Let’s Run

So Awesome Games Done Quick 2013 is done, and with it the SDA marathon events have raised about 3/4 of a million dollars for charity. That’s really amazing, and on one level I’m really proud that I’ve been able to participate, even if it’s on some small, nigh-useless level. I had felt, for many months prior to my trip this year, that general speedrunning communities and activities, and even the charity angle on the whole thing, might not really be enough to make my trip worthwhile. I was really going just to see friends, my family, and Yuzo Koshiro.

None of that’s changed from my trip, really. But it doesn’t have to. Every year I meet more and more people that I’m excited to go see again, so while my sister’s family won’t be in the area next year, and Magfest may not have quite as amazing of a headliner (though I can think of a few I’d like to see at least as much as Koshiro), I’m really hoping that I can make the trip work out again next year, even if it’s not as long.

This was my fourth Magfest, and I’m still astounded by how quickly the event has grown. In 2012 the event moved to the gigantic Gaylord National in National Harbor due to space constraints at the previous venue, and I couldn’t imagine how many people were there. This year didn’t seem that much different, but according to the organizers the jump was from 6000 to at least 9000! By comparison, in 2009…there were apparently only around 1350.

I’m not really much of a convention-goer; I wouldn’t even say I don’t like them, but for the most part I wouldn’t choose them over other things I could be doing with the time and money. Fortunately, Magfest lines up very closely with something else I like to do, and I’ve always had an amazing time, so it’s not usually a hard choice.  Hanging out is fun enough, but I’m amazed by how many people show up to play music and the amount of obscure or largely inaccessible games that people bring out every year. This year I was only exposed to a few games that really caught me off guard or that I just hadn’t gotten to play before, but they sure didn’t disappoint.

 

This is a picture of me, for some reason.

My “favorite” was Pac-Man VR, a hilarious little entry in the Virtual Reality craze of the 90s. You put on the helmet, stand inside a small enclosed ring on a platform so you don’t stumble off and hurt yourself or the precious machine, then get a small 1-handed grip for the controller. You’re Pac-Man, in first person, and the controller has one button, which is used to walk forward since the game would be impossible to control if you were forced to always move like in the original game. Also, since you can’t see ghosts that might be behind you (or outside your general field of vision period) the game doesn’t use a standard life system. Instead, you have a short amount of time to collect 1/4 of the dots on the field, and if you’re successful you get another equal period of time for the next 1/4, and so on. As such, the main challenge of the game after the adjustment period is over is not getting lost trying to make your way to the last few dots. The final one is marked with a nice arrow, but since you can’t see the overall layout it’s not easy to tell what the best way to get there is. I never saw anyone finish the first level so I’m not sure how the later levels change the formula up, but it was great to watch (both the player in the game, and the tv which had a separate line out) and play for a bit.

I also spent my traditional time at the Cave shmup setups, and while, between Magfest, emulation and the fantastic array of console ports, I’ve played nearly all of their games at least a bit, there was still one gap in my experience: Ibara Kuro. The original Ibara is a sequel of sorts to Battle Garegga, which I consider my favorite game of all time, but the “Black” version is essentially a remix by another programmer that changes up a lot of the mechanics. The game is quite a bit easier than the original if you play conservatively,  but trying to take advantage of the scoring mechanics tends to place you in between impenetrable walls of bullets. It’s not a very forgiving game and I didn’t have time to learn anything tricky, but I really enjoyed it nonetheless. I think I embarrassed my friend by singing the soundtrack constantly, but what else was I supposed to do? It was so loud in there you could barely hear it!

