Happy new year, readers!

It’s been a while since my last post.  There’s actually a lot of new and awesome things to tell you about since then!  But more on that later, hopefully.  This is a post that I’ve had partly written for a while and finally got done.  (Warning:  this is a really nerdy post about video games.  If you’re not a video game nerd like me, it might totally bore you.)  😉

If you’ve read much of this blog, you know I really enjoy video games– especially games from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, the familiar ones I grew up with.  (In general, new video games began to lose me when they shifted to 3D, and lost me almost altogether when the Nintendo Wii made control a matter of physical rather than mental coordination.  My cousins think I’m terrible at video games because I can never beat them, but I’d like to see them try to beat me at the original Super Mario Kart!)

The Internet has allowed people to share the things that interest them in all kinds of ways, and classic video games are no exception.  It’s amazing how much diversity and subclassification there can be within a seemingly narrow area of interest.

For instance, you can find a lot of videos on YouTube of recorded video game footage.  Making a recording of a console game like the NES (Nintendo) used to require two VCRs and more cables than most kids could find around the house.  Today, though, a lot of people play a copy of the game, record it, capture commentary or reactions, and upload it to the Internet using just one computer.

The video game recording itself has a lot of subgenres.  Off the top of my head, I can think of the “Let’s play,” the longplay, the glitchfest, and a particular favorite of mine, the speed run.

A speed run is an attempt to complete a video game as quickly as possible.  You can probably find a speed run for just about any game you can think of by searching YouTube for the game title and “speed run.”

The question then is what kind of speed run you are interested in!  There are two very different approaches to what seems on its face to be a simple concept: human and tool-assisted speed runs, and each has its own community of devoted gamers.  And believe it or not, the difference is as big as the difference between sports and art.

Human speed runs

I’m actually not sure if I’m giving this category the correct title; maybe someone who is a die-hard gamer can correct me.  I think gamers are more likely just to call this kind of video a “speed run.”

But anyway, this sort of speed run is all about skill and competition.  It’s about sitting down with the controller, pushing start, and trying to run the gauntlet of a video game without making a single time-wasting mistake.  Websites keep track of the record completion times, and post videos when a gamer sets a new record.  Here’s an example.

(There are two videos of Super Mario World speed runs at that link.  One of them uses warp zones and glitches to skip levels and finish the game in 10 minutes, 29 seconds.  The other completes every area in the game [all 96 of them!] in less than an hour an a half.)

That Speed Demos site I linked to puts together a really neat event annually.  They gather a lot of their most talented speed gamers in the same room and play a marathon of dozens of familiar games (and a few unfamiliar ones) that spans a few days nonstop.  They offer live streaming video both of the games themselves and of the gaming room, so you can watch people’s reactions as the players make or miss their goals.  And they take donations for a charity that funds cancer research, giving away game-related prizes and artwork, or agreeing to meet requests for things viewers want to see them try.

This year’s event is actually going on right now! It runs from January 5th to the 11th.  It’s called “Awesome Games Done Quick.”  Give it a look if you’re interested or curious!

This sort of speed run has some parallels with a sport, in that it’s seen as a test of the player’s endurance and concentration.  It takes a lot of practice to become good enough at a game to challenge a speed record– you don’t just have to avoid dying; you have to know the fastest path to take on each screen.  Something as simple as missing a jump can cost you the few seconds you need to break the record.

There’s also the need for official rules and records to ensure that everyone is competing fairly.  Most speed run sites insist on verifying that the player used the original game software (and often hardware too), because a reproduction of the game on a computer could easily be tweaked to allow cheating (slowing the game down while playing, then speeding it up in the finished video; or erasing a mistake and trying again from the exact same point, then showing only the successful attempts as if they were done in one try).

And that brings me to the other kind of gaming speed run, which does all of those things unapologetically.

Tool-assisted speed runs

If human speed runs are video gaming turned into a sport, then tool-assisted speed runs are video gaming turned into art.  What would a speed run look like if the player were not limited by human reflexes?  What if it were possible to “solve” a video game like a complex equation?

Every video game is essentially a task of pushing the right sequence of buttons at the right times.  If you knew the sequence and the timing down to the smallest fraction of a second and could enter it with 100% accuracy, you could beat the game without looking at the screen.

Computers make it possible to do just that.  Creating a tool-assisted speed run (TAS) is like planning out the entire script of a game on a frame-by-frame level.  This makes it possible to do things that are impossible with human reflexes, like pressing a button 12 times a second or taking advantage of a glitch that allows you to jump off the side of a wall, but only if you push a button on one specific frame.

I became interested in tool-assisted speed runs after seeing a video that completed Super Mario Bros. 3 in just over 11 minutes and maxed out the number of extra lives at 99 by bouncing off enemies constantly.

That eventually led me to TASvideos, a site that collects tool-assisted runs for every game imaginable.  The site does a nice job of explaining the various tricks gamers use to save time.  Each game becomes like its own logic puzzle, and the solutions can be surprisingly diverse.

A tool-assisted speed run can take weeks, months, or even years to complete– like a work of art– and often requires detailed knowledge of how the game’s code works.  For instance, suppose a game allows only three enemies to be on screen at a time.  If the gamer keeps three enemies on screen, then scrolls past a point where a fourth enemy is supposed to be, that enemy will never appear.  Often, the gamer has to carefully limit the number of moving objects on the screen so that the game will not slow down (or “lag”), so it’s necessary to find a balance between hurrying through the game as fast as possible and pausing at strategic points to avoid lag.

These speed runs can also involve manipulation of random events, like finding a treasure that is hidden in a different spot every time the game is played.  In fact, no event in a video game is truly random– they are just determined by things that it would ordinarily be impossible for the player to control.  But in the end, all of the game’s output is determined by the player’s input.  The treasure’s location might be determined by how many times the player presses the B button and the frame on which the player enters the forest level, for instance.  In a tool-assisted speed run, the player can give himself perfect luck– in one case completing a quest by finding the king’s lost scepter before he even tells the hero it’s missing!

In some cases, it’s possible to take advantage of glitches that allow the player to do things they were never intended to do– witness how Mega Man zips through walls and skips levels in this speed run.  Sometimes a glitch is exploited that writes junk data into the game.  Ordinarily this would just crash the game, but with exactly the right combination of buttons, it’s possible to tell the game to skip all the way to the end.  The result can be hilarious, like in this video, where Mario seems to go utterly insane, jumping around randomly until the game just decides to give up!

One reason the TASvideos site takes such pains to explain what tool-assisted runs are all about is that when the runs are posted on YouTube, they often end up being misunderstood, and the creators accused of “cheating” by commenters.  That accusation would only be correct if the creator were trying to pass off a computer-assisted speed run as a speed run performed in real time by a human.  The tool-assisted speed run has a completely different aim, though– instead of proving the human player’s reflexes and skill, its purpose is to show the user’s knowledge of the game inside and out by using it as a canvas to create a work of art.

I think that tool-assisted speed runs have gradually become more accepted as more viewers have learned about them.  In fact, this year’s Awesome Games Done Quick marathon will include a segment contributed by TASvideos, using a cute idea– the machine supplying the sequenced input to the game console is designed to look like a Nintendo ROB robot, so it will look like the robot is playing the game!