With the time-shattering feats and game-breaking exploits of Game Done Quick still fresh in our memories, some video game players might be wondering how they can start their journey in the mesmerising world of speedrunning. Here's some advice for those first few steps.
Image from Super Mario Bros. 2 instruction booklet; blur added by author
Pick the right game
The first thing to do is pick the game you want to speedrun. This step may seem simple, but it makes a world of difference. Players who speedrun a single game, or a even a handful of games, have to spend an immense amount of time with their choice. Prepare yourself to see the same visuals and hear the same audio cues for many hours.
Grand Poobear is a speedrunner from Portland who was inspired to start speedrunning by past Games Done Quick events. Currently his focus is on Super Mario Bros. 3, and you may recognise him from the Super Mario Relay Race of SGDQ 2017. In an interview over Discord, he told Kotaku, "Try your favourite game of all time. See if it's something you want to play over and over again. You have to really love that game. Finding a game that can constantly challenge you is important."
You don't necessarily have to be "good" at the game you want to speedrun. An advanced skill level can certainly give you a headstart, but anyone who dedicates their time to perfecting the essential fundamentals of a game will likely improve quickly.
Some speedrunners develop a new appreciation for a game through learning to speedrun it. Trihex is a legendary Yoshi's Island runner who has been active on the speedrunning scene for over a decade (you may also recognise him as the "trihard" Twitch emote). He told Kotaku via Discord voice chat, "Speedrunning should always come from an area of passion. If you play a game casually and you beat it, and you're still starving for more, that's the game you speedrun. If you want a deeper understanding, and want to appreciate the finesse of every mechanic and every level design, the best way to do that is to speedrun it."
Obviously, some games lend themselves to speedrunning better than others. Classic titles such as Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Spyro are popular among runners because they're quality games that have been researched and practised by hundreds of players. That isn't to say you shouldn't pick an obscure game, but classic games will have a wealth of resources that can help when you're just starting out.
Find a community
Once you've selected a game, it can help to find others who share your passion. "A great starting point is speedrun.com," says Trihex. "You'll find resources, text guides, wiki pages, and many times there's a link to a dedicated Discord chat." Speedrun.com lets players investigate different game communities via forums and watch live and archived streams.
Many games' speedrun.com pages have links to Discord chats under the game's "resources" section, found on the left sidebar. Most popular titles have Discord channels, which can be used to text or voice chat with other runners about the game. Each Discord community contains a list of text chats and voice chats where players discuss various aspects of the game, or just socialise with like-minded fans.
Super Meat Boy's community page on speedrun.com
Many accomplished speedrunners will also be happy to help new runners out. Remember to approach them politely, with specific questions about a game or a run, and be understanding if you don't get an answer. "Most speedrunners want other people playing their games, so they're overly helpful to get you into it," explains Poobear. "Even if you just find one runner, you should try to connect with them."
Along with speedrun.com, many prominent runners can be found on Twitch, the official speedrunning subreddit and Speed Demo Archives. Twitch viewers can browse the thousands of games currently being played, or search for their specific title in the enormous sea of Twitch streamers. In fact, there is an entire Twitch community devoted to speedrunning with nearly 5000 followers. More popular series or individual games even have their own sites, such as The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario World.
Communication and collaboration are key in the speedrunning community. While it's certainly possible to learn a game all on your own, chances are there's a community brimming with recommendations, strategies and encouragement not far away. "A world record run is ultimately set by one person, but that run is created by everybody in the community," Poobear points out. "Everyone contributes things to making that world record run happen. We take strategies from everyone. We couldn't do it without the community."
Trihex says, "People who are glitch hunters and pass that information on are super helpful to the community. These are the unsung heroes of how routes are made."
Choose your equipment
Running classic games can come with a host of technical limitations. You can speedrun any game on any console you please, but there are always going to be certain versions of a game (especially older ones) that are prefered by the pros. Some versions of games run faster or slower than others. This can be due to developers updating a game's code to fix bugs after launch or simply because a different region has less text to scroll through. For example, many runners choose to run Japanese games because there tends to be less text, or text that loads faster. Watch some runs and ask around. Once you have a game in mind it isn't too hard to decipher which version is considered the best for speedrunning.
If the fastest version of your game isn't native to your location you may need to pick up a new console. For instance, since the shell of the Nintendo 64 games is slightly different in Japan and North America, the cartridges will only fit in their respective region's consoles. Runners have found a way around this by using a Gameshark, which sits down in the console and allows players to put any game from any region on top. This obviously isn't the case for all systems, but there are many times you can find a workaround.
You can also look into practice carts and other emulators, which allow game files to be played outside of their intended consoles. Though these fall into a legal grey area, some runners prefer to use these game files for practising their runs. Both practice carts and emulators can allow players to use "save states", a feature that lets the game be saved at any particular moment. This can be very handy for practising specific parts of a run that are not accessible after completion. This is only really done with old games, so if you're running a modern title you'll have to work with the game's own save points.
