In April 2021, the world record for fastest ever completion of "Super Mario Bros." for NES was achieved by speedrunner Niftski. The time? 4 minutes, 54 seconds, and 948 milliseconds.
It's a startling mark for anyone who's ever played the classic Nintendo game, and the "54 seconds" part is particularly crucial. For more than two years, hundreds of speedrunners compiled thousands upon thousands of attempts in pursuit of breaking the 4 minute, 55 second barrier. Some thought it impossible given the precision of several runs that failed to break 4:55.
Other titles provide equally daunting challenges. There are "Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time" speedruns that clock in under a mere eight minutes; the game normally takes close to 30 hours to beat. There's a "Baten Kaitos" run that takes place in a single segment for 341 hours. And these examples just scratch the surface of how overwhelming speedrunning appears at first glimpse. From a distance, the scene can feel downright impenetrable. Runs hinge on thousands of hours of practice and careful, down-to-the-pixel scrutiny of in-game maneuvers. And terminology like wrongwarping(?), pause buffering(???) and RNG manip(??????) can be an intimidating barrier to entry.
Just ask Mike Uyama, progenitor of speedrunning's biggest event, Awesome Games Done Quick, a seven-day charity marathon hosted by dozens of speedrunners and featuring more than 100 games.
"Speedrunning is much bigger and more fragmented now. It can at times feel out of hand," said Mike Uyama, progenitor of speedrunning's biggest event, Awesome Games Done Quick. It started in Uyama's mother's basement, a small den packed with around 20 people huddled around a single TV screen; it was a chosen as a last resort, after the original booking at Magfest 2010 didn't work out due to poor Internet speeds.
"But ever since AGDQ's first days down in my mom's basement to what it is now, speedrunning has always been a welcoming, positive community," Uyama said.
Since that first event in 2010, Games Done Quick has gone on to raise more than $31 million for charities around the world, including Doctors Without Borders, Prevent Cancer Foundation, Direct Relief, AbleGamers, Malala Fund and Organization for Autism Research. AGDQ and its summer variant, Summer Games Done Quick, which just recently wrapped up, are now huge events involving 50 staff members (full-time and contract), 150 on-site volunteers and averaging 6.85 million views per marathon since the summer of 2017, according to AGDQ's numbers.
"A lot of people like to focus on the competitive aspects being the compelling element of speedrunning. But that's like one percent of what speedrunning is." said Jeff "Covertmuffin" Kleinschmidt, a popular "Warcraft," "StarCraft" and "Star Wars: Jedi Knight" speedrunner. "Really, it's about the people you meet, and celebrating speedruns together."
"It's so hard to put into words how inviting and wholesome the community is. We're all valuable to the community." said Steven "Keizaron" Eisner, who attributes a number of Pokémon speedrun records to the findings of his peers.
During the several interviews The Washington Post conducted with pro speedrunners on how to best break into the field, one thing was consistently mentioned - while it may seem intimidating on the surface, speedrunning is actually one of the warmest and most inviting communities out there. It's just a matter of knowing how and where to start.
Below is a guide based off their answers for getting into speedrunning for anyone who may be curious.
Q: Is speedrunning just players trying to beat the game as quickly as possible?
A: Not quite! Speedrunning is a generalized term for a way to play a game that involves intentionally trying to go as fast as you can, however there are several different categories with different rulesets within speedrunning. The most commonly known category is to beat the game by any means necessary - "Any %" as it's known in the community - which usually includes purposely causing glitches that save time.
Some involve speedrunning only particular segments of a game. Others impose certain restrictions, such as glitchless runs that force players to play the game as developers intended as quickly as possible, or 100% runs that force you to collect every item and do every quest. There are also speedrun races, where world-record-chasing is eschewed in favor of just beating your opponent according to a particular set of criteria. Another type of speedrun is tool-assisted speedruns, or TAS. These involve speedrunners tinkering with a macro program to have the computer complete the game with absolute perfect button inputs and quickly as possible.
Q: Where should I start as a viewer?
A: Every speedrunner we spoke to said the same thing: Start by looking at games that you like to play. Since you'll be watching the game over and over and over again, it's helpful to already be invested.
Next, consider what interests you more: glitch or glitchless speedruns. Almost every speedrun falls into one of these categories. Does seeing how games are made fascinate you, and do you enjoy people reverse engineering game developers' designs to exploit them? Or are you more interested in watching players perfectly execute a run at an Olympian pace?
