Even for those who grew up playing video games, the concept of a “speed run” might not be familiar. It means essentially what you think it means: playing a game in as quick a time that you can manage. But how that’s done has become so mind-bending and complex that there is now an entire community of gamers dedicated to turning games inside out in order to complete them in the quickest time.
Last week, from January 5th to the 11th, these gamers showed off their skills during a 7-day non-stop marathon of speed running, raising over one million dollars for the Prevent Cancer Foundation!
The Awesome Games Done Quick marathon is a yearly charity event organized by the Speed Demos Archive team. The SDA website is dedicated to keeping track of the quickest times a game has been completed, categorizing what type of run it is, and hosting the video proof of the run. Want to watch GoldenEye beat in 19 minutes? Or Super Mario Bros. beat in 5? Odds are that you’ll find any game you’re curious about in SDA’s archives.
The fastest times tend to be TAS, or Tool-Assisted Speedrun, which means that the game was played on a computer emulating the original system the game came out for. (These kinds of emulators have been around for decades at this point, and are now so reliable that you can use them to build your own console that plays all kinds of game systems in one.) A TAS run allows you to do some pretty gnarly things to a game. You can save at any point in the game you like, you can dig into its code and see what it’s thinking, and you can slow down gameplay to a point where you can perform actions faster than any human is physically capable of.
This kind of dissection has lead to gamers in this community discovering a wealth of tricks and skips across a wide variety of games. The most common discovery essential to playing a game faster than you are meant to is called a “sequence break.” In essence, the video game wants you to collect Item A before you collect Item B, but you find a way to get Item B before Item A, either through taking advantage of a glitch in the game, finding an ingenious alternate route, or performing an action that you’re not supposed to be quick enough to pull off. Some games get completely broken by their sequence breaks, to the point where you can actually trick the game into letting you play it backwards.
The Legend of Zelda and Metroid series of games are beloved by speedrunners because of how prone they are to sequence breaks, since both series tend to place the entire world at your disposal, with only item-specific barriers in your way. In the most “broken” of these titles, one break leads to the discovery of another, and another, until the whole game falls apart.
Not all of these tricks are computer-only, though. With practice and skill you can duplicate them just by firing up your NES/SNES/Genesis/N64/etc. and playing the game like you always have.
Personally, I would suggest giving it a try, because there is nothing like the thrill you get from pulling off a speed trick for the first time. Suddenly, this game you’ve practically memorized is entirely new, and you can wreak havoc in a way you never have before. Trick the game into giving you all of your weapons at once. Kill bosses in one hit. Step outside the game to walk around that locked door….
These are the kinds of discoveries that the speedrunning community thrives on, leading to a huge group of gamers all working together to shave off one second here, one second there, in order to achieve the fastest possible time that it takes to beat a game.
Watching them set these records live then becomes a tense, thrilling experience in and of itself, and showcasing this rarity is what makes the yearly Awesome Games Done Quick so, well, awesome. Watching someone play a video game doesn’t seem exciting, but watching them turn it inside out is a completely engrossing experience. The AGDQ marathon also urges speedrunners who are playing to have someone provide commentary on the tricks they are doing, so there’s a running dialogue that explains to you exactly how a gamer just did the impossible thing you saw. The lingo in use—any%, clipping, mockballing, strats, and so on—can be impenetrable at first, but after a little while it becomes so comfortable that you start thinking that way yourself.
(“Any%” means you’re going for the shortest route through the game, you’re not picking up every item but you’re not trying to pick up no items either. “Clipping” is when you trick the game into embedding your character in or through an obstruction like a wall or rock. “Mockballing” is a speed trick from Super Metroid. “Strats” is short for strategies, specifically the gamer’s specific collection of strategies for shortening their speedrun.)
And once you’re there, you’re wincing and cheering along with the marathon crowd. Watching someone win Punch Out! while blindfolded while donations pour in, trying to figure out how that guy just played Super Mario 64 with only one hand on the controller even though you just watched him do it, or sitting on the edge of your seat while the four best gamers in the world race each other through Super Metroid so quickly that they almost never go out of sync. And you’re having the best time!
You’re not the only one having the best time, of course, judging from the money that Awesome Games Done Quick 2014 raised. The tally of donations topped out at over $1 million with only two scant hours left in the marathon, more than doubling the amount that the event raised in 2013.
It’s hard not to get the warm fuzzies when you think about it. Here are a bunch of gamers, skillfully exploring video game worlds more deeply than anyone could have conceived, and using the appreciation of that to raise money for a good cause.
Congratulations to the Speed Demos Archive crew, the speedrunners, and everyone involved for achieving such an outstanding goal in only one week! If only there were stories about these kinds of events on the evening news, instead of lazy “Do violent video games cause spoiled milk?” scare-mongering pieces.
Want to see what happened? Here’s a schedule of all the games they played during this year’s event. You can watch the marathon segment specific to a game courtesy of this Reddit thread. Find your favorite video game and watch someone blaze through it! WARNING: SUPER ADDICTIVE. You will lose pretty much the rest of your day. Case in point: this Ocarina of Time race.
Donations are still open, by the way, and the runners are playing some bonus games for those who have caught the news late. Watch it live right here.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to boot up Super Metroid and beat that jerk Phantoon before Kraid. BECAUSE I CAN, THAT’S WHY.
Chris Lough has such a hard time getting the Space Boots first. Still. It’s like the game doesn’t even want to let him be weird.