You've probably never given any of the SpongeBob games a second thought, but one speedrunner is playing thousands of hours of SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom in order to change that.
Released in 2003, the game arrived a year after the first Ratchet and Clank and was several more removed from the glory days of Mario 64 and Banjo Kazooie on the Nintendo 64. In addition, it had the dual misfortune of being both a licensed product and a collectible game and thus appearing like a knock-off of a knock-off.
But the game is actually quite decent as far as middle-tier platformers from the PS2 era go. Unless you're a member of the close-knit community of avid Battle for Bikini Bottom speedrunners and speedrunning spectators, in which case it's nothing short of spectacular. All sorts of games, from the well known to the obscure, have speedrunning communities, but the one surrounding this game is particularly dedicated and robust.
Ratchet and Clank has 62 record holders for its New Game+ Any% category while Battle for Bikini Bottom currently has 95, with the top time of 58:20 having just been reached a couple days ago by a speedrunner named SHiFT.
"I'd say people love this game because it's fast-paced in many spots, technically impressive and has unique movement compared to other speedgames," he said in an email. "I also think a big part of it is nostalgia and wanting to watch a speedrun that breaks the mould of the typical Nintendo Mario/Zelda run."
SHiFT began approaching the game seriously around thirteen months ago. It was his first time speedrunning anything and the community around the game was still relatively small. "I watched a video on YouTube made by one of the old school runners who had already stopped running the game and wondered why people had stopped running it and why it had not become popular because the run was extremely entertaining," he said.
Battle for Bikini Bottom follows the titular yellow sponge as he fights evil robots and collects objects that range from Golden Spatulas to, literally, Shiny Objects. It's a collectible game at its nearly purest and one of Heavy Iron Studios' first projects (the studio would later go on to help make the Disney Infinity series). It's fast and challenging, and handles much more precisely than you might expect for an adaptation of a Nickelodeon cartoon.
I am loving BFBB right now. Playing 10 hours per day helps my consistency so much.
— SHiFT (@SHiFT_Runs) May 18, 2017
"Dude this game is a gem," SHiFT says with complete conviction at the beginning of one of his many tutorial videos on Battle for Bikini Bottom. "Overlooked" and "underrated" don't seem to adequately capture his belief in the game's greatness. It's more criminal than that.
And SHiFT proved a natural it. "I started doing tricks for fun and eventually got into doing full runs. within a couple of months I got the world record with a time of 1:07:15." That was last June. Today he still holds the record, but at nearly ten minutes quicker.
One of the areas in the game that poises the most trouble and makes Battle for Bikini Bottom such a difficult game is the Rock Bottom section. "It's the segment of the run that introduces 'cruise-boosting,' which is a double frame-perfect trick required to activate momentum storage," SHiFT said.
"The momentum storage is determined by the angle the player uses to slide against the surface the cruise-boost trick is used on. If the player activates the bubble bowl and cruise bubble on the same frame, slides with a good angle and activates the two moves on the same frame again, the player will get a speed boost that stacks onto SpongeBob's idle state."
It's not rocket science but it can sound just as complicated to the untrained spectator. In practice, it simply means that a slick player can make SpongeBob fly around the levels a lot quicker if they are execute a short, perfectly timed combo. It makes standing and turning more difficult, since the game's physics begin to treat the player more like a hockey puck than an anthropomorphised sponge, but the acceleration it provides is crucial to what gives the game its speedrunning flair.
"It becomes a lot like a Mario game that uses rolling out and long jumps to go faster," SHiFT said. "Cruise-boosting lets you string these previously static moves together into a dynamic kit for movement." While the trick has been around for a long time, SHiFT decided to substitute it for another exploit during the Fast Cycle Museum. "Back when i first started running, players used Sandy's hover glide move to clip through the laser walls in the museum, which was extremely easy but much slower than the current method," he said. "Now I clear the museum as SpongeBob, which is much faster but requires frame-perfect execution and solid movement to clear."
A more complicated trick is part of what keeps SHiFT coming back, however. It's called reverse cruise-boosting and it requires sliding at an angle but imputing the opposite analogue directions. The result is that instead of just speeding SpongeBob up, he gets to cycle through tricks more quickly.
"It's much harder than normal cruise-boosting because there are not as clear visual cues to tell whether I did it successfully," SHiFT said. "If this trick is activated perfectly after clipping through the first wall [in Fast Cycle Museum], I can barely get ledge grab on a tire to clip through the second wall." The timing is incredibly precise, so much so that SHiFT actually messed it up on his most recent world record. "It's the hardest trick in the game to pull off -- I practice it for hours per day."
While SHiFT is a top-tier speedrunner in the Battle for Bikini Bottom community, however, the game itself has been treated with something approaching mocking disdain by the speedrunning community for most of its life. Despite years of world records dating back to the early 2010s, SHiFT feels the game has been slow to get the respect it deserves and sees running the game in part as a form of advocacy on its behalf.
"The small community behind it tried to get the game accepted to the Games Done Quick marathon for five years unsuccessfully on the basis that the game is a "meme" or a joke," he said. "When I started running the game, I pledged to be the first speedrunner to get a SpongeBob game accepted to GDQ and break the stereotype of this game being a joke, and I finally did with my submission for AGDQ 2017."
He invited Coel Udd, an earlier runner of the game who discovered many of the tricks the community around the game now relies on, to commentate with him on the couch during the event. "He was definitely happy to see the game finally make the spotlight after trying to get it accepted for so many years," said SHiFT. "The run was received very well despite is early morning timeslot and being pushed back several times." They got over 180,000 views and a some of the respect they'd always wanted. "Growing this much in only one year has definitely been a wild experience."
Naturally, I asked if this meant he was ready to move on to a new game, a new set of challenges, and a new struggle of sorts. "No," SHiFT said. "I've never considered ditching Battle to focus on others. This game has so much more untapped potential and a dramatically high skill ceiling that people have yet to realise."
So far, he's played the game for more than 3,000 hours and attempted over 5,000 runs, just in the first year. He plans on doubling that in the next. "I feel like the Nicktoons label will always hold this game back to some extent, but i won't let it obstruct me from making this game popular and widely accepted." For SHiFT, the real Battle for Bikini Bottom has only just gotten started.