I also met some guys out there who play King of Fighters XIII and some other fighting games, and a few hours of KoF even when I hadn’t spent any time practicing recently was really nice. I had really forgotten how much I liked the game, and I’m always surprised by how much better I do against players who aren’t local for the most part. I feel like a lot of the guys in Denver have “figured me out” at this point, and it’s hard to beat them without coming up with new one-time gimmicks, but on the road the fact that I play less common characters and do have a lot of bad tricks can help a lot. In the end I didn’t ever actually play Zerp, who plays two of the same characters that I played for a long time, Elisabeth and Shen. That was kind of a disappointment, but he showed up a couple more times while I was at AGDQ since he also knows Josh and a couple other guys, and ended up introducing me to Chaos Code as well, which is a weird Taiwanese fighting game that mashes up some “anime” mechanics with more KoF-ish type basics. It definitely feels a bit weird and “cheap” (in the production sense) but it’s got some fun backgrounds and a weirdly addictive soundtrack, and I’m pretty excited to share its goofiness with some of the local players in Denver.

Finally, there was the man himself, Yuzo Koshiro. I honestly had no idea what his performance was going to be like, although it was billed as the first of two acts for a “dance party.” Sadly I was correctly left to assume this meant he wouldn’t be pulling out any of his more prog rock/metal/fusion type stuff, but the set certainly didn’t even begin to disappoint. He ended up DJ’ing about an hour of game music from across his career, starting with some Actraiser music before moving into some heavier and more “rave”-y stuff like Streets of Rage and Shinobi. The climax involved many tracks from the Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune arcade games, which I was especially excited about. I’m not at all familiar with the games, but I basically always love singing in game soundtracks and wish there was more.

I ended up having to cut Magfest short on both ends and would’ve really loved to stay even a little longer, but it was still just a great time and I didn’t regret going out to make sure I got a nice Sunday afternoon and evening with my sister’s family. After that, it was time to get to AGDQ.

I feel like a lot of the event actually speaks for itself if you watch the stream, although anyone who’s been to a major fighting game tournament or anything else knows how completely different being there is from being a long-distance spectator. The atmosphere was definitely a lot more subdued overall than a competitive event, but a lot of the same passion was there. Speedrunning may be less of a commitment per game in many cases (although the top players on Super Metroid and similar popular games have certainly poured a lot of their lives into their titles), but I was still struck by the enthusiasm with which players absorbed new tricks and asked for help on a staggering variety of runs and games.

I can’t say I felt that same drive, even in the middle of all this. For me learning about the basic speed tricks or concepts in a game is really fun, but it’s kind of like trying out combos for characters I don’t play in fighting games. It’s not fundamentals, or sometimes even useful, it’s just a fun little unique thing to try out.  I don’t want to rehearse a whole game in most cases, I just want to see something new and fresh. But it all ties into my greater understanding of the “performance” aspect of speedrunning and other superplays. It’s not just about knowing how the game works and playing it a lot; there’s a lot of important “setups” or other combo-esque sequences needed to really excel. The players know exactly what the desired outcome is, and the drama stems from human error and the unpredictability of programmed behavior. This doesn’t change my outlook towards these kinds of plays overall, but it does make the idea of doing them a lot more approachable now that I’ve started to understand the methods and scale of work better.

The other facet of performance is, of course, the player and their personality. For the most part, viewers respond best to people who are fun to watch along with their games. Whether these are people like Mr. K or Cosmo, who bring a warm friendliness to match their esoteric and detailed knowledge, someone like PJ, whose enthusiasm and temper hold steady through even the most stunningly painful games, or the over-the-top personalities like tri-hex and Flicky who often dominate the stream’s attention even if they’re not playing (for better or worse), the players are definitely a big draw not just for me, but the viewers at home. Of course, some carefully cultivated mystique can go a long way too, but it’s usually best for someone like Siglemic who’s got a game that’s sufficiently popular and flashy to entertain the viewers on its own.

I’ve been around the block a few times with these events, and I knew coming in that there wasn’t some kind of life-changing experience coming. But as my interest in fighting games has grown faster than my interest in speedruns, there’s still a lot for me to think about in terms of what this trip and the community is “worth” to me, and there’s not an easy answer to that. I’ll be back in the future, I’m sure, but with my sister moving out and a lot of other stuff unresolved in my life, I’m not quite sure when that future will be.

Might Controls Everything

“I didn’t know you were a speedrunner!”