Once you've decided, see if you can find a narrated speedrun. Speedrunning takes a lot of concentration and mental strain, and speedrunners going for records or racing are often silent. Thankfully, there are plenty of YouTube videos of narrated speedruns, in which a helpful voice-over explains what's happening on-screen. Speedrunning events like Summer Games Done Quick actually forces speedrunners to narrate their sessions.
Q: OOB? Clipping? Memory Manipulation? How can I learn all the terms?
A: Speedrunning can be complicated, particularly because every game is created differently. Each game's behind-the-scenes design structure offers its own unique set of technical exploits. This means that technical jargon in speedrunning is, unfortunately, unavoidable.
Thankfully, the aforementioned narrated speedruns are great at teaching audiences of all experience levels. In time, the videos will naturally expand your vocabulary, giving you a clearer contextual understanding of the terms. Just remember: Ease yourself in with a game you are already passionate about, which will aid language acquisition thanks to your familiarity with the game.
You can also check out resources like this glossary, or this one, which both do a good job covering the basics.
Q: Where can I find speedruns to watch?
A: Beyond YouTube, there are two sites in particular - speedruns.com and speedrunslive.com - that should be your go-to's. Speedrunslive is exactly what it sounds like. Speedruns.com, on the other hand, offers world record leader boards with an archive of speedrunning videos for a huge amount of games. Both sites feature robust search engines and other amenities, like forums and guides.
Q: How can I start speedrunning?
A: First, it's important to ask yourself how serious you want to be. If you're just speedrunning for fun, watch a speedrunner you like and start by trying to emulate their approach. If you're going for world records, you'll need a lot more resources.
Start with a speedrunning timer, like livesplit. It's important to use these, as they show times for various sections of the game as opposed to just one timer for the entire game. They also show what the current world record time is for each section, which you can use for comparison. If you see that you've fallen way behind after a certain section, you can just start the speedrun over, as opposed to slugging through a playthrough you know won't hit the goal.
Next, you'll need to figure out what type of run you want to do, then check out "routing" for your game - the way and order you should perform actions in a game for the fastest possible time. Sites like speedrun.com's individual game forums and Speed Demos Archive's consolidated forum offer plenty of guidance. The routes shared there are often tested ad-nauseum - and timed down to the frame and millisecond - so they're a great starting point until you're familiar enough with a route to make your own tweaks. Keep in mind that certain games actually recommend you run different language versions of games due to faster text boxes. This means you'll need to get region-appropriate consoles, most of which can be found on eBa or Amazon.
Finally, to submit a time for a world record, you'll also need video evidence of your entire run to send to a speedrun.com moderator. You can use your console's native recording devices (if it has one) or the popular streaming and recording software, OBS.
World record hunting is a true commitment, and most only find success after months of practice. This is why it's important to speedrun a game you truly love. You'll be playing it hundreds of times.
Q: Are there other things I can do in the speedrunning community?
A: Absolutely! Apart from being a regular viewer or speedrunner, there are several other roles an interested person can have.
You could become a glitch hunter, whose role is to intentionally try to break the game to find glitches: falling out of bounds, jumping through walls and so on. You could also become a router, who takes the information learned by glitch hunters and speedrunners and combines them into the fastest possible route. Once you've been in a game's community for a while, you could even become a moderator who oversees world record submissions.
Many games have their own sub-communities with their own categories for speedrunning. To see how you might contribute, check the title's Discord channel (Discord is a chat client similar to Slack or Microsoft Teams, often used by gamers) which can be found on a game's speedrun.com page. If you don't see the game you're interested in, you can request that the game be uploaded to speedrun.com's site and start building a community there.
Q: How do I even get into the speedrunning community?
A: Speedrunning is among the most friendly communities out there, contrary to how hardcore speedruns themselves may seem. I've watched the community grow from around 2010; in my view, it is accepting people of all genders, ethnicities and social identities, sporting perhaps the biggest trans community in gaming.
Speedrun.com's discord channels, the r/speedrun subreddit and individual speedrunners' Twitch channels are a great way to meet other members of the community.
Once you're comfortable enough, you should absolutely consider attending a speedrunning marathon, which are essentially the "gaming conventions" of speedrunning. AGDQ events are some of the biggest, but other marathons like the European Speedrunner Assembly, RPG Limit Break, Frame Fatales and more offer alternative experiences across the world.