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Video Game Speedrunning is an Art to Those Who Practice

Video Game Speedrunning is an Art to Those Who Practice:

Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.


There are roughly 50 people slowly filing in for the speedrunning demonstration. We’re in the Pittsburgh convention center for the Replay gaming conference and tournament. With more than 700 machines on site, it’s the world’s largest-ever public collection of both classic arcade games and pinball machines. There’s a Velcro wall. There’s a face-painting booth. And in one auditorium, two gamers known for their incredible speed—and by their online handles, Breakdown and Elipsis—are hooking up an old Nintendo to an overhead projector to show others how they play and complete old-school games at lightning speed.

By finding loopholes in games and simply warping through levels as quickly as possible, gamers who speedrun work to shave half-seconds off the record times—or simply find a quick, fun way to play a favorite old game. Locating glitches can involve repetitively playing a game for weeks to shave a few seconds off your personal best score, or simply finding the perfect pixel that allows you to access a hidden shortcut in the game’s memory or design. Watching other players attempt these sorts of feats is one of the best ways to find new maneuvers and tricks.

“We do stuff that makes developers cry themselves to sleep,” Breakdown jokes.

Today’s lineup will include some speedrunning Nintendo favorites: Super Mario Bros. 3, Marble Madness and The Legend of Zelda.

“Anybody speedrun?” Breakdown asks with a friendly, enthusiastic lilt in his voice.

“Attempts,” someone offers with a shrug. “Mostly Mario 2.”

Breakdown and Elipsis both look up, wide-eyed. “That’s a hard game,” Breakdown says approvingly.

NEW TRICKS IN OLD GAMES

Above: Nintendo Totally Rad speedrun by Breakdown from the March 2015 Games Done Quick charity speedrun marathon, an event that raises money for the Prevent Cancer Foundation

Speedrunning isn’t necessarily limited to specific games, though racing through a game does come at all costs. “Speedrunning is about how broken this 8-bit box can be,” Breakdown says with a wide grin, picking up the controller and starting a round of Strider, a 1989 Capcom game, which he can beat inside of five minutes. The entire game normally takes at least half an hour to complete. I’d never seen anyone play it before, let alone complete the whole game in mere minutes.

Speedrunning is also—and primarily, at least for hobbyists who do it more for fun than competition—about finding new tricks in old games. To put it another way, it offers a fresh perspective on a game some players might feel is obsolete or simply grew tired of playing a decade ago.

People committed to speedrunning often upload videos proving their skill to websites such as the Speed Demos Archive (SDA), an online repository for speedrunning videos. Online since 1998, SDA has been open to runs from all games since 2004. Site administrators require that everyone submitting videos follows a few basic rules and used to accept videos submitted on DVD until YouTube and other web video hosting sites made it easier to upload and submit speedrun videos. SDA site administrators also require verification for record-time speedruns in order to only post legitimate content.

And while there’s theoretically no limit on the types of games eligible for a speedrun, games like The Sims or World of Warcraft don’t really qualify as games through which a player can speedrun, mainly because they have no true endings but will continue as long as players keep plugging away.

PASSING THE TORCH

Above: Sega Genesis game *Ristar speedrun by Breakdown at Games Done Quick*

Breakdown finishes up his game of Strider and asks if anyone wants to give it a shot. A young boy, Bobby, shyly offers to come forward. Breakdown hands him the controller and offers a few tips on finding the exact spot where he needs to line up his character.

It’s not as easy as it seems. Bobby tries again—and again, and again. But on about the fifth try, he gets it. The crowd cheers wildly.

Elipsis is clearly impressed. “I only learned this trick the other night,” he adds in encouragement. As Bobby goes back to his seat, I glance around. Around 100 people have trickled in to observe, most leaning forward in awe of the rapid playthroughs they’ve never seen before.

Speedrunning is gaining momentum in large part because it isn’t just, well, fun and games. It can also be done in the pursuit of something beyond personal glory or bragging rights. Since 2010, Games Done Quick (GDQ) has been organizing biannual speedrunning events that bring players together to raise money for charities including the Prevent Cancer Foundation and Doctors Without Borders. (Raising money for noble causes, it’s probably obvious that these are family-friendly events with no alcohol or drugs permitted.)

In August 2015, the Summer Games Done Quick 2015 (SGDQ 2015) marathon brought in a whopping $1.23 million, the most money in GDQ history.

“Speedruns are getting more popular, but they’re still a fairly niche part of gaming, which hasn’t been a traditionally large part of charities,” Chris Grant of GDQ tells me. “We had about 1,200 attendees at SGDQ 2015, but we still maintained near 100,000 viewers for most of the marathon.”

As more and more fans at home tune into live broadcasts and upload videos, the speedrunning community—whether for charity or just for fun—continues to raise its own visibility.

LESSONS LEARNED

Above: *Super Mario Bros. 3 speedrun by Elipsis from February 2015, clocking in at 3:57*

Back at the speedrunning demo, Elipsis is playing Super Mario Brothers 3. As he warps between worlds, I faux-smugly hiss at my husband, “I know how to do that!” He grins. If there’s one classic console game this non-gamer knows—and one he’s been asked to play in the almost decade we’ve been together—it’s Mario 3.

Then, in an impressive move, Elipsis uses a glitch in the game’s memory to finish within minutes. It’s a so-called “wrong warp” that allows a player to access a wormhole in the game and end up in the final scene by taking a shortcut. We all stare in disbelief, then roar with applause. It’s a difficult move that, allegedly, only about a dozen people have even mastered. And we’ve just watched it play out in person, in real time.

If there’s any misconception about speedrunning, Elipsis tells me afterward, it’s that speedrunning is only about beating a record. He assures me it isn’t. Speedrunning is about finding new ways to play old games. And like a lot of gaming, it’s about enjoying a challenge and meeting like-minded people who enjoy the same types of games or scenarios.

I nod knowingly. Next time I get tired of grinding my way through difficult worlds in Super Mario 3, I might just try a few of the speedrunning tricks I saw.


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