Thin Red Line

Earlier this year, 1up.com published a rather unusual interview with one of the original programmers of Final Fantasy (the first one…but not just the first one), Hiroyuki Ito. I recommend reading it, but in short, Ito reveals himself to be quite a fan of the NFL, and explains that the basis of the game’s combat, in which each “side” lines up facing each other, plans their moves, then executes them all in a sequence, was inspired by the similar structure of offense (and defense) present in professional sports, particularly American football. As fascinating as I found this little revelation, I can’t say it truly changed my perspective on the game or the series, particularly since I’m not really that much of a sports fan anyway. But what it does do is underline how even concepts that seem simple or obvious in retrospect still tend to have lots of rather surprising thoughts behind them.

But what I usually find missing in FF games, and most RPGs in general, is feeling some kind of risk. There’s a lot of ways to create tense situations with risk and reward, and while I tend to disagree with a lot of the commonly used ones (like the common SMT trick of “you don’t know what these guys have until you get killed by them” or the general old-school “that last save point was an hour back”), most of them can work well enough when surrounded by an engaging setting or enjoyable mechanics. In my opinion, though, there’s a much more elegant way to cultivate these situations: you let the players make their own risk.

I’m using the word “risk,” because this is literally what the mechanic is called in Vagrant Story, one of the best and oldest examples of this idea. Although players may at first be inclined to go for big chains on the game’s timing-based combo system, as they present the most obvious path to major damage, doing so will quickly raise the main character’s “Risk” to dangerous levels, both making further combos more difficult and increasing the amount of damage taken from attacks. Increasing Risk has its benefits as well, so it’s not simply a punishment for playing well, but the tradeoffs create a mechanic for which neither increasing or decreasing is always the “best” option, and the desired consequences ultimately come down to situational factors and more importantly, player preference.

In general I feel like this idea hasn’t really caught on, which is fair enough since I think most players prefer the “your party can just become gods” approach, but at least one developer has tried pulling this out a few times: Star Ocean creators tri-Ace. Its first appearance is in Star Ocean 3, where your characters’ attacks use a special resource called Guts (Fury, in the English versions, but “Guts” is a commonly appearing mechanic name in the company’s games and “Fury” is not), with special attacks also consuming hitpoints (or magic points, in the case of spells, but since the MP bar is also a health bar, it still works out to the same thing). The Fury bar has two main purposes. First, characters (and enemies) can block “weak” attacks when their Fury is at 100%. For players, there are many ways to set up guaranteed combo situations off of blocked attacks, so it’s very helpful to block when possible. Fury is also the limit of how long your combos can be, as you have to stand still (stop attacking and moving) to regain it, so a single character can only chain moves until their Fury is too low to use the next one. The game’s “basic” combo path is Weak Normal (optional) -> Weak Special -> Strong Special -> Weak Special -> Strong Special -> etc. In other words, you can only cancel a Strong special if you have canceled it from a Weak special, and Strong normals don’t cancel into anything. (There are still ways to begin combos with Strong normals, and the main character’s ability to do this on his own is one of his biggest strengths.) There are a small number of other restrictions on the ways you can use moves together, but in general this combo system allows you to alternate any pair of moves you want…whether or not they even “combo” in a standard sense. For example, a common tactic is to have the “Weak” special be one that doesn’t physically touch the enemies (as this will prevent them from being able to block it), either because it “buffs” your character temporarily (although canceling the move usually overrides these effects) or doesn’t reach at the spacing you’re using. But in short, the system tends to create a flow in which both sides “take turns” in the battle without specifically enforcing that structure. It’s possible to focus on a “slow and steady” strategy in which you chip away at enemies in a relatively safe manner, but you can also play for a big “bait and punish” game where you wait for big openings and capitalize on them with full combos. Really, really long combos, if you can master playing multiple characters at once.

Valkyrie Profile 2 uses a similar system, where big combos tend to leave your party open (often even more directly than in SO3) due to the resource drain limiting your available actions, but their most recent major release, Resonance of Fate, takes the concept to something of a logical conclusion. Although it’s possible to perform extremely weak actions for “free” in ROF, the standard turn involves having a character strafe the enemies while shooting a bunch, and by doing this repeatedly you can go for a big triple attack where all three characters do this at once. Both the single run and the tri-attack cost a single “turn,” and you gain back turns by destroying enemies and/or objects that may be on their bodies. For example, a common enemy is a gangster, and by shooting his bowler hat (usually by jumping over his head) you can gain back a turn. It’s very common to end up in situations where you spend all of your turns priming enemies and moving your team into position for a big tri-attack, which causes so much carnage that you regain all of your turns. Running out of turns is almost always a Game Over situation (although the game’s penalty for “dying” is quite low), and as a result that moment when you’re about to gamble everything on your last turn is almost always loaded with tension. Even if the enemies aren’t doing much, watching that critical moment where everything comes together or collapses is an exciting, rewarding situation for the player, created simply by everything they’ve done to that point.