Yes, that’s a sentence I almost never hear, because most people don’t know there’s nothing to know. Or so I tend to think, every time I offhandedly mention it and get this kind of response. Of course, now that I’m writing this, I realize it actually serves as a nice way to kinda talk about my video gaming history and some other things, so that’s cool.

The first time I heard of speedrunning was in Super Smash Bros. Melee, which featured a few wacky minigames to entertain people whose friends/siblings weren’t available. In particular, one of these modes features a specially designed level, unique to each character, with ten targets, and generally some other obstacles, placed on it. The targets are destroyed if anything that deals damage normally in the game touches them, and the game keeps track of your scores on each course. Getting beneath certain total times (all of your best, added together) earns a few special rewards in the game, but where there’s something to do, there’s something to be better than your friends at.

I saw a set of these videos, and started trying to recreate them. And they were really hard! It didn’t take very long before I realized that these guys had played for hours on each level discovering and mastering these crazy trick-shots  and maximizing each movement. Even the “easy ones” that had been matched by several players were way out of my league, and I was just boggled. How did anybody have the patience and interest to do this?

(In case it’s not obvious, I’m not remotely a natural perfectionist. I was a lazy student, and so what I taught myself was to figure out the “good enough” threshold and reach it as easily as possible. I could get “good enough” at so many things when I was younger that trying to be The Best at even one thing didn’t ever strike me as interesting. Even now I fight with myself a lot over the point where I can stop stressing something.)

But that’s all beside the point. It was only about a year later that I played Metroid Prime for the first time, and since my mom had been pretty down on videogames when I was growing up and I had played very few, the entire experience was mind-blowing. I just had to play it more, and not only because it was amazing; I also didn’t really have anything else to play. (Except for Melee and Soul Calibur II, of course)

And so I was quite a bit less surprised when I discovered Metroid 2002, the evolution of a large GameFAQs community of players who had tried everything they could think of to get places they “shouldn’t” be, get items out of “order” and essentially just destroy Metroid Prime as much as possible. So I joined the community and posted for a while. I learned some tricks and got into some of the other games. This is the last time I’ll say this but…I still wasn’t big on the perfectionism part. It was just some new things to do and see in a game I loved, and still do.

From there it also wasn’t long before I discovered the sister site, Speed Demos Archive, which was originally a Quake community. But the admins of the two sites were good friends and shared a lot of common goals. Indeed, it was Radix of SDA who did the first well-known full game run of Metroid Prime featuring tricks the community had discovered, with “nate” of M2K2’s most enduring runs being on the Alien Vs Predator FPS for the Jaguar console. (In case you’ve never heard this bit of trivia before: it’s true. I couldn’t make up a joke like that!)

But M2K2 and the Quake section of SDA were intensely focused groups, with large numbers of players who had tread the same ground together over and over for years. In the early days of SDA, “other games” were in a completely different boat. Most runners practically worked alone, and as a result the level of knowledge on almost any other game, for players and viewers, was with full hindsight…absurdly low.

But hey, perfect for me, right? ha ha ha. I tried running a couple of RPGs, thinking they would be easy, but that basically ended in various kinds of disaster. I did record a full run on Fire Emblem 9, but never got the chance to submit it; the run that’s there instead is roughly an hour better than my version. My Radiata Stories run was somewhat less failureific on the surface, keeping ahead of the pace set by a Japanese player (who did the entire playthrough in one shot and wrote fairly detailed notes on his strategies that I copied heavily, but still), but was plagued by long periods of me giving up in disgust at the game’s randomness. By the time I had figured out how to play the end-game, I went back to look at my early recordings and realized they were way too sloppy to be an acceptable submission to the site. I think I may well still have more knowledge than any other player about the “segmented” (“save as much as you can and retry as much as you need”) run, but the idea of starting over to get the earlier parts right is nightmarish to me. It’ll probably never happen, but on the good side almost nobody cares about the game anyway! So that’s a relief.

Not that you're reading this anyway...I hope.

That doesn’t mean I’m not sorry, Molotov.

