Speed Saves – How One Charity Event Changed My View on Speed Runs

Battletoads CoverI don’t think I’m totally alone with my original thoughts on speed runs. A few years back I thought of them as people missing the point of playing the games – they were just blazing through as fast as possible. My perspective on speed running has completely changed though – those original thoughts were just plain wrong. And my shift in thought is entirely due to Ray (of Achievement Hunter fame) continually talking up one runner in particular – Caleb Hart. I, on a whim, checked out his race of Mega Man X1 from AGDQ (Awesome Games Done Quick) last year with Zewing. I was 100% blown away. It wasn’t someone just racing through the game – it was a clinic on precision and skill to blitz through the game. I’ve since watched a number of runners, streams, and archived runs on YouTube – including a bunch from this year’s AGDQ, which is going on right now.

I look at speed runs now as more like an academic study of a particular game. The goal – ultimately a World Record time – is essentially your thesis, the lens you’re looking at the game through. The runners study the most basic elements of the games – frames and pixels – and break them down to help attain that WR. For example, Caleb is well known for a trick in Mega Man X called “Iceless.” It requires nailing a perfect wall dash jump, off of one specific pixel, and then grabbing a ledge thanks to again, one pixel. The precision required is unreal – I spent about 15 minutes trying one day to get it. And now Caleb is able to hit it, consistently, in the middle of a run. It’s incredibly common to hear runners talk about frame-perfect and pixel perfect jumps. The Mexican Runner, a runner who specializes in Battletoads, in his run from last year’s AGDQ explains the mechanic for dash-jumping in Battletoads. It’s an NES game that runs at 60fps, and in order to dash and carry that momentum into a jump, it requires frame perfect input – and watching his runs makes you realize just what level of skill these players are playing at.

Mega Man X

One last game that I think perfectly exemplifies speed running (MMX is a great one too) is the SNES classic, Super Metroid. It’s a game that has been run countless times, but even as recently as last summer had new tactics discovered. Go watch the videos on YouTube – Zoast’s run at SGDQ (Summer Games Done Quick) 2013, the four-way race at AGDQ 2014 and Zoast and Ivan’s runs from SGDQ last year – and you’ll quickly get a good feel for just how much that game’s mechanics have evolved and become more understood. The runs themselves are always impressive, but the best parts of these runs are the couch commentators – the other runners, not currently playing that help breakdown the crazy tactics required to play that fast. The Super Metroid runs all have Golden on the couch, Battletoads has PJ, and Caleb handles both duties with his runs generally. These runners understand that with these events, the audience is way larger than usual, thanks to the added aspect that both GDQ’s are also charity drives. This year’s AGDQ is raising money for the Prevent Cancer Foundation – and has raised well over $500K already.

If you’ve never thought about watching speed runs, this is the very best time to start – there are incredible runs online from the AGDQ already. They vary in games too – from well known classics like Super Mario Bros. 3, to hidden gems like Kid Chameleon. Regardless of which game you decide to start on, you’ll find a runner that’s supremely knowledgeable about their game, and shows off that skill with incredible precision.

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How Megaman is an Example of Perfect Game Design

It struck me as I was planning what to write about this week that I had never touched on my favorite series of games Рthe Mega Man games. The classic series were the very first set of games I can remember clearly loving over other games. As I got older, I played the Mega Man X games, as well the Legends games, and have since played through most of the games. I recently pulled out my X Collection so I could go ahead and replay the older games in the series. One thing that I have been paying attention to ever since I started covering video games is how specific games go about their design. As I have been playing the older games it was pretty awesome to note just how beautiful the gameplay design is in the traditional 2D Mega Man games. So I thought a good topic this week would be to go through and look at just how they do such a good job.

Megaman PAL

First of all, we’ll start with the Classic series – Mega Man through Mega Man 10. I’m including the two new titles, but really all we need to look at are the first few games. The basic tenets of the Mega Man formula allow you to choose the order that you play the levels, which lets you learn the levels at your own pace, making a large portion of the gameplay dependent on the player’s skill. Once you’ve beaten your first boss, you can learn that each new weapon behaves differently, and affects each boss in different ways. As the series progressed, new abilities were added, like the ability to slide in Mega Man 3, which the player can learn will let them traverse through small sections, as well as move quickly – which will let them tackle the bosses using different tactics. In the next game, they gave Mega Man the ability to charge his blaster – which of course lets you do more damage per shot. In game – none of these abilities are explicitly stated to you, but through experimenting the player can learn on their own, which I think is much more satisfying in the end.

Mega Man X

Now ultimately, the Mega Man X series I think has an even more clear example of perfect level/game design. The very first level of Mega Man X does a perfect job of showing the player how the Mega Man X games will work. The very first section of the level introduces enemies that are weak enough to kill with single shots, before introducing a larger enemy that will allow the player to learn that X can charge his blaster by holding the shoot button. As the player traverses the level, he fights a large bee enemy that destroys a section of the bridge, seemingly trapping X at the bottom. It’s here that the player is shown that X can grab onto the walls and climb them with wall jumps. All these little details will be used in every other level to create extra challenges, which the player is prepared for thanks to the design of the intro level. Essentially it amounts to a tutorial level, but without actually spelling it out to the player. As the player progresses, he can add extra abilities through the use of the Dr. Light capsules – again, one is basically given to the player in Chill Penguin’s stage, while the others are of course hidden in the levels.

It’s this beautiful game design that is incredibly informative, while also intuitive and non-intrusive, that allows players to gain an incredible amount of skill playing the game. That’s why players are able to speed run the games in unbelievable times – they know exactly how Mega Man will move and can move him incredibly precisely. It’s because of this level of control and design that make the entire franchise my absolute favorite games.