A Primer on Speed-running, and Some Generic Tips

What’s all this speed-running malarkey about?

As you may or may not know, back in the day (read: 9 months ago) I started to speed-run Super Meat Boy, a fast-paced platform game starring a walking cube of meat, on a mission to save his equally cubular, bandage-covered girlfriend from the evil (or maybe just misunderstood!) Dr Fetus. For those not in the know, speed-running is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a person attempts to complete a video game in the shortest time possible. Different games have different criteria for what constitutes completion. In fact, the same game may be run in different manners, with each class of run making up a category with its own records and strategies. For instance, Super Meat Boy has two categories that are regularly run: any% and 106%.  Any% is so called because it is an attempt to reach the end credits of the game via any means necessary. It is a common category across games, and often heavily features glitches to skip major portions of the game’s normal sequence. Such skips are known as sequence breaks. Not every any% run features sequence breaking, but most games feature at least a small sequence break. Super Meat Boy features a few that shave off tens of seconds, while The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has a sequence break that skips nearly the entire game.

106% is Super Meat Boy’s equivalent to most games’ 100% category. Rather than just reach the end credits, the game must be fully completed: For instance, all items must be obtained or all levels beaten. Typically, the game itself will feature some form of statistics page that would confirm that the current save file is, in fact, a 100% completed file. These attempts often require completely fresh strategies from any%, as major sequence breaks become very rare. A full 100% run of a game can take more than twice the length of an any% run. For instance, a decent Super Meat Boy speed-runner will clock in about 22 minutes in any%, while the current world record for 106% rests at around 1 hour 25 minutes.

When it comes to speed-running, I’m very much a fan of watching the 100%ers, not so much doing it myself. You have to admire the amount of time they put in to mastering each individual skip and trick, before putting them all together in a multi-hour marathon of incredible skill and patience. The moment a run goes sour, many runners will ‘reset’ rather than finish the attempt in order to save time, starting the game fresh. This can turn a two hour session in to a four, six hour session. That said, 100% resets are definitely rarer precisely for this reason: You don’t want to throw away two hours of work. Your average Super Meat Boy 100% run will feature upwards of 50 deaths, and no resets after the half-way mark. However, my chosen category is any%, and it is a very different story…

Any%: 100% for people on the clock

I run any% because I don’t feel I have the time or patience to run 100%. 100% would be back on the table if we were talking a sub 1 hour average run length, but that is usually not the case for most games, and definitely not for Super Meat Boy. With any%, I can sit down for 20 to 25 minutes and blast through the whole of the game, with an audience of five or six watching the joy and despair as it unfolds (speedrunning is often performed while streaming on a broadcasting service such as twitch.tv). It’s a fairly relaxing experience, unless you start getting close to beating your personal best, then things can get a little stressful! My personal best is 22 minutes, while the world record is 18:40. You might say, ‘hey, that’s really good, you’re only three and a half minutes behind the world record!’ And I’d sheepishly smile and have to explain that 18:40 is a nearly perfect performance for a human player, and that being three and a half after it is comparable to being three seconds behind Usain Bolt in the 100m (which he famously ran in 9.77).

If you’ve got twenty minutes to kill, I recommend watching it for an idea of just how good one person can get at a game. This record has held up for over a year, and in speed-running that’s an eternity. Once you reach the amateur levels of speed-running (In Super Meat Boy any%, we’re talking around my time), you begin to approach the old world records. Only then do you realise the staggering difference between the current world record run and the previous records, even if the new record only beats the old record by a handful of seconds. Why do you make this realisation? Because eventually, you become better than any casual player of your chosen game, but not as good as the guys who have been playing for months, years longer than you. In short, you hit…

The Wall

It’s 4am GMT. Even the Americans are starting to call it a night, wishing you good luck as they leave your stream one by one. It’s the eighth run of the night, and you haven’t even begun to approach the sort of time you managed to somehow pull off two weeks ago. That divine spark has left you, and now you realise that you’re just not cut out for this speed-running business. You’re gonna quit. Right after this last run.

Of course, it’s never the last run. But you just can’t beat your old time. It’s no world record, but it’s a giant stumbling block in your progress towards becoming the fastest player of all time. This is the wall. And actually, after this wall… It’s walls all the way down. This is the essence of speed-running, and I believe you don’t really get the concept of the run until you’ve experienced this level of perfectionism/fanaticism. Not until that day when it all comes together: That trick on level 9 suddenly makes sense, or you’ve finally figured out a safer way to get through those obstacles without dying so often. Not until the day you storm the game, deathless and perfect. Not until some jumped-up schoolboy brat beats your time by a full ten seconds. Not until your thumbs ache and your eyes want to fall out and you start to feel sorry for the poor player character, who you put through so much. That’s speed-running.

How Do I Get Better?

You play. You play, and you play, and you play. But that’s not enough. I’ve played Tetris for over 10 years, and I can stomp any of my friends any time. I’m decent at single-player Tetris, and that’s enough to beat casuals at multiplayer. Put me up against someone who actually practices and learns the Tetris meta-game, versus strategies, most effective set-ups… and I crumple. There is a huge difference between someone who plays games and someone who learns them. Many of the major breakthroughs in world records come from discovering a previously unknown glitch in the game. In Super Mario World, glitches that allowed players access to areas without various pre-requisites granted massive time saving opportunities. Even an amateur could take the world record with such tricks, but wouldn’t hold it for long as the better players start to incorporate it in to their runs.

Remember how I was talking about how sometimes you just play a blinder of a game, then just can’t repeat that success? Many world records are formed just like that. The player is of high skill, and just has one fantastic day where everything works. This is not to diminish their skill, but to simply motivate other players to reach a similarly high level of skill that is representative of the WR holder’s average performance. Then, the hunt begins. It’s time to start turning over all the rocks, poking about in every corner.. Find the killer strategy/glitch that no one has thought of before, and use it. This is your ticket to the WR. Even once the word gets out, you’ll still be the record holder for some time, thanks to your previously hard-earned skills. And then some jumped-up schoolboy brat will beat you, but you know what? You did it that way, and you did it that way first.

There is… Another way…

This one is nefarious! Pick a game no one will ever play. Pick something old, pick something that’s not on Steam, pick something that would bore most people to tears. Pick something where you get to be the first person who discovers everything about doing it fast. Once you’re the world record holder, that jumped-up brat will turn up one day.. But not for a long time. And you’ll go down in history as the first WR holder of “The Adventures of Sally Smith: Prince-Stealer Inc.”!

That’s about it.. We’ve covered what speed-running is, a couple of the common categories, then somehow segued in to motivation talk about how to be the very best, and ended on a lame joke game title. Not even a fulfilling conclusion or moral. This post went places, right? I’ve also spent 4 days on-and-off writing it, so that’s probably why it lacks any direction. Anyway. Byesies!