A Speedrunner in the Making

[ Editor’s Note: This feature was commissioned as part of the RetroPitch 2017 event. ]

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Something you end up learning the hard way getting into games writing is just how little time you’ll actually have to spend with each individual game that comes your way, lest you miss out on the hottest new thing and being a part of the zeitgeist that follows.  This means that you’ll be playing a lot of games, but you won’t necessarily have the time to be amazing at any of them.  This is particularly relevant given current discussions about journalists and this expectation that they need to have a zen-like mastery of every title that’s ever existed.  While I’ve certainly been more than content to have people assume my virtual dominance, in practice, I’m exceptional at a grand total of… three games – Castlevania, Dance Central, and Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball.

Yeah.  Don’t ask.

As one would expect, that proficiency comes from copious amounts of repetition, playing the same level over and over until muscle memory takes the wheel and you no longer have to actively think about the enemies in front of you, free to expend that energy on wondering why that Spin Doctors song is stuck in your head, for example.

There was a time in the recent past when I fancied myself not simply good at Castlevania for the NES, but an absolute master at it, bragging to anyone willing to listen (so, very few people) that I was capable of tearing through the notoriously difficult game without continues.  Madusa heads?  Not a problem.  Grim Reaper?  Don’t make me laugh.  Need wall chickens?  I can hook you up.  I know a guy.  (Spoiler: the guy is me).

That was until I started to venture into the world of speed-running.  As the name would suggest, it’s all about beating games as quickly as possible.  Often times these people operate on the same basic principle, simply playing a game so much that you have its finer points memorized, but the most interesting to me are the runs that involve engaging with games in ways that they weren’t originally intended, using exploits and glitches to save precious time.  It appeals to a very particular interest of mine that I have in tinkering with the mechanics of things to see how they work.  I vividly remember the first time I saw a 3D model of a level outside of the context of gameplay, realizing in that moment that video game development is really just about pulling a series of curtains to create the illusion of a functioning world.  If the player takes one wrong step, that illusion breaks and calls attention to the fact that video games are a very fragile thing, that it’s sort of amazing that they even work at all.

This isn’t a bad thing, at least not to me.  Most of us don’t think about how those mountains in the distance are probably just a giant jpeg because we’ll never actually touch them.  Those that actively choose to glitch and datamine and tear down those barriers love to discover these things, even if it’s just for the purposes of completing those games a little bit faster.

I figured if I was ever going to attempt a run of my own, to dive headfirst into this world that I really knew nothing about, Castlevania was my best chance.  Yeah, it’s a pretty difficult game, but it’s one that I’m extremely familiar with and, in the grand scheme of things, it’s relatively short.  A normal completion of the game, if howlongtobeat is to be believed, is somewhere in the 3 hour range.

The current (documented) record is 11 and a half minutes.  And that number is still being contested, 31 years after the game’s initial release.

How does the average player even begin to think about bridging that gap?  Even to me, someone that’s been playing the game since age 9, it seems daunting.  Is it actually possible for someone like me to have a shot?  Is there a guide somewhere I can look at with all of the shortcuts written down?  There has to be a tutorial.  There are tutorials for everything.  YouTube has a hundred videos of dudes telling you how to fry an egg.

As it turns out, there isn’t one.  The only way to learn the game is to simply watch others play it and hope to emulate their movements.  Far as I can tell, this varies depending on the title.  In many other cases, long tomes are written detailing the most minute detail of the games. The one constant, however, is that speedrunning is a very communal thing and survives due to the active sharing that occurs between would-be runners.  These aren’t magicians trying to hide their sleight of hand.  They want you to know what they’re doing because they worked so hard to figure it out.  It’s not unlike the fighting game community in that regard, and, for better or worse, there is a lot of overlap there.  Though, in my limited experience, the general consensus among most of the runners I’ve seen is that they want their viewers to engage with games and think about them in similar ways.  They want you to… get good.

When it came to finding a suitable route to emulate, I settled on this one from a few years ago.

The runner, Funkdoc, explains exactly what he’s doing in a manner that’s easy to understand, seeming almost bored with himself.  At the very beginning of the run, he even points out that he needs to throw a random jump in once in awhile just to mix things up.  In that moment, I had a thought that would go on to prove correct throughout the length of the run – that this is the guy I need to learn from.

I gave myself a month to learn as much as I could from this video, to see if I could actually retain and execute everything I saw and perhaps even crack that top 100, albeit unofficially.

A term you hear a lot in speedrunning is RNG.  Depending on who you ask, this can stand for Random Number Generation or refer to some sort of actual Random Number Goddess, a deity that seemingly decides your fate from the moment you boot up the game.  All games operate on variables and the runner’s job is to eliminate as many of those as possible, lest everything be ruined because something didn’t work quite the way it was supposed to.  Being an older game, Castlevania is a bit easier to predict than most, but it still has its share of problem areas.  For example, sometimes flying skulls just appear behind you.  Why?  Cause they just do.  If you weren’t expecting skulls to stop by to visit, tough luck.  They’re already eating from your fridge and asking to borrow money.  Pull out the futon, it’s going to be a long night.

Other enemies, like the bats, can usually be manipulated.  There are points in the game where it almost seems like Simon Belmont has activated some sort of tripwire to alert them of your presence, but if you move in a way that the game doesn’t expect you to (i.e. forward without ever stopping), the game often never gets around to spawning them, making certain areas significantly easier.

