwaze.
If anything, this seems almost more analogous to how most people trying to get through Hell might go about it: by running as fast as goddamn possible. Oh, and if you're wondering what the "UV" in the title stands for, it's the difficulty setting, "Ultra-Violence." I'll give you a hint: it's not the Easy or Normal option.
(NOTE: I know those commenting fingers are itching, saying this is only one part of Doom. But since it was distributed independently and has a unique category on speedrunning leaderboards, I'm counting it. All original episodes and a new one were collected in the subsequent release, Doom Ultimate, which still boasts a staggering 20-minute clear time.)
Super Mario 64 - 6 Minutes, 32 Seconds
The current world record in this category is held by Dowsky and lasts only six minutes and change. The opening cutscene where Peach is like, "That thing that happens all the time happened again, no, I'm not upping the security on my castle, come get me"? It's 1/7th of the entire game time.
We're back to Mario, this time with the addition of a new dimension. Mario 64, in NFL terms, would be a unanimous first-ballot Hall of Famer, with a cushy job doing color commentary for the rest of their life. Odds are that Mario 64 provides the mental image that pops into most people's heads when they hear the phrase "video games."
That pedigree is equaled if not surpassed in speedrunning, with it being one of the most popular speedrunning games of all time. As the years went on, speedrunners not only figured out how to get through the game more and more quickly but also started to figure out how much of the game they ACTUALLY needed to play.
As it turned out ... not that much. The jump to 3D brought not only a new experience but also a whole lot of glitches and bugs, which speedrunners were more than happy to not only find but utilize. You'll notice this pretty much immediately, as, at the beginning of the run, Dowsky goes into the castle and then, in a much more real sense, clips into the walls and goes INTO the castle.
Remember the feeling you got as you collected each star in Mario 64? You may remember, too, the "star doors" which gated progress until you'd collected the requisite amount of five-pronged prizes. Well, as speedruns progressed and the game began to come apart in player's hands like a stale croissant, they found ways to skip those star doors. Then they found ways to skip more star doors and ultimately ... a way to skip stars entirely.
Yup. The run we're looking at today is from the "0-star" category, where you foil Bowser's plot without ever so much as catching the scent of a single Power star (based on no evidence, I feel like they smell and taste like lemon tarts.)
In fact, this run contains pretty much nothing but going directly to Bowser and beating the shit out of him over and over in quick succession. I guess Mario finally figured he should focus on the kidnapping instead of tracking down errant baby penguins.
Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time - 7 Minutes, 9 Seconds
Compared to the other games on this list, completing Ocarina of Time in under 10 minutes may seem particularly insane. There's all those temples, both the child and adult sections, medallions, songs ... in most playthroughs, you probably haven't even met the Great Deku Tree before hitting the 10-minute mark.
Now, this combines with a complaint that's common to people coming into speedrunning, one you may have made yourself watching that Mario 64 run: "That's not really beating the game; you didn't do any of the stuff you were supposed to do!" Well, if that made you mad in Mario 64, this Ocarina of Time run is ... probably best avoided.
The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time is a very complex game. As such, the code that makes up the game is also very complex. And like complex machinery, it is very easy to break. Which you'll notice when this 7:09 world record speedrun by Amateseru just sort of ... ends.
As the joke goes, these sort of speedruns are more of a programming class. It turns out swords and shields aren't really that important when you can just stick your grubby hands into the web from which the world you occupy is constructed. That allows for things like seemingly wandering around the game's starting area for a couple of minutes, throwing an invisible object, and then: credits.
Now, there is one thing to make clear: this is not easy. Think of it as trying to pick an insanely complicated lock with one strand of dry spaghetti. I'd love to explain exactly how this trick works, but unfortunately, I have a creative arts degree, so I'll leave it up to this speedrunner on YouTube and his magic fridge analogy if you're curious:
As an addendum, if you're disappointed, expecting to see someone speeding through Ocarina of Time as the greatest Link to ever live in any of all the confusing timelines, there are definitely speedruns where you can do that! Most games at this level have multiple categories, and you might enjoy one like "All Dungeons," which requires exactly what it says (though expect a fair amount of breaking the game regardless), or "Glitchless," where the game has to be played more or less as intended.
These speedrunners are obviously some of the best gamers in the world, so only one question truly remains:
Can they beat Battletoads?
Yes. In 12 minutes.
Top image: Nintendo