Speedrunning is a lot like regular running. The idea is to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Super Mario Bros. in under five minutes? Done. Ocarina of Time in under 20? No problemo (more on this later). It should be monotonous and boring, but in the hands of a master, it’s entrancing. YouTube is packed to the gills with popular speedrun videos, and it only takes a few minutes to figure out what keeps these viewers coming back. There’s something deeply satisfying about watching a sprite glide seamlessly across an optimized path, never encountering the errors and setbacks most gamers know all too well.
Yet unlike marathoners, speedrunners are adapting all the time, changing up their moveset and their flow. A successful speedrunner has to calmly manage an overwhelming amount of information, and must be ready to pull out microskills that only see use once or twice in a run (try pulling off this multibomb jump in Super Metroid, for example). These actions have to be executed with uncanny precision - one tap of a button a microsecond too early and it’s GG. Only a handful of people have the reflexes and finely-honed memory that are necessary to do it well. That, and patience.
For most gamers, just beating a game once is enough – we enjoy our 60 hours and move on to the next obsession. Then there are the completionists, the ones who actually gray out every quest in Skyrim, or beat every shrine in Breath of the Wild (the princess is waiting, dude…). But speedrunners are a breed apart. Their love of the game penetrates to its deepest nuts and bolts. For them, the surface game becomes trivial. Their comprehensive knowledge of glitches, false walls, sequence breaks and other anomalies inspires them to ever-greater heights of accomplishment, in which the developers’ intentions are thrown out the window, and a nearly superhuman degree of skill becomes necessary.
The trend is as old as modern video gaming itself. Most agree that it began with Doom and the Usenet forums in the early 1990s. Seizing on Doom’s then-groundbreaking “demo” mode, which allowed them to record and share their play for the first time, players began exchanging tips on how to beat the game as quickly as possible. From this community of enthusiasts emerged the first speedrunning stars in history — names like Looper and Zero Master. While Doom was a largely glitch-free game, these elite players deconstructed its underlying code to eke out slight advantages, such as the fact that diagonal movement covers ground more quickly.
Super Mario 64 also presented speedrunners with a fascinating challenge: how do you blast through a game that’s full of hard checks and gates? To get to the final tussle with Bowser, players traditionally have to scoop up at least 70 stars —they essentially have to beat 70 levels of the game — but speedrunners paid close attention to Mario’s habit of glitching through walls. By getting the plumber into areas he’s not yet supposed to reach, one player managed to beat the game with only 16 stars and in about 15 and a half minutes. It’s a thrill to watch Mario fall backwards on his butt up a huge flight of stairs, hold a golden rabbit to glitch through locked doors, use burning lava to launch himself high into the sky, and still give Bowser the beating he deserves. Cheese, another Mario speedrunning star, recently did a complete 120-star run in under 100 minutes. Yeah, that’s less than a minute per star.
Resident Evil 2, released in 1998, gets a lot of attention from speedrunners even though there aren’t tons of exploits built into the game. Here’s an example of a speedrun that’s full of exactly what the name implies: speedy running. In the fastest, record-breaking speedrun, the player takes on the role of Leon, a new cop in Raccoon City, as it undergoes an apocalyptic zombie virus outbreak. Normally in the game players take down hordes of zombies, fend off giant spiders, tango with huge alligators, and tussle with a huge mutated monster that’s just a mess of claws and teeth (thanks, G-virus). But in the speedrun, the player simply sprints past almost all enemies and finishes this lengthy game in just under 49 minutes. No glitches, no hacks, just a man avoiding trouble and moving as fast as he can.
And then of course there’s Ocarina of Time, perhaps the most beloved game ever made, and the crown jewel of the speedrunning world. Nostalgia for the game, along with the advent of YouTube, gave Ocarina runners an ever-larger audience, and competition became intense. By 2006, one runner had shaved his win time down to under five hours (or about half as long as it took me to beat the Water Temple). Relentless analysis of route optimization, glitches and other features soon had the record down to three hours. The current record belongs to legendary speedrunner Torje, who recently beat the game in 17 minutes, 9 seconds, using a glitch that let him skip an enormous part of Link’s quest.
Are these exploits cheap? Some speedrunners think so. There will always be subcategories for purists who demand that all major parts of a game be completed in order for a record to stand. But Torje and many other stars of the speedrunning world adhere to a philosophy known as “any%,” which translates to “there are no rules, just beat the game as fast as you can.”
Those who are skeptical of “any%” would do well to remember Dick Fosbury, the Olympic high jumper who blew everyone’s minds in 1968 when he became the first person to use a diagonal approach and reverse jump to set a new world record. It seemed crazy to the community at first, but it soon became standard practice. In fact, almost every sport has milestones in which a seemingly ugly, game-breaking tactic emerged and became the new tactical standard.
Speedrunners live for the sheer thrill of discovering these techniques, anything to give them a temporary edge on their opponents. In pursuit of new methods, “any%” speedrunners conduct research and analysis that would shame even the most dedicated coaches in the NFL. Most often, they discover glitches by accident, and are forced to painstakingly repeat their experiments frame-by-frame in order to recreate the circumstance and understand exactly what happened. Perhaps this is what makes great speedrunners so rare - they need to have the reflexes of a pro-gamer combined with the precise analytical skills of a gaming theorist.
Some glitches remain unexplained. The infamous “unwarp” move in Super Mario 64’s Tick Tock Clock level has only been executed once, and there is an outstanding bounty of $1,000 for anyone who can replicate it and explain how it works.
The genre is only expanding. While competition remains intense on classic titles, speedrunners are also embracing open-world games like Minecraft (quickest time to kill the Ender Dragon) and even rogue-like games such as Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac.
Gaming is fun, but it is also frustrating. When most of us play, we are struggling against a system, all the setbacks and surprises that the developers put in to keep us stumbling towards the end. Deep down we all want to see someone cut through the red tape, to defy all the spike pits and fireballs, to not take a single click of damage in Dark Souls, to punish the endbosses who have so often punished us. We all want a superhero — somebody who makes the impossible look easy. For some gamers, these heroes are speedrunners.
Asher Ross covers arts and culture for a variety of publications.