Image via Wikimedia
Many older game consoles only work as intended on an analogue cathode ray tube (CRT) TV. When a retro system is plugged into a modern HDTV it can suffer from input lag, meaning characters on the screen will react slightly slower than they normally would. It's not always noticeable to the untrained eye, but many speedruns rely on precise timing and placement. A few frames can make all the difference when you're calculating a crucial jump or trying to recreate a helpful glitch.
Any system with normal AV cables (which have red, white and yellow plugs) should be played on an old CRT, if possible. Newer consoles with HDMI outputs should work with any HDTV, though it's always a good idea to fiddle with settings, as lag can still occur.
If you'd rather not scour local garage sales and op shops for clunky old CRT TV sets you can spring for a box that upscales your old console to an HDTV with minimal lag. The most popular and reliable version of these boxes is called the Framemeister, which has various output settings. It usually sells for around $US350 ($442), but there are plenty of other options out there, so don't feel like you have to break the bank if you want some beautiful lagless gameplay.
You'll also want a good way to keep track of your run time. Far and away the best option is a free program known as LiveSplit. This customisable speedrunning timer shows a running breakdown of each section involved in the game, letting players set hotkeys to start and reset different splits, or portions, of their run. It's also a must-have if you're speedrunning for an online audience, as it allows players many different visual setups.
Learn the lingo
If you're going to walk the walk, you better learn to talk the talk. Here are some of the most common phrases that speedrunners use.
- 100% - Completing the game in its entirety, which can often involve collecting items, defeating bosses or clearing sidequests. Usually the hardest type of run.
- Any% - Completing the game by simply reaching the end. Usually the easiest type of run.
- Blind - Playing a title without knowing any of its specific tricks or strategies.
- Buffering - The act of inputting an action while another action is happening to save time. For example: Pressing the attack button while jumping, therefore triggering an attack as soon as the jump animation has concluded.
- Clips/Clipping - When part of a character or environment passes through another in an unintended way. Can sometimes be used to perform glitches.
- Damage boost - Purposely injuring oneself to speed up or get to a certain spot.
- Death Warp - Purposely dying to skip backtracking or to save time in general.
- Emulator - Software or hardware that allows a PC or console to run ROM game files.
- Frame - The frequency at which game animation is displayed. Usually 30 frames per second or 60 frames per second.
- Frame Perfect - A trick or technique that can only be pulled off in a single specific frame.
- Glitch/Bug - An exploitable mistake in a game's code or design.
- Glitchless - A run that is devoid of any tricks that involve glitches.
- Lag - Gameplay slowdown, often attributed to a system processing too much at once.
- Pixel - A measure of space in games. Often very small.
- Pixel Perfect - A trick or technique that can only be pulled off in or on a specific space.
- RNG (Random Number Generator) - A section in a game's code that spawns often unpredictable random events.
- ROM (Read-Only Memory) - A game file that works on an emulator.
- Save State - The ability to save a game at any moment within an emulator. Used for practise only.
- Save Warp - Saving the game to skip backtracking or to save time in general.
- Skip - A way to bypass part of the game's story or a mandatory section of gameplay, usually involving a glitch.
- Splits - Key moments in speedruns used to record pace. If a game has set levels or worlds, these are usually used as designated splits.
- Strats - Strategies used during a run.
- TAS (Tool Assisted Speedrun) - A speedrun that is controlled by software or a program within an emulator to show the fastest route theoretically possible.
- Zips/Zipping - A type of clipping that helps speed up a run, usually by allowing the player early access to a section of the game.
Practise the basics
Now it's time to speedrun. Mastering a speedrun comes down to practising basic techniques and learning each game's specific tricks and strategies.
Trihex works on his egg throwing strats in Yoshi's Island
Starting out speedrunning might seem intimidating, but it's often easier than it looks. After watching some streams of your game or skimming over a guide or two, you should be able to pin down some of the more popular or essential glitches and workarounds. Poobear suggests, "Target the biggest time saves and learn those first." Practise these core moves until you get them right. Once you master a certain technique, be it damage boosting or zipping, you'll be able to apply it to different areas of your game.
With practise, you'll start to see that many tricks are really quite simple. Poobear says, "That's the dirty secret of speedrunning -- anyone can do it. When you see someone do a really cool glitch or go through a wall, nine times out of 10 it's really simple. It usually just involves some sort of memorisation. You'd be surprised how consistent you can get with just a little bit of practise. Most of the time what you may think is the hardest trick is actually easy to pull off."
Once you learn the basic tricks, you can move on to more advanced ones, or practise finessing your run. Often times it can be a great confidence boost if you focus on practising the more interesting or entertaining time saves. They can give you a more satisfying sense of accomplishment, not to mention they're fun to show off to gaming friend and other runners.
