Speedrunning: recapturing the fun of gaming millisecond by millisecond

A woman ready to do some speedrunning

For a lot of us longer-toothed gamers, our love of gaming was really cemented in schoolyards and playgrounds. In between some fairly serious rounds of Pokemon card negotiation, our crew of cool cats could be heard talking about ways to get out of bounds on Tony Hawks, comparing Gran Turismo times, the best way past the Flood in Halo, and sharing spurious cheat codes found on GameFAQs.

Growing older, no longer immersed in this atmosphere of friendly competition and collaboration, the sheen of gaming can begin to wear off. Many of us no longer have a connection to a gaming community as we once did.

For a growing contingent of gamers, the magic of video games lives on in speedrunning. Far from “playing it wrong,” speedrunning can make games fun again, allowing you to rediscover everything you once loved about the hobby with, perhaps, the most wholesome videogames community there is.

What is speedrunning?

A speedrun is an attempt to complete a game (or a section of a game) as fast as possible.

Whether it’s completing a lap, reaching the end of a level, or completing an entire game, speedrunners will use a variety of methods to finish as quickly as they can. The best scores and footage are then posted online to leaderboards (typically Speedrun.com), with the speedrunning community dissecting, discussing, and digesting the best attempts.

Speedrun.com - the home of speedrunning
Speedrun.com – the home of speedrunning

There are now many types of speedrun with the most popular being “single segment” attempts where a game or level is completed in one run. This is further categorized into “Any%” and “100%” runs with the former having no completion requirement and the latter requiring full completion of the game, e.g. all stars in Super Mario 64.

Glitches and repetition

Speedrunning typically involves a tonne of practice and careful planning it can also include the use of interesting glitches, skips, and other game-breaking discoveries that reveal how things work under the hood.

Top-level speedrunners will know everything there is to know about the game or level they are “running,” including the underlying mechanics used by level designers. Skipping entire sections, passing through walls, and other glitches that exist in the code itself are considered part of the game forever. Glitches can be exploited by speedrunners, then, to produce some incredibly quick times.

Determination and challenge

One of the best examples of this is what’s come to be called the “Weathertenko” trick, a glitch for completing the Choco Mountain course in 1997’s Mario Kart 64. The trick was not discovered until 2014 when a “tool-assisted” speedrunner discovered careful positioning, the use of a mushroom, and jumping a wall at exactly the right time will fool the game into thinking you’ve driven round the whole lap.

While this was replicable using tools, the precision needed to pull it off 3 times in a row was considered beyond human capability. Nevertheless, with the odds stacked firmly against him (1/64,000 to be exact), after 27,000 attempts, one streamer called Abney managed the feat setting a yet unbroken world record with the entire speedrunning community sharing in his achievement.

Benefits of speedrunning

While the idea of playing a level or entire game over and over might not sound appealing, for an increasing number of people, speedrunning recaptures the spirit of gaming, reinvigorating both new and old games.

Extra challenge

For a lot of people involved in the community, speedruns introduce new challenges that are far more rewarding than ones set by the game itself. Learning to speedrun a game introduces a host of challenges to master glitches, shortcuts, and time-saving methods in order to shave off precious milliseconds, seconds, or even minutes.

This can make games that many of us would otherwise find boring, formulaic, and frankly uninspired challenging again.

Rediscover old games

Speedrunning also breathes new life into games you may have once loved but now no longer have any desire to play. Games of every era all have their own mini-communities all competing for the top spot on leaderboards, even games you may not have played for decades.

Twenty-five years after its launch, Half-Life, for example, is still played daily by hundreds of players trying to complete the game in the shortest time possible. Check out the forum for these old games you’ll find speedrunners discussing the game with a renewed passion.

The Half-Life speedrunning record

Appreciate games in a new way

Speedrunning takes into all aspects of gaming, including the tech side which is often meant to be invisible to the player. Goldeneye64 speedrunners, for example, discovered that the Japanese version of the game not only had faster dialogue but also slightly stronger auto-aim, allowing for slightly faster runs and new world records as a result.

Speedrunning allows you to enjoy games you might have fallen out of love with too. As immersive as games like Skyrim and GTA are for the first few hours, for example, it doesn’t take long to see the seams. By the time you’ve heard the NPC dialogue exhaust its options and managed the heist of the century using only a bucket, you are well aware that the depth of these worlds is illusory.