And who says this has to be limited to RPGs? (Personally, I’d argue that generally tri-Ace’s games aren’t JRPGs in the first place; for example, SO3 is more of an action game in which the RPG elements primarily serve to change the difficulty curve in various ways, rather than “forcing” players to simply master the game…but I digress.) Fighting games already tend to create a sort of unenforced “turn” system, with one player at a disadvantage, waiting for a chance to reverse momentum and get their own turn. Powerful characters like Eddie in Guilty Gear and Arakune in Blazblue can often override a game’s “normal” cycles as they gain nearly unstoppable mixups and blockstrings, which lead into excruciating damage. But when they don’t have their extra tools they have to run away, as the alternative is to be put in pressure too intense for them to handle alone.

To me, the idea of having to reverse disadvantages, turning them into the upper hand, every fight, is almost irresistible, but those examples are a bit extreme. Arakune, in particular, practically wins games long before the last combo starts (with that last combo itself being absurdly long and damaging). I prefer to feel like there’s still some real risk on the line, even when I’m ahead, like with GG’s ABA, whose “empowered” mode lasts a long time but decreases in large portions if she ever gets knocked on the ground and leaves her incredibly vulnerable if it runs out. And sometimes you can find good cycles even without such pronounced highs and lows at all, like with Litchi in Blazblue, who fights both with and without a long staff. While holding it, she commands much more of the screen, but is limited in her options for converting combos. Barehanded, she has to play a short-range game but has more options for movement and damage. Persona 4 Arena‘s Teddie also has a constantly shifting set of options, as the items thrown by his persona go through their prescribed cycle. Although only a couple of the items are clearly weak, the variety of setups and tricks available to the character require that both players stay aware of what’s coming next or be caught unaware.

One final genre where I’ve seen this sort of thing a lot are, perhaps surprisingly, shmups. The ultimate example is Cave’s Espgaluda II, in which you can save up magical crystals, then spend them at any time you want to slow down time. The most obvious use is to slow down patterns you have a hard time dodging to make them much easier to avoid, but the game offers a number of increasingly convoluted ways to increase your score by manipulating time. Normally, destroying a slowed enemy will clean all their bullets off the screen, but there’s also a special slowdown where the bullets will reappear and reorient themselves to move in your character’s direction each time you destroy another enemy. These bullets give you points every time they disappear and respawn, but inevitably choke the screen with an unavoidable cloud of death that must be managed before it becomes too much.

Other games also allow you to save up bonuses like invincibility or powerful weapons for score or survival purposes. There’s too many to even mention, but Psyvariar is a great game where getting close to a number of bullets gives you a brief period of complete invincibility. In high level play these cycles often pass by every few seconds, while beginners will probably start by trying to sync up their shields with the most difficult bursts. In Radiant Silvergun you can capture certain bullets by touching them with the “sword” weapon, and after ten captures the next use of the sword produces a gigantic sword that gives invincibility and cuts almost everything on the screen. Like all of the other weapons, precise use of these options makes the game much easier to get through, and it all comes down to the same thing; finding the best opportunities to build the cycle.

Essentially, it all comes down to rhythm. It so happens that I’m also a huge fan of music games and have played music for a long time, and when I was thinking on all of these examples that suddenly struck me as very similar, I realized that’s what I really love: being able to find my own rhythm within a heavily structured game and play with it. While all of these games, and many more, give you the instruments and stage, it’s up to the player to find the beat and write their song.

Stand Back, Stand Clear

So I was going to write a big post about NEC, but then it just ended coming out on the EFL boards where everyone who I know consistently reads this blog already read it. All there would really be to add are some interstitial diversions and insanely trivial anecdotes, a small rant about Power Instinct 5 (it’s entertaining, especially after my KOF playing times), and then talking about how much better Philadelphia is than Las Vegas. As strongly as I might feel about those topics I don’t actually have that many interesting things to say about them, so maybe another time. But what is there to talk about? Oh, I know! It’s the end of the year, and everybody who writes or talks about games has to make a big list about how they still like obscure game X but AAA title Y doesn’t really hold up. It’s the law.

I haven’t played as many games over the past couple years as I did when I was in late high school/early college, so the idea of making a “top 10” list is absurd in multiple ways, the least of which being that some of the games on the list pretty much have to be ones I didn’t actually like since I don’t think I even played ten games I completely loved. But I find that given some distance I almost always feel differently about games than when I was actually playing them. Often my opinion goes down after the freshness wears off, but sometimes I appreciate elements more.

I don’t know who thought this was a good idea. They were wrong, but I love them.

The first new game I played this year was Final Fantasy XIII-2, and if all you want to see is that I think it’s bad, cool. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a bad game. We’re done here.

