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A history of video game speed runs

If you’ve never seen a video game speed run before, a decent place to start is this computer-assisted Metroid run, completing the game in less than ten minutes through an artful mix of exploiting glitches and improbably precise movement, shooting, and jumping.

Or, if you want to see a speed run broken down piece by piece, try this half-hour video where speedrunner Bismuth breaks down how his fellow runner Kosmic broke the world record for the fastest unassisted Super Mario Bros. run. As Jason wrote:

If you forget the video game part of it and all the negative connotations you might have about that, you get to see the collective effort of thousands of people over more than three decades who have studied a thing right down to the bare metal so that one person, standing on the shoulders of giants in a near-perfect performance, can do something no one has ever done before.

But if you want to understand how speed run culture got going? Ah, for that you need this document by Kat Brewster. While people always gunned for high scores and world records, almost as long as we’ve had games of any sort, speed run culture as it exists today starts with Usenet forums and obsessive players of the first-person shooters Wolfenstein 3D and especially Doom, which introduced the innovation of making it easy for players to record their gameplay.

Doom also posted a “par time” statistic on its end-of-level screens, taking the best time of designer John Romero and challenging players to beat it.

This is a theme which comes up again and again from speedrunners. ‘It’s a challenge,’ they say. ‘How fast can I get it?’ It’s a natural question to ask. When it comes to speedrunning games, there is no rulebook, no guide. There’s simply one possible way to do it, or one route which might be better than another. The game ceases to be the game it was authored to be, and becomes the landscape and language for an entirely separate practice. Players take what is given, and build something else out of it. It’s a kind of subversion, a subtle power play of guerrilla game design.

Now, there are whole companies built on sharing video game play results, from the dedicated platform Twitch to a not insignificant corner of YouTube.

My favorite part of Brewster’s story is her contrast between Doom (mostly glitchless, which makes speedruns both more constrained and more accessible โ€” there’s no secret knowledge or special tricks) and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which is full of glitches. Documenting all these potential shortcuts was an obsession of the Zelda community in the mid-2000s, centering around the Speed Demos Archive forums, and a brand-new video sharing site called YouTube.

With both a community and the capability for easy video sharing in hand, folk experimentation could begin. Narcissa [Wright] credits the inspiration for early experimentation in the game to Kazooie’s videos, and specifically, certain jumps. Narcissa describes this period of time from 2006 to 2008 as one of rich experimentation. Few speedruns were actually attempted in this two year period, opting instead for creating a catalog of glitches from hours of chipping away at the game environment, or planning possible routes with what they knew already. “In fact,” she said in a video commentary, “it felt more like we were doing science than anything else.”

From an initial glitchless runthrough of about five hours in 2006, speedrunners can now exploit these built-in accidental hacks to finish the game in less than 17 minutes. That’s a different kind of fun.