Despite that, I really came to love a certain niche of the community, and it was through those guys that I was first truly introduced to the joy of arcade games. First, it was shmups, and my initial “lol, playing for score?!!!?” viewpoint didn’t last very long as my skills improved and I started to find playing for survival wasn’t itself challenging enough to hold my interest in most cases. Soon, I was playing video games that I actually wanted to get good at? More importantly, I fell in love with the genre and truly found reason to care, in large part because progress is so unambiguous, not even realizing I was just as outclassed as I was in Metroid Prime. By the time I found out, it wasn’t a deterrent at all.

And when the community reached a point where people wanted to meet up, it was fortuitously scheduled around a good hang-out: Magfest, a huge party for video games and game music. Despite the wonderful buffet of arcade games that some (incredibly generous!) people brought out to share with everyone, I walked away from that first year with just the slightest taste of three games in my mouth, knowing I wanted much more.

The first was Espgaluda II, the sequel to my favorite shmup (at the time). Cave had just started porting their games to 360, so it seemed possible that maybe, far in the future, I’d get to own my own copy of the game. It didn’t take as long as I expected.

The second, Beatmania IIDX. I’d played piano for 13 years, so the game clicked for me right away. As soon as I got home I called my (amazing) local game store to see if they had a copy. They did, and it became my first true game obsession, and still really the game I’ve gotten best at, ever. (That doesn’t mean very much.)

And finally, Street Fighter IV. Not sure what exactly the deal was there, whether it was just promotional or some guys who owned the thing, but there was the guts of the arcade machine, a pair of sticks, and a huge projector to show off the game to everyone in the gigantic ballroom. I don’t even like the game that much now, but yeah, I’m more or less one of those guys. I mean yeah, I loved Senko no Ronde long before, and I had a friend who introduced me to Immaterial and Missing Power, Akatsuki Blitzkampf, and Samurai Shodown V Special online before that, but while I really liked those games, it was obvious that this game would have something those other ones didn’t: a lot of freaking people to fight against. (Wait, two things: my favorite character from playing SFII at the neighbor’s when I was 6, Chun-Li) So I was naive, and now I really just want a few good friends who care about a game about as much as I do, but at the time? Mind-blowing in the extreme.

And so, when the next year’s meetup came, and people schemed to absolutely top it by hosting a charity speedrunning marathon (which would become the greatest and most successful to date), I still had my close friends. I still went (although my one true pairing had his trip interrupted by tragic news).

But my heart had been stolen. I didn’t actually think about speedrunning much, and certainly didn’t have anything to contribute. I went, I hung out rather anti-socially and slept a lot, I went to Magfest again as much as I could to play Beatmania, and only after it was over did I realize what an amazing thing I’d all but missed out on.

Still, I wasn’t motivated, and when life changes pretty much precluded my chance to go again, I was only kind of bummed out. Sure, there were more people, more games, and over three times as much money raised for the Prevent Cancer Foundation again, but what was I supposed to do? In 2012 I again managed to make the trip, but with so many people that I really didn’t even know at this point, and with the only game I was considering playing being utterly godawful to practice, I could only shrug once more. I really love DC, my sister was there, and I made it to Magfest again (although the wait for Beatmania was excruciating this time for a bunch of reasons), so it was a fantastic vacation. Still, I got asked “so what are you going to run next year?” way too many times. (Seriously though, I appreciate that you guys (who aren’t reading this) care.)

With trends continuing, it looked hopeless. I’m more into fighters than ever before, and with even more people and a tighter schedule requirements, I couldn’t possibly get on the lineup except out of pity. It was elementary school recess all over again. How was I supposed to stage a comeback?

But after a couple months, I found my X-Factor. In March, I started working (slowly, and still slowly) on a new game, that I knew I loved, and was somehow also popular. At the same time, it had been dead on SDA for many years (a Japanese player submitted an amazing run, but alas, his community’s rules didn’t match up with our site’s, and it couldn’t be accepted). It was perfect; could this finally be my chance to shine?

Maybe. This is getting long, and cutting off now just leaves me more to write about. But for now?

I’m motivated.