I’m no speedrunner. In fact, I’ve never loved a video game enough to attempt to speedrun it until recently, when I found the PlayStation 2 oddity X-treme Express. But after almost a week of watching my promising attempts slip away at the last second, and feeling my affection towards the game turn sour, it’s safe to say this is going to be a one-and-done affair.
In case you missed it, X-treme Express is an eccentric PS2 train-racing game that may just be one of my favourite video games of all time. I love its old-school presentation, I love its wide array of locomotives, and I love its rumbling, bumbling, stumbling racing action, a far cry from the sleek, aerodynamic action that dominates the genre. Put simply, X-treme Express is a really fun time that I haven’t been able to put down.
While writing my previous love letter, I discovered that the game has an entry on Speedrun.com, the official home of speedrunning leaderboards for pretty much every video game under the sun. It’s sparse, with just one full run of the Grand Prix mode and sporadic single-level records, but it made me think about getting my own name up in lights for a game I’ve put a lot of time into lately.
X-treme Express speedrunning is broken down into two categories: the aforementioned “Long Grand Prix,” which encompasses all 10 courses in the game, and a “Short Grand Prix,” which only requires completing the first six. I quickly recognised there was no way I was going to wrest the Long Grand Prix record from Welsh speedrunner derp — who has been the undisputed champion of X-treme Express since 2017 — without some serious training. But maybe I could do something in the Short Grand Prix.
That category, you see, currently has zero entries.
“If I were to submit a single run of the Short Grand Prix,” I thought to myself, “I would immediately be the world record holder by default. Delightfully devilish, Ian.”
A speedrunner is born
So began my life as a speedrunner. I got X-treme Express ready for recording (the leaderboard requires video proof), learned the basics of a speedrunning program called LiveSplit to accurately track my time (thank you, Linkus7), and sat down for what I assumed would be a short evening of casual attempts at a world record. Less than a week later, I still haven’t completed a single successful run.
X-treme Express is strict about what it takes to “beat” a race. The first six courses of the Short Grand Prix require you to finish in the top three in order to qualify for the subsequent stage. Early on, this isn’t a problem; you simply outpace your opponents and stay so far ahead of them that you only need to rely on your own skills to win. Don’t screw up a turn and you should be fine. Easy peasy.
But in later races, rival trains get more savvy about messing up your balance, knocking you off-rails. One small mistake can mean the difference between moving on to the next stage and having to retry, resulting in several minutes of time loss on a speedrun that are almost impossible to make up.
Maybe it’s my obsessive streak, a pinch of perfectionism, or just the inherent “guilt” of achieving a world record in an uncontested category, but I just couldn’t bring myself to submit an obviously flawed X-treme Express run in which I lost and had to retry a level. While I’m sure I still have a lot to learn about the game’s unique mechanics, it felt weird to not try for the best time possible, even if my ultimate goal was just to have something to post on the leaderboard. Every night before bed, I would dutifully boot up X-treme Express, attempt a couple of runs, and ultimately end up going to sleep without anything I thought worthy to submit.
I noticed my attitude toward X-treme Express started taking a turn for the worse. Where before it was something I would use to decompress after a long day of having people tell me I belong in a concentration camp for writing a fairly basic Persona story, my speedrunning attempts made it feel like a chore. I wasn’t unlocking new trains or testing myself with challenges, but plugging away at another job. More than just 30-40 minutes of wasted time, every failed run was a dagger that slowly bled away my regard for the little quirks of the game that I used to love. By no fault of X-treme Express itself, I just wasn’t having fun anymore, and it bummed me the heck out.
As silly as this sounds, it felt like moving in with a significant other way too fast. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that.
The end of the line
Realising what was happening, I immediately put a stop to my little adventure in speedrunning. With so much weighing on me these days, I didn’t want to see X-treme Express become yet another object of dissatisfaction in my life.
As of this writing, I haven’t played X-treme Express in a few days, and I’m starting to regain that familiar feeling of yearning to navigate its railways and figure out optimal braking strategies, divorced of any intent to beat the game as quickly as possible.
What did I learn? Speedrunning is hard. I already knew that, of course, but my short experience gave me a greater understanding and appreciation of the work that goes into simply beating a game as quickly as possible. While losing half an hour on an aborted X-treme Express run felt like crap, it’s nothing compared to established speedrunners’ hours-long attempts in games that have been so optimised that even a split-second misstep can put an end to someone’s chances at a personal best.
Someone else is going to have to achieve the Short Grand Prix record in X-treme Express. It’s not something with which I’m concerning myself for the moment. Maybe sometime in the future, if I find a new game I feel compelled to speedrun, I’ll be in a better headspace. Or, at least, more willing to give that hypothetical game up to the beast of obsessive research, repetitive practice, and merciless resets. I’m more than happy to leave speedrunning to the professionals. I respect the hell out of it, but it’s just not for me.
That said, I hear there’s a cat-themed train hidden somewhere in X-treme Express, which is a challenge that sounds right up my alley.