Speedrunners defy logic to complete your favorite games in staggering times.
Some people are good at a video game, and then some people are speedrunners. Speedrunning — the act of completing a video game as fast as possible — would seem somewhat like a natural progression for improving at a game. The more you play, the better you get and the less time it takes to make progress. But speedrunning entails much more than simply getting extremely good at a particular game. Successful speedrunners shorten play-through times through unnatural mechanisms. Sure, they’re better at their game of choice than 99% of players, but they’ve also found and learned to play in ways even a game’s developers never thought of. Essentially, speedrunners push a game to its limits and then some, all in the pursuit of shaving off minutes and seconds from their runs.
Speedrunning has been a subculture in gaming for more than 30 years. The original Metroid for NES offered unique rewards for completing the game in a set amount of time. Eight years after Metroid, Super Metroid arrived in 1994, becoming the first game to truly invigorate and excite the speedrunning community thanks to its nonlinear progression. The most devoted of Super Nintendo players loved uncovering all of Super Metroid’s secrets but also became enamored with seeing how quickly they could reach the credits. More than 20 years removed from Super Metroid, it remains one of the most popular games for runners, with the fastest overall time of 41 minutes, 56 seconds being achieved less than a year ago.
The subculture of speedrunning has increased in popularity in recent years, thanks to the emergence of streaming — YouTube and Twitch — which allows a speedrunner to chronicle their journeys, frame by frame, for onlookers to appreciate.
There’s enough interest in watching speedrunners that an annual event called Summer Games Done Quick has raised millions of dollars for charities, including a record $1.7 million for Doctors Without Borders this past summer.
The website speedrun.com tracks all the speedrunning world records. Thousands of games have been registered on the site so far, and each day new world records are achieved. But while games like A Bug’s Life have had roughly 15 players attempt and submit record completion times, a handful of games have become the focal point for many speedrunners.
Two games in particular have received the most attention from speedrunners.
There’s a telling, and unsurprising, correlation between great games and games that keep people running through them again and again. After all, why would anyone want to keep playing, let alone excel at, a bad game?
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is commonly regarded as one of the very best games of all time, and the best according to review aggregator Metacritic. The 1998 adventure for Nintendo 64 brought The Legend of Zelda to 3D for the first time. Critics and gamers loved it, but no one would have guessed that almost 20 years later, Ocarina of Time would have retained its popularity in such an unusual manner. Yet new secrets from the timeless classic are being discovered yearly by the speedrunning community. What if you could totally change the way Ocarina of Time operates, solely by exploiting what’s in the game’s underlying code? That’s what many speedrunners strive for, but when it comes to one of the best games ever, the mystique is amplified.
Currently six major speedrun categories are deemed major records in Ocarina of Time, with seven others acting as secondary, miscellaneous categories. Each of these categories has a certain rule set for completion. There’s an anything-goes category; a 100% completion category; an all-dungeons category; a medallions, stones and trials category; a category that forbids using glitches; a category that doesn’t allow major glitches.
If that sounds complicated, it’s because it sort of is. A game of Ocarina of Time’s open-world structure makes for a variety of possible run styles. Typically it boils down to completion conditions and which type of glitches are permitted. Glitches — unintended bugs in a game’s code that can be exploited — are a huge part of speedrunning. Each time the speedrunning community discovers a new exploit, there’s a chance for shorter times, depending on how each player decides to utilize a particular glitch.
For Ocarina of Time, glitches have allowed players to finish the game in as little as 17 minutes, nine seconds. For reference, the lengthy game will typically take a new player anywhere from 25 to 30 hours to complete. The 100% category, which forces players to collect everything in the game, currently has been completed in just four hours, 15 minutes, as opposed to 50 to 60 hours for the average player.
So glitches make a game easier, allowing you to bypass large portions of a game, but executing glitches is typically a very complicated process made to look easy by these seasoned veterans. And it’s not just glitches that make these players finish a game like Ocarina of Time in unfathomable times. No, they are truly incredible at this iconic game. In the no-glitches category, which strictly forbids exploits, the world record currently stands at three hours, 22 minutes, 13 seconds. How is that possible? From tireless mapping of the quickest routes, an unbelievable command of the game’s controls and a familiarity with the game that likely surpasses that of most of the developers who created it. The latest world-record glitchless run occurred just this August. In fact, all the major Ocarina of Time records have been broken within the past year.
But despite Ocarina of Time’s popularity in the speedrunning community, it’s dwarfed by the level of attention given to another Nintendo 64 classic — Super Mario 64.
The 1996 platform also brought Mario into 3D and is perhaps the most influential modern game in terms of its handling of analog stick controls. If Ocarina of Time records impressed you, Super Mario 64 speedrunning achievements will likely blow you away.
In the 120-star category — which forces players to collect every star in the game — the world record stands at one hour, 39 minutes, 28 seconds. The 70-star category record, held by the same user who goes by cheese05, is 47 minutes, 56 seconds. The 16-star category record clocks in at 15 minutes, 24 seconds. The one-star category is at seven minutes, 21 seconds. The zero-star category, which makes it possible to beat the game without obtaining any stars, is at six minutes, 44 seconds.
Super Mario 64 is one of the ultimate tests of platforming ability. Much of the time is spent running and jumping. In Super Mario 64 Mario jumps inside paintings to collect stars from levels. Collecting all 120 stars, a very challenging task, would take the average gamer at least 30 hours. And even if you were truly great at the game, a time under 10 hours would be remarkable.
That’s what makes Super Mario 64’s records so incredible. Watching a speedrunner play Super Mario 64 makes you view the game entirely differently. Mario doesn’t move as he normally does when controlled by an adept speedrunner. Instead, Mario skirts and slides across the ground, taking paths that most players would never even think to attempt, jumping from platform to platform in seemingly impossible ways.
Becoming one of the true greats of these two iconic games takes extreme attention to detail and hundreds upon hundreds of hours of practice. Speedrunners have to, almost quite literally, become one with the game. They have to know the game and all its idiosyncrasies as if they plotted the map. In fact, some runners learn their game of choice so well that they have it memorized. In 2015 a speedrunner with the handle PangaeaPanga beat Super Mario World — the sixth most popular game for runners — in 23 minutes…while blindfolded!
Some may be thinking, “Don’t people have better things to do with their time?” Some people choose to spend their free time watching Netflix, scrolling through social media or reading a book. Speedrunners prefer to spend their free time perfecting a peculiar craft. Many play video games for fun, but some like the challenge of getting almost impossibly good at one of their favorite games. If they can find excitement and satisfaction in their pursuit, what’s the harm in that?
Speedrunning will only grow more popular as video games continue to gain prominence. Watch these daunting runs in awe or, perhaps, if you’re daring enough, attempt to work your way onto the leaderboard.