Instead of ignoring these immersion-breaking seams, speedrunners fully embrace them. In researching how to best-run levels through videos, forums, and exploration you begin to understand games in a whole new light.

Be part of a fun community

Speedrunning also lets you take part in what is possibly one of the most fun communities in gaming. With gaming now plagued with toxicity and cynicism, speedrunning stands as an inclusive, positive community that is known for supporting each other and running regular charity fundraisers.

A recent example from Summer Games Done Quick

That’s not to say there’s no drama. The scene is chock full of it. Everything from people splicing runs together to faked world records, with the community examining everything to the most minute detail. With online gaming now plagued with smurfs and cheats, speedrunning stands apart as a community with integrity that actively polices itself.

How to start speedrunning

Getting started yourself is easy.

1 – Pick a game

While almost any game can be speedrun, some games lend themselves to speedrunning better than others. To begin with, it’s best to choose a game that you already know quite well and actually enjoy playing. Speedrunning involves replaying sections of games many times over so it’s best to be familiar with the story, controls, and gameplay off the bat.

2 – Research existing runs

Once you’ve picked your game, hop over to Speedrun.com and look up the existing records. You’ll be surprised just how active the Crash Bandicoot 2 speedrunning community is, or how many people are trying to complete Breath of the Wild in under 20 minutes.

Watch the top runs and play along at the same time to learn the existing techniques. Some of the tricks and glitches might need explaining so explore the game’s forum and guides on Speedrun.com or use YouTube to get a better understanding.

3 – Practice

Your game chosen and your research began, there’s nothing else but to get practicing. Some games will allow emulation, and others will require original hardware to be used. To ensure any records are captured, you should record or stream your practice sessions (just in case).

Most streamers either use OBS or XSplit with the useful LiveSplit timer used to compare your times as you’re playing.

Beginner-friendly games for speedrunning

Despite speedrunning being largely a matter of personal preference, some games are considered more beginner friendly than others.

Beginner speedrunners should look out for games that require less time dedication, less random-number generation, and simpler strategies. Some recommendations include:

  • Super Mario 64 (16 star, any%): this speedrun takes less than 30 minutes to run and only involves a few strategies to master. With SM64 one of the most actively speedrun games, there are plenty more avenues to explore from here.
  • Getting Over It (glitchless): while the appeal of this simple traversing game would otherwise be shortlived, speedrunning means it is still actively played by thousands every day. With speedruns taking just over a minute, it is not such a timesink either.
  • Portal (inbounds): Valve’s deceptively simple game leaves plenty of room for novel solutions with new speedrunners only required to learn a handful of strategies to get started. Try starting with a single level and get yourself on the board.
Super Mario 64
Super Mario 64 – a speedrunning favourite

Learn from the best

Actively speedrunning yourself is fun, but it’s equally fun watching others, especially the pros. With some of the most impressive speed runs requiring thousands of hours of practice, research, and engagement with other community members, some of these records are beyond the reach of speedrunning mortals.

Nevertheless, new records are celebrated by the whole community, with YouTubers such as Summoning Salt and Karl Jobst dissecting everything down in an easy-to-understand way. Understanding how the world’s best speedrunners manage to shave off even a few milliseconds from a record is both fascinating and useful for the community.

The most recent example of this is Minecraft which now has an enormous speedrunning community. Despite the game relying on a hefty chunk of random number generation, speedrunners have used ingenious ways to defeat the Ender Dragon and complete the game in less than 10 minutes. What looks like a simple sandbox game unpacks into a pandora’s box of mathematics, precision timing, decision-making, and controversy.

Similarly, while you might have any real interest in 1988’s Mega Man 2, learning the history of world records reveals how speedrunners think and the efforts involved in achieving times that were once considered impossible.

Final thoughts

On the face of it, the appeal of speedrunning is obvious: we all enjoy being the fastest, and holding a record is a way of proving we have achieved something nobody else has.

But digging a little deeper and speedrunning is perhaps the best way to fall in love with games again through engagement with a passionate and genuinely friendly community that appreciates the underlying mechanics as much as the story, music, and art.

If we’ve convinced you that speedrunning can help renew your love of gaming, please share our work with others. Additionally, why not tell us all about it on Twitter?

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