All About Speedrunning

Remember all of those games you played as a kid? Games like Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, Banjo Kazooie, and the like? Well you might be surprised to learn that there exists an entire subculture of people who try to complete these games as quickly as possible. From what I understand speedrunners live for the sake of the puzzle; figuring out all the programming quirks, tricks, and unexpected oddities that make each game unique. In programming, this is known as an “optimization problem,” or the process of finding the ideal solution to a set of parameters.

To give you some perspective, the world record speedrun for Zelda: Ocarina of Time is just a few seconds over 18 minutes. I know what you are probably thinking right now. Allow me to explain how something like this is possible.

In competitive speedrunning (and yes, there are competitions) there are a number of types:

No-glitch, where players go through the game as any normal player would, finding the optimal path through movement and mechanics, completing the game as the developers intended.

Glitch, where players take advantage of (usually fascinating) programming errors or memory mis-allocation to do something they could otherwise not do, such as clip through a wall to get to a new area or get an item they otherwise would not get for some time. They do not play the game as the developers intended, but work entirely within the game itself.

Tool-assisted: the optimization problem in the literal sense, writing a computer program to aid the player in completing the game in the most optimal way (down to the frame) or write to the game’s memory to allow certain behaviors. These players use external tools to allow them to complete the game more quickly.

Beyond this, there are several other sub-classifications that I won’t go into now that deal with %completion and other game specific objectives. There is a lot of granularity.

That Ocarina of Time speedrun is the world record glitch playthrough, working entirely within the game but clipping through walls, using movement and damage bugs, and moving through and around areas in ways the developers did not intend. Executing many of these glitches requires an enormous amount of skill and timing that I personally do not possess.

Remember those competitions I mentioned? Beyond just informal ones, there was an enormous annual fundraiser that had many of the worlds best speedrunners stream live for a week straight (24hr/day) that raised $1.5 million for charity. Yes I watched it. Yes it was pretty cool. Not to mention that people will actually compete to see who can complete the game the fastest, all starting at the same time (a race).

If you are interested in watching an 18min Ocarina of Time speedrun, the previous world record holder (3s slower than current, that is how quickly that this world moves) did a commentary about how some of these glitches were discovered, what he does to execute them, and that also serves as a good background to the community in general and the history of the game itself.

When things get crazy is when you enter the world of tool assisted speedruns (TAS), allowing you to do absurd things (such as writing a game within a Pokemon Red cartridge by changing the number of Potions or Pokeballs that you have, altering the memory value at those locations, then running it as a program) or program the entirety of Super Mario Brothers within Mario 64 by taking advantage of a buffer overflow. Stuff like this seriously blows my mind. Check out this article on ArsTechnica that explains a lot of what they did.

So there you go, a little bit about speedrunning. Chances are, if you played it, people speedrun it, Take a peek at how quickly they’ve beaten your favorite game. Note that all of these are “any%” meaning that they get through to the end titles as quickly as possible, skipping anything that is unnecessary (as opposed to 100% runs).