Another term you hear a lot is skip.  This is pretty self-explanatory and often make for the most impressive parts of speedruns.  This is when you forgo large sections of the game that you’d have to deal with in a normal playthrough.  In some games, these are massive, cutting hours from a game’s length, typically due to some sort of glitch.  Castlevania only has one of these.  It’s relatively minor, but doing it means that you never have to deal with those pesky fishmen in the first level, shaving minutes off of your time.

There is a bat that will appear from the right side of the screen here.  For my purposes, let’s name him Yogurt.  Now, Yogurt will spawn over and over if you just stand there.  Normal players will never see that happen because you’re expected to just go down the stairs and accept your fate with those fishmen.  But if you jump and hit Yogurt in a very specific way, you can actually reach that platform on the other side.

Our friend Funkdoc mentions that it’s not an easy trick and… he wasn’t joking.  If you stand in the wrong place, Yogurt spawns too low to hit.  If you jump too early, you just take the damage and fall to the floor.  Jump too late – same.

I spent a week with Yogurt.  I wish I could say it was quality time but really it was just a lot of me sweating and cursing.  But, it worked.  I have that trick burned into my brain now.  Hand me a controller a decade from now and I swear to you that Yogurt and I are getting to that platform on the first try.

This trick is called a damage boost.  The name is kind of misleading, or, at least, it was to me.  It doesn’t have anything to do with how much damage you inflict.

You see, old 2D platformers loved to give your character a knockback animation and the one in Castlevania is very… pronounced, to the point that you can actually use it to get places you otherwise couldn’t reach.  When Simon takes damage, he doubles over and falls back several steps, usually to his doom.  The designers obviously never took into account the player actively wanting to get hit, which means that often the game will react oddly.  After a month of practice sessions, RNG would still occasionally insure some random thing happened one out of every hundred times I tried to break the game.  Sometimes, for reasons I can’t explain, Yogurt will die and turn into an item when jumped on.  Depending on where you are, enemies freeze or just outright disappear. Other times, skulls will once again show up and ask for a place to crash until they get back on their feet.

Again, speedrunning is all about minimizing these moments and/or using them to your advantage.  As Funkdoc continues to the first boss, he shows where to get the double shot power up and then explains that you shouldn’t pick it up until after the boss spawns to force the AI into a good pattern.  Why?  I have no clue.  But it works, and someone, somewhere, figured that out, perhaps completely on accident.  Having no interest in destroying the purity of my experience and inadvertently writing a guide for the remainder of the game, I will simply point out some other odd things that I noticed during the run, some of which Funkdoc himself makes note of.

– If two enemies occupy the same space when hit with an item, they will take damage every frame, killing them almost instantly.  This will completely trivialize the Mummy boss fight.

– If an enemy is frozen by holy water, you can walk through them without taking any damage.  This includes the final form of Dracula.

– Simon’s whip is actually several pixels longer than pictured in the game, meaning he can hit enemies just outside of its visual reach.  

– An in-game second is actually somewhat longer than a real second.  This doesn’t actually affect the run at all but I can’t stop thinking about it so now you have to as well.

Keep in mind that these are things that someone had to discover on their own via sheer repetition. Thankfully, for the lazy like me, those accumulated years of knowledge are free to consume.  

So how did my attempt go?

Well, I learned rather quickly that the true challenge of the speedrun came down to the execution.  Knowing every little trick is meaningless if you can’t pull them off consistently and in succession i.e. without dying.  While runners far more skilled than me can recover, I found it downright impossible to continue any of my attempts once I lost my items.  “Whip-only” runs exist but are far beyond my scope.  Whenever I died, I started over, from the beginning, every single time, even if I were only two screens away from the final boss.  

I saw that opening level a lot.  Sometimes, to break up the monotony, I’d jump.

This is the part where I’d cue the Journey song and you’d be treated to a montage of me getting progressively better until this flawless no-death run happened, but it was not to be.  My best attempt involved me dying twice.  That’s the bad news.

The good news?

I’m now (unofficially) the 96th best Castlevania player in the world.  Even my mentor Funkdoc is only ranked 17th now, so I’d say I’m in good company.  I was never actually expecting to break or even sniff a world record, more than content to simply give into my intellectual curiosity and appreciation for the learning process.  What I didn’t anticipate is that I would still have this lingering compulsion to do better, even now.  Perhaps ignorantly, I expected to walk away from the experience with a shrug of the shoulders and a cursory nod.

That is not to be.  I need to keep going.

I opened a door ignorant to the fact that I’d never be able to close it again.  I now understand why that record continues to be fought over, so many years later.  The experience is stressful and often mundane, but also… addictive.

I wanted to know what it was like to be a speedrunner.  I suppose I got exactly what I asked for.

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Damien Wilkens is the owner of whatiplayed.com and has been writing about games for over a decade.  He was once described as “pretty cool” by one of his Twitter followers (@DamienWilkens).

Mr. Wilkens was, at one time, the greatest DOA Xtreme Beach Volleyball player in the world.  Unconfirmed reports say he still is.

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Eric Bailey is Top Frog of SkirmishFrogs.com. He also blogs at NintendoLegend.com. You can follow him on Twitter, @Nintendo_Legend.

One Comment

  1. Excellent article Damien. Speed running is definitely a fascinating thing. I find the whole skip business quite interesting as it sort of feels a bit like cheating – like driving through the middle of a race track (i can see how the effort that goes into finding these exploits makes an obvious counter point, mind you.)

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