Speed Running Video Games: Have a Gander at this Phenomenon

Video game controller
It looks like a PlayStation controller design, meets SNES buttons. So, yes, this will do for our generic, copyright free image.

Speed running has emerged as one of gaming’s most popular pastimes. It works on a multi-faceted level – gamers either attempt to shave seconds off completing a title through the normal run. Or, and this is where it gets mental, they actively “break” the game (by looking for astonishing bug) to land otherwise impossible records. The speed running phenomenon has really taken off in the last few years, so let’s have a good old gander!

Speed Running: An Example

An example of a speed run is above – this is a stage from Super Mario Maker that someone maniac has become the master of. This game for the Wii U was a dream come true for speed runners, as they could fashion some of the most devious and insane courses for people to have a crack at. As you can see, some people “get good” and master it.

You’ll also note someone took the time to record themselves doing this to upload it online. Many speed runners (mainly the expert level ones aiming for a world record) video themselves live via Twitch or YouTube – and, yes, thousands of people watch. If you’re not a gamer this may seem desperately pathetic and whatnot but, whatever, geekdom is here and we celebrate it. Summoning Salt’s YouTube channel (below) even records the speed running journey of popular games – it gets bloody unreal.

Many of these are old classics from Nintendo’s library (there’s a certain oomph factor to being able to command the established classics), but speed runs aren’t limited to any developer or genre. But there is a certain fascination, for us anyway, to see the lengths some gamers go to so they can shred a few seconds off a game. Do they even enjoy the experience? Are they having fun? What’s in it for them – an ego boost?

But even weirder than this is (and it’s another Nintendo reference, sorry) the example of Mario Kart Wii. Circa 2009, ultra short cuts emerged where players “broke” the game. There’s an example below, but it sent many into a frenzy to discover other extreme short cuts. One guy even worked out the technical reasons for why the game thought a player was getting a new record – an explosion of speed running followed.

For us, we’re not really big on it. We don’t even consider ourselves particularly good at video games, we just play them for escapist purposes and as we enjoy it as a form of culture. We did get very nifty at indie classic SteamWorld Dig, but don’t really have any desire to film ourselves playing video games. So, yeah, you’ll just have to take our word for that. But if you want to watch the masters, go and check out YouTube.

The King of Kong

As a coda to this piece, we’re highlighting the bizarrely excellent 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. This is about the battle for the original Donkey Kong arcade game between respected legend Billy West and a relative newcomer. Now, classic or not, it’s aged terribly and most modern gamers wouldn’t be able to play it for longer than a few minutes.

But this documentary highlights the addictive appeal of breaking records. It displays the human condition with all its foibles and intricacies as two grown men attempt to conquer a notoriously difficult game about a plumber trying to defeat a giant ape. You also learn about the mathematical intricacies of Donkey Kong and what it takes to become the best. It really is weirdly riveting.

As another addendum here, just as bizarre is the Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Nintendo Co., Ltd. lawsuit of 1982 (voted one of the dumbest moments in video game history). Sid Sheinberg, President of Universal Studios, took offence at Donkey Kong and sued Nintendo for breach of copyright with King Kong. But then it turned out the latter was in the public domain, so the pre-fame Nintendo was handed a cool $1 million in damages (a big deal for the company at the time). Nice.

2 comments

  1. That Super Mario Maker speedrun is a masterpiece. I can imagine speedrunning a course run would be quite difficult given that you have no idea what levels you’re going to get stuck with.

    I’ve always found these kinds of challenges fascinating because it really gets you thinking about these games in completely different ways. It’s basically making new games out of the base game. Whenever I play The Legend of Zelda, I tend to hold off on Level 2 because I never found the magical boomerang to be all that handy; instead, I would always get the White Sword and Blue Ring before entering any of the dungeons, only completing Level 2 when I needed Heart Containers for the Magical Sword. However, that early speedrunner ended up completing Level 2 first because it was the quickest way to get bombs, which I can certainly say is an annoying process in that game.

    Come to think of it, this also reminds me of how some people have managed to clear stages in Goldeneye by maxing out all the enemy stats in 007 mode. Suddenly, the Silo level, which is fairly middle-of-the-road in terms of difficulty, becomes an absolute nightmare. Yet someone was tenacious enough to do it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, that’s why I like it. The game becomes something else entirely. I remember a competition in 1997 for Super Mario 64 course one – held by the Official Nintendo Magazine. Get to the top as fast as possible! I tried, but then someone else get up there in 9 seconds. I had no idea how! Game breaking, obviously.

      Mario Maker has become the stuff of legend for speed runners, though. Absolute masterpiece, I agree! But I wouldn’t dare take the level on as a speed run. Relentless commitment must be what’s needed. Phew.

      Liked by 1 person

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