A speedrun is an undertaking wherein someone plays a game with the intent of finishing it either as quickly as possible or as completely as possible. Speedruns are not battles of wits and skill between two human players but tests of one player’s ingenuity against the game itself. It’s like a runner training for a triathlon; a player practices until he conquers the game totally. For others only watching, they are also useful to see a game in action when you are incapable of playing it yourself through lack of time or funds or unavailability.
A player that wants to finish a game as quickly as possible will usually blow through the game, abuse bugs, utilize shortcuts, deliberately die for strategic purposes, and use other counter-intuitive methods of getting through the game in record speed. For example, in a speedrun of The Legend of Zelda for the NES the player will usually use an obscure controller combination to save and quit, then immediately start again in the default location, saving him the time of running around after completing each dungeon. Speedruns of Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest (Sorry, the audio desynchronizes part of the way through this video) will do the same thing as well as activating bugs that allow the player to move through normally impassible walls (A process known as “sequence breaking”).
Naturally, there are some speedrunners who eschew all of this fancy business and just play the game straight through. Their intent is to showcase an expert playthrough under normal circumstances with pure skill and no gimmicks. Depending on the game, this may be more or less interesting. Nearly every comments section of a Youtube speedrun will be full of people complaining that the speedrunner isn’t playing the game “legitimately”. If you want to see one hundred percent of the game’s content, a normal speedrun is typically not for you, especially if it’s a lengthy game.
Speedruns of Super Metroid for the SNES are famous for the aforementioned sequence breaking. Normally, a player of Super Metroid must crawl through many alien caverns to get the items necessary to continue their quest. Sequence breakers will exploit every shortcut (Intentional and otherwise) in order to beat the game in less time than the creators of the game intended to be possible. Observe (If you have time to kill):
A speedrun that intends to finish a game as completely as possible (AKA “100% completion”) generally involves going through every level, collecting all items, et cetera. The intent is to access all of the content in the game in as little time as possible. The previous video is exactly this.
It gets more complicated here, so bear with me. There are two ways to create a speedrun: Normal and tool-assisted. Normal means sitting in front of a television or monitor and playing the game like an ordinary (Albeit skilled and highly prepared) human being. Tool-assisted speedruns, however, involve the use of emulators and save states to manipulate the player’s input to levels that would ordinarily be impossible.
The Tool-Assisted Videos website explains this in more detail:
“We strive to push games to their limits. The emulators we use allow for undoing mistakes, slow-motion gameplay, and even in some cases utilizing robots to do our bidding. Using these tools, we overcome human limitations to complete games with extremely high precision, entertaining our viewers as our players tear through games at seemingly impossible speeds.”
I enjoy both regular and tool-assisted speedruns in their own way. I like to see both the pinnacle of human video gaming skill as well as machines that help players go beyond the limits of mere mortals. One is not better than the other. Ignore factions who tell you otherwise. We can all get along.
The length of speedruns can vary drastically depending on what type of game is being mastered. A short NES action game can take less than ten minutes; a lengthy RPG that normally takes fifty-plus hours can be whittled down to four by skipping unnecessary bits such as storyline and side missions.
Bonus fun fact: Similar to the speedrun is the “Let’s Play” in which someone plays a game for the first time. The purpose is supposedly to give viewers the same “fresh” experience that the player is getting, though I find these to be far less interesting than watching an expert work their magic. The earliest caveman Let’s Players (From 2006-8 or so) would post a series of screenshots from the game with their commentary and/or jokes. Today, however, Let’s Plays are usually made by moronic teenagers with shaky VHS camcorders pointed at blurry, glare-encrusted screens while they make “wacky” voices. (Warning: Offensive language; eye bleeding visuals; ridicule of the mentally challenged. Welcome to the Internet.) In my opinion, gameplay videos should be left to the most proficient players, though some enjoy watching someone slowly plod through a horrifically difficult game.
Speedruns are quite a fascinating process in which we see the greatest possible level of human skill playing a video game. Yes, they are frivolous, but they entertain you in a fashion that no other medium can replicate. There is joy to be found in watching someone who is the greatest at what they do.