Don't forget to explore
Even though you're practising to go as fast as possible, it's important to stop and explore when you're not officially racing the clock. "Question everything and try everything," Trihex recommends. "Understand the game as best you can." Learning the ins and outs of a game, from its mechanics to its levels, can help you understand why accomplished runners attempt actions in the style or order they do. Exploring can help you find places in a game where one trick or skip from another section might help.
"Once you start, don't be scared to experiment and play around. That's a big thing," Trihex says. "Every run can be improved through experimenting and exploring. The game you speedrun is your world, your canvas, so you should do with it whatever you like."
It's easy to feel frustrated when a run isn't going your way, whether it's struggling with the fundamentals or fumbling late in a run. Trihex suggests learning backup strategies for times when your run may go awry. "The mental is a component. Familiarity brings comfort, and that comes from repetition. With that you can conquer dealing with nerves."
It's also important to learn how to stay calm when your run is going right. It's easy to get lost in a run and forget you're on pace for a personal best, but if the realisation suddenly dawns on you it can certainly mess with your head. The best strategy to keep calm is to try to clear your mind of the game as a whole, focusing only on the tricks and techniques that are currently at hand.
Learn from your mistakes
Mistakes are bound to happen at some point. There is no perfect run. When tragedy does strike, it's important to stay positive and have those backup strategies ready to go at a moment's notice. Look closely at strategies or areas you're struggling with and try to pinpoint why. If you need to, move on to a different strategy, area or even game for a while. Knowing when to step back and take a break is vital to having a healthy commitment to running any game.
Set realistic goals
"Coming into the speedrunning scene and saying you're going to break a world record is like saying you're going to become Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first month of working out," says Trihex. In an ironic twist, the best way to start speedrunning is to go slow. Taking time to complete the game at your own pace gives you a nice baseline, as well as time to take in some of the aspects of gameplay you may have forgotten about. Before you can go fast, you need to know the game and how it plays.
You'll do better next time! Image: PlayStation
Poobear notes, "You should always set small goals, even as you're playing through the whole game. My first goal for any speed game is to not be last on the leaderboard. Then you have to just try and hit certain milestones. When you start you might think to yourself, 'I'll never get this goal time,' and then you do, and you think, 'I can do better!' The more you play the more you get addicted to the thrill of improving."
Speedrunning is all about personal growth. Some players may be vying for the world record in their respective game, but even those runs are based on improving a personal best. Pick something manageable to work toward and grow from there.
Learning to speedrun can be frustrating. It can also be tempting to play an area of a game over and over until you have it down perfect before moving on to the next one. Trihex stresses that an important goal for first-time runners is to stick with a run through the good and the bad. "You're going to fail, but you should keep going. That should be your goal -- keep going. If you constantly reset the game you'll only become familiar with the first so much of it, and you'll make more mistakes in the end. Be proud of going for full runs. No reset runs are always a great tool to become more patient and understand the game in its entirety. Always stay positive. Focus on what you've done right and how you can improve in the next run."
Share your progress
It's common for speedrunners to post their recent attempts on various sites or stream them live for others to watch. It isn't mandatory to show off your skills or your progress, but having an audience can be motivating. It can also help you improve: Your viewers might know tips and tricks you don't and be able to help you with your runs.
Poobear practises Super Mario Bros. 3 while answering viewer questions on his Twitch channel.
You can share your runs any way you choose. Don't feel like you need to drop a bunch of cash on fancy new gear before you can get started. The best part of speedrunning is playing the game, so always keep that as your focus.
Switch games if you need to
Speedrunners may spend ungodly amounts of time on one game, but that doesn't mean they can't switch to a new title or run multiple games. Contrary to popular belief, speedrunning doesn't mean devoting all your time and money on one single effort for all of eternity (unless that's what you truly enjoy). Take it slow at the beginning, putting in as much time as you see fit, and see if it's a hobby that's right for you.
Many times beginning speedrunners will want to quit after becoming frustrated or bored with their first game choice. Instead of quitting outright, it's always a solid idea to attempt a more exciting approach to the run or simply find a new title to try. The type of game you run (platformer, RPG, puzzle and so on) can have a drastic effect on your enjoyment levels, so don't give up if one doesn't suit you.
Do what you enjoy
You might find certain aspects of speedrunning aren't for you. You might not want to go to Games Done Quick or try to hit the world record. Trihex says, "You might find that you actually enjoy glitch hunting and helping other runners perfect new mechanics more than attempting world record runs. And that's great! We always need more people like that in the speedrunning community."
Poobear, dubbed "The People's Speedrunner", is adamant that more folks should give speedrunning a try. "Literally anybody can do this," he says. "Don't be scared. You'll be surprised how quickly you can learn a game. You'll surprise yourself at how fast you'll become better. It's easier now to speedrun than it was a year ago. In fact it's easier than it ever has been, because more and more people are doing it."
Whether you're going fast and setting new personal records or going slow and learning how a game works, speedrunning can be an enjoyable and social pastime. If watching others blaze through classic games is something you love, then you should certainly give speedrunning a try.