The fastest way to beat the iconic role-playing game Final Fantasy 4 isn't to dash through the final dungeon or grind for all the best spells. It's to walk up and down the same staircase 63 times.
An obscure, elaborate glitch, discovered nearly six years ago, allows players of the 1991 Super Nintendo game to skip nearly half of the story by manipulating the counter that keeps track of what floor their character is on. With precision and a little bit of luck, an experienced speedrunner can use this glitch to beat Final Fantasy 4 in under two hours.
For comparison, the length of an average play-through, according to How Long To Beat, is 23 hours and 56 minutes.
I'd heard about the 64-stair glitch in the past, but I hadn't really seen it in action until I watched Rivers McCown's fantastic speedrun of Final Fantasy 4 at Awesome Games Done Quick 2018 earlier this month. For the first two hours, McCown plays through the game fairly normally.
There are plenty of weird tricks and glitches, but the path will look familiar to anyone who's played Final Fantasy IV, as McCown takes Cecil on a journey to collect crystals, chase Golbez, and get betrayed by Kain over and over again. Then, right after he hits the Underworld, things go off the rails.
As soon as McCown enters the Dwarf Castle, a little over halfway through Final Fantasy 4, he walks up and down the stairs connecting the foyer and the throne room 63 times. Then, right after killing the creepy boss Calcabrena, McCown uses Rydia's Warp spell — which is meant to send the party back to a previous floor — to head back to the castle's crystal room.
When he leaves that room, he suddenly winds up in a series of glitched maps, which he uses to 1) go to the Sealed Cave and drop off Kain; 2) warp to the Moon to pick up FuSoYa; and 3) zip straight to the final dungeon, where he can immediately kill the boss and beat the game.
This all happens because of those stairs.
"There's a counter in the game that changes when you change rooms," McCown told me in a phone interview this week. "It's used by the Warp spell and Exit spell. It starts at zero on the world map, goes to one when you enter a town or dungeon... But there are also stairs that mistakenly were put in that increase the floor counter both ways."
One of those staircases is in the Dwarf Castle, and when you walk back and forth that staircase 63 times, you're adding to that floor counter incrementally as you go. In other words, instead of realising that you're just walking between the first and second floors of the castle, the game thinks you're walking up to the third floor and then the fourth floor and so on, all the way up to 63.
"If you go through a plus-1 door on floor 63 it returns you to zero," McCown said, noting that Final Fantasy 4 has no dungeons with that many floors, so the developers would have never expected the counter to get that high. "But if you go through a minus-1 door after that it sends you to -1."
That's when things get really broken. Once the floor counter is at -1, the game will start sending you to all sorts of weird places, starting with a dummy map and then changing based on all sorts of variables, which range from the game timer to the items in your inventory. Even the colour of your menu screen is involved, for some reason.
Because you're dealing with glitched code, one bad move during this process can freeze or crash your game. Entering one specific room with a certain time on the in-game clock, for example, will lead to a soft-lock. So for McCown and other speedrunners who use this glitch, there's a very specific path to take, one that involves parking a chocobo in the perfect spot, swapping your items in exactly the right order, and pausing during some big battles.
"Along the way in the run we're doing a lot of subtle things to manipulate potential soft-lock areas," McCown said. "Also we bought all these items in the Baron weapon shop that basically serve as coordinates to what map you want to go to."
These coordinates would look like gibberish to even an experienced Final Fantasy 4 fan, but thanks to this glitch, they can allow you to warp immediately to any map in the game — including the final fight. Problem is, there's no way to beat the final fight. If you're speedrunning, then by this point your characters are too underpowered to survive the Zeromus battle, and there are no good tricks to beat him like there are in all the fights leading up to this point.
Fortunately, there are glitches. As McCown demonstrated at AGDQ, the current fastest route is to warp to the Sealed Cave to drop off Kain, freeing up a slot in your party for the wizard FuSoYa. Then, because by this point your game is glitched to hell and back, you can corrupt one of FuSoYa's magic slots to create a spell called "upt Co," which is actually Reaction, a little-known enemy ability belonging to the Dark Grenade monster.
The function of this Reaction spell is simple: It takes every enemy on screen and triggers their death flags, ending a battle instantly.
With that spell in hand, it's safe to warp to Zeromus and then use FuSoYa to kill him before he even transforms into his final incarnation, allowing you to finish the game no matter how weak your characters are. The whole process takes about 15 minutes, and it cuts out the entire second half of Final Fantasy 4, allowing intrepid speedrunners to beat the game without even getting one of the final party members.
The current world record, by the_roth, is one hour, 54 minutes, 50 seconds. McCown is in second place, with one hour, 56 minutes, 26 seconds. He estimates he's played through Final Fantasy 4 about 500 times.
The Final Fantasy 4 speedrunning community was mostly able to piece all these elaborate steps together because of a player who goes by pirohiko. You can watch pirohiko's tool-assisted run (TAS), which keeps track of every possible variable including the floor count, right here: