That is, if something is nothing.

“The better a game is for speedrunning, the better it is in general.”

Like I said, I could think of more than one thing this could mean, not to mention that not every game (including plenty that I knew the person who said it to me liked) is appropriate for speedrunning anyway. But it wasn’t just meant as some cliche “the more you put in, the more you get out” thing, nor a suggestion that games be “convenient” for speedrunners (though games in which the character moves unreasonably slowly or that feature long stretches of nothing interesting still don’t do so well by this mantra, perhaps rightly). The idea is that a good game features interesting, often varied ways to achieve goals that are satisfying to play out, and it’s one that I’ve come to agree with overall.

That may sound a bit much like a “a game is good if it’s fun”-style tautology, but the game we were talking about at the time was Sega’s turn-based military shooter Valkyria Chronicles. I’ve talked to a lot of people who were annoyed by the game’s overbearing focus on executing missions quickly, as the ranking you get at the end of each mission (which is tied into various kinds of rewards) is based entirely on how many turns it took you to achieve the goal. There’s basically no benefit whatsoever to avoiding casualties or inflicting tons upon the other side, which sounds great for speedrunning, right? Unfortunately, most missions have pretty basic “capture a point (surrounded by a few guys)” or “kill a major enemy” type goals, so as far as we could tell the optimal strategy on at least 3/4 of the levels in the game involved running a single unit (usually the main heroine, who has solid if not top damage against both single targets and closely grouped enemies) down a pretty obvious path (as there’s usually only a couple routes that offer any sort of cover) over a couple of turns, then assassinating the target(s) for the finale. I’m not sure if the game has evolved past that point as I haven’t really followed it, but if it hasn’t it’s pretty much the exact kind of thing we would consider “not that interesting.”

All of this is just a lead in for me to admit that Devil May Cry 3 isn’t the greatest game if your main goal is just to beat the game as fast as you can, either. It’s still a good game, easily the most enjoyable I’ve ever spent a significant amount of time speedrunning, and I absolutely consider it one of my favorites games in general. But like Valkyria, rushing through obscures many of the possible facets of playing the game. The difference is that DMC3 actually keeps track of those other aspects and rewards you for mastering them, making the most fun and rewarding way to play the game a lot more than just mashing through everything, and it does this all while presenting a variety of ways to play that offer different advantages in those elements.

The assessment the game gives you at the end of each playthrough of a mission rates you in five different categories:

  • Time. Faster play means a higher ranking, hopefully not surprisingly. You can still afford a certain number of mistakes and detours, and due to the other categories the latter are often necessary for a high composite ranking (which is a benefit, as after a few times learning where everything is it’s not difficult to move directly through objectives and play quickly). Either way, this is a category that rewards precise, purposeful play, like you commonly see in speedrunning.
  • Stylish Points are DMC3’s main way of assessing your offensive skills. Using your best one or two attacks over and over isn’t considered “stylish,” so you have to mix it up to build and maintain your stylish rating (and there’s benefit to taking a breather from attacking to taunt enemies, as well). The rating also decreases significantly if you get hit, so maneuvering around attacks is also important. The more enemies you kill with a high rating, and the longer you have it up there in general, the higher your stylish “score” is at the end of the mission.
  • Orbs are the game’s currency, obtained when enemies die and occasionally other hittable objects and places in each level. Enemies who die when your stylish bar is higher drop more orbs, which means this is fairly closely related to the previous criterion, but sometimes this isn’t enough to cover the spread and you’ll have to find some optional enemies to pick up some extras.
  • Damage Taken is the game’s primary defensive rating. Getting hit is bad. This is a fairly generous goal on lower difficulties, but on “Dante Must Die” the game expects you to avoid everything. The other side of this is that everything is possible to avoid getting hit by! That’s good.
  • Items primarily include healing items and other things that aren’t too helpful if you aren’t getting hit anyway. However, one of the items you can buy and use is a “Holy Water” which deals a huge amount of damage to nearby enemies. While you obviously don’t get Stylish rating for using a menu, there are many fights where you can only attack on certain “cycles” of the enemy’s pattern. By using Holy Water you can increase the damage you land in each cycle by a large amount and reduce the amount of chances you have to get hit (not to mention the enemies who become instantly stunned when you use it, thereby allowing you to hit them even more and faster). As a result, items are viewed as a pretty big crutch by the developers and using any type of consumable will raise your item score above 0 and prevent you from getting an “S” rank in the category.

The game averages your five rankings and gives you a overall rating. There are two kinds of rewards; first, gaining an “SS” on every mission on a given difficulty (which means earning an S in each of the 5 categories, as opposed to an “S” average gained from, for example, 4 S’s and one A) gives some cool unlocks like overpowered characters. Second, the game gives you a certain amount of bonus orbs after each mission, and the higher your rating is, the larger that bonus is. As a result, it’s hugely rewarding to earn those SS rankings on a few early missions in a speedrun, as more buying power helps you gain useful upgrades (such as the double jump) earlier. That said, it’s not really worth going out of your way to kill anything in a speedrun, obviously, but it does stand out as a bit of a tactical concern.

In fact, it almost sounds too risky for a marathon…get hit once on level 1 and you’re behind the curve for the rest of the game? I’m pretty sure this is why Flicky set the category to New Game +, to save all that menu/resource management time and distill the game to pure action for the viewers. To balance out we’re playing on Very Hard, where the enemies can still kinda put up a fight and don’t die immediately (DMD isn’t a good option since it’s got kind of a nasty tendency to make fights really long and stressful). Although it’s not the best speedrun possible, it should be a solidly fun run to play and watch, without much risk of run-ruining disasters. But with everything needed already purchased there’s not a lot of strategy left for Vergil, just practice and memorization. He can access all of his options at once, and while Dante can’t, he still benefits a lot since he has more purchases to make and strong abilities that don’t open up on a first play until later in the game (particularly Devil Trigger and his last weapon). I think that’s okay. I don’t really want this run to be more grinding than it already is.

Vergil’s inclusion as a playable character in the game was meant as a bonus for the “special edition” rerelease, so naturally he’s kind of overpowered. Like in Marvel vs Capcom 3, he’s not rounded like Dante, just really strong on offense with some teleporting shenanigans to boot. He has three weapons, and gets to carry them all the time: a fast, basic sword like Dante’s Rebellion; a large, slower katana; and the melee weapon that Dante gets in the main game after defeating Vergil for the second time. Unlike Dante, he doesn’t get any guns, but his summoned swords are way more powerful (at least in terms of killing things quickly) than any of them anyway. You can mash them constantly when you’re not getting hit, which is a huge damage increase against everything, especially during times when you otherwise have to back off or are too far away to do normal attacks. As a result, pretty much the only important purchases speed-wise for Vergil are Devil Trigger upgrades and sword damage increases, as his basic abilities are more than enough to carry everything else. Obviously if resource is not a concern anyway then you may as well buy most of the other upgrades and get a reasonable amount of health as well (but not too much! There’s a room on Mission 15 (out of 20) where it generally saves time to kill yourself as Vergil because of a jump that he can’t do reliably without killing all the enemies in the room), although ironically I think Rapid Slash is pretty useless in DMC3 and makes the game harder to play because it means you have to be less lazy in certain situations (due to the input it overrides).

Anyway, the main concern for Vergil playthroughs is physically mashing out summon swords while doing everything else you need to. In the Japanese community it’s customary to use turbo controllers to automatically handle this, but SDA doesn’t allow the use of features like that if they’re not on first-party controllers, so the main challenge for me has been to find a button layout that’s, if not comfortable (setting sword to a trigger is really the only option, but even then pressing it 1000 times in two hours is pretty severe), then at least possible to work with. In the end I went with a pretty default layout, but with summon swords on the left trigger (which usually activates Devil Trigger), and Devil Trigger on R2 (since there are also long periods of time where you have to hold that down, because it charges up an explosion that does tons of damage). So I can mash triggers with my left hand to throw swords and change weapons, and hold down triggers with my right hand to charge explosions and manage targets, while doing main movement and attacks with the analog stick and buttons. It all kinda works, just barely.

I still wish I had an arcade stick for this game though.

But while Vergil is a clear winner in the speed category, he’s really just an efficient killing machine and doesn’t have many opportunities for unnecessary styling. (Once again, this probably sounds familiar if you follow fighting games.) And if you’re not playing for raw speed, then DMC3 is all about style. Dante has a few different ability sets, which the game actually calls “styles,” that affect his game a lot more. One of them is the Trickster, which is weak offensively but can move effectively and makes avoiding damage a lot easier in some situations. On the other hand, you have the Swordmaster, who’s able to deal a lot more damage in most situations and pretty good at building up the Stylish meter. Or there’s Gunslinger if you really want to go crazy with your combos and don’t care about lousy damage and mobility. I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface of the game’s other possibilities, but even knowing they’re there amazes the hell out of me.

Unfortunately, there’s also a fourth main style, which completely breaks the game if you put in the work. I’m not really convinced that playing Royal Guard in a single-segment run is practical, and it’s not at all necessary to SS any mission, but for segmented speedruns I think it obviously wins because it takes out a lot of the back-and-forth flow of boss fights and the evasion involved in not getting killed and instead allows you to block attacks when they come in and use the damage you would’ve taken to hit the enemy in return. The timing is really tight, like most “parry” moves in fighting games, so this is hardly trivial, but even more than Vergil I find that it seems to remove a lot of the cool planning and crazy options that you get in favor of raw execution. I respect that, but I don’t have to like it.

But after all this ranting about how things work I’ve barely even gotten to what I like. Even when you’re just starting out and not pulling off insane action sequences, the game just feels amazing while you’re playing it, with the controls spot on and (aside from a couple of awkward angle shifts) no monkeying with the camera. Each style and weapon has cool options and certain disadvantages, and the game never has anything that feels paint-by-numbers. The combat is a crazy dreamscape where you can do more things than I could ever imagine, and to have that in a single-player framework that also provides a lot of different scenarios to play with is far too rare. (One game I may write about soon, which has a surprising amount of overlap with DMC3’s fans (at least in English-speaking regions), is similar, though!) The art design is fantastic, from the seedy back-alleys on stage 1 to the increasingly distorted world and creepy black-and-white hell of the later stages. The alternate costumes, and Devil Trigger designs by SMT series demon designer Kazuma Kaneko (most reminiscent of his work on Digital Devil Saga) are sick as hell, too. The industrial soundtrack hits all the right notes, especially the shit-talking battle themes. For as much as I like God Hand and Bayonetta, DMC3’s two closest relatives, neither of them have ever gotten me as amped as this game. And neither one lets you fight a demonic chess set with a sniper rifle, a magical ray gun, a three-sided ice nunchaku, and a bat-shooting-witch-scythe-guitar.

Really, it’s just that simple.

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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.