Wait a second…why did I even play this game in the first place? Oh right. It was because I liked the first one. I’m not really much of a fan of FF in the first place, but I got excited as soon as I heard the music in XIII was going to be by SaGa composer Masashi Hamauzu. Hearing that the battle system was much more action- and puzzle-based than in most RPGs had me even more intrigued, and in the end I rented and beat it over spring break. I really enjoyed the bizarre meta combat, in which your characters’ specific actions barely matter, and instead the way they combine is everything. For most of a battle, you had to juggle several factors, building up to hit the enemy’s weakness while keeping yourself alive and preparing for your devastating strike with stat buffs for your party or reductions for the enemy. If you kept everything moving correctly, then you could catch all the balls in one gorgeous moment, and switch from your precarious attack-defense cycles to an all-out ass-kicking to finish things off. The system wasn’t perfect (for one thing, the game doesn’t have a good way to convey the importance of potent offense, leaving many wondering why the game “suddenly” kills them after a long battle), and once the game finally just hands you all the possible options near the end things get a bit repetitive.

Also seems familiar!

My impression, though, and this was backed up by a few interviews I read, was that the team focused almost completely on the mechanics and encounter design, leaving many standard elements of Final Fantasy by the wayside so they could be honed. There are essentially no friendly towns, few open areas to explore, virtually no “sidequests” that don’t involve killing things, no mini-games…it’s certainly very reductionist, but I appreciated the philosophy.

All that said, my absolute favorite part of FF13 is when two of the main characters stumble their way into a Chocobo-themed amusement park. Like everything else, there’s not any “real” reason this happens except that they made the art assets for it, but it’s the one actual respite from constant fighting in the game. And in sharp contrast to the rest of the soundtrack, the song which plays is a tinny, diegetic jingle about how much fun it is to play with Chocobos. It’s clever, hilarious, and almost unbearably vapid at the same time. In other words, genius.

From here I feel like a review of part 2 practically writes itself, especially given how short the title’s development cycle was. The scenarios are all pieced together from art assets that got cut the first time, and the story makes even less sense. The battle system has no real mechanical additions, and the monster system is cute at first but gimmicky and really unwieldy. The boss fights are almost all trivial and half of the “roles” in the game are nearly useless, which makes combat a straightforward and boring slog with depressingly few “oh my god!” moments. Worst of all is just the developers’ attitude and lack of understanding about players’ complaints. As much as I enjoyed FFXIII, there’s simply no way its basic model would’ve held up for another 30+ hours. The structure was workable but due for additions. But 2’s open, frequently-redundant areas and arbitrarily plotted progression don’t feature anything that feels like a carefully laid course, just busywork to fill time while the designers figure out how to actually make a game.

Even though there were definitely alarms sounding all over the place, I had to play it. I just can’t resist a great soundtrack, and after its release, with the music spilling all over the internet, I couldn’t stop myself from getting hyped up. I’m sure most people heard “Crazy Chocobo,” as the backlash exploded almost instantly in many different places that I tend to visit, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. A huge portion of the music features vocals, almost always with cheesy lyrics attempting to match up with what’s going on in the game’s story and settings. Although none of them are indicated to be actually heard “in context” as with Cocoon de Chocobo above, I absolutely love it, and the effect is occasionally like some kind of really anime musical (as in the theater production), which is even better.

After all, JRPGs are no stranger to melodrama, so to me the idea that Serah, Noel, or possibly other entities are essentially “singing” bizarre songs to the audience, about how important it is to stay upbeat and fight together with your friends, or what it’s like having a ridiculously miserable and depressing backstory, is too delightful. And that’s not all! Many of the more conventional tracks are also fantastic, featuring work not just from Hamauzu but one of my personal top favorite game composers, the criminally underappreciated Mitsuto Suzuki. Originally I knew him from his time making weird, beepy techno for Konami’s rhythm games, but since moving to Square he’s gotten a couple of chances to play more of a main composing role. (As far as I know, his official job at both companies has been more in back-end sound production.)

The thing that really catapults this up to the top of my favorite soundtracks though, is something it shares with two of my other favorites, Nier and Resonance of Fate. All three feature on-the-fly, context-based track switching or (mostly in Nier’s case) blending. In FF13-2 this switching occurs when you’re moving around dungeon areas, as random enemies will appear near you and you get the option to try to run away from them or engage head on for advantages. As far as the game goes, it’s a pointless, bad compromise, and therefore clearly stands out as the worst of the three examples here. By contrast, ROF has a similar system, where the music lays low as you wander around and prepare for combat, then suddenly roars to full-on rock once you pull the trigger and start a battle. Nier’s uses are more subtle and varied, but a good example is the game’s starting town, where a woman singing in the middle fades in and out as you get close or move away. Still, even in this game the music’s sudden shift from driving and melodic to low and sinister (and usually, the sudden cutting out of lyrics) is definitely effective.

I have something of a “spoonful of sugar” outlook on a lot of things; they may be bad in obvious ways or have elements that I simply dislike, but one really strong area is enough to prevent me from being too upset with them. This is even more true when, as in FF13-2’s case, it’s the music that really carries it. But even though it’s not an aggravating game, it’s a monotonous one that doesn’t bring anything else that’s interesting to the table. In a sense, I got just what I expected from a rushed, samey cash-in. And that’s the biggest disappointment of all.

Demon’s Emblem: Path of Radiant Stories

Sometimes, when I go to read the SDA forum, I’ll see a post by someone who’s trying to break down a game they haven’t even played. Maybe they’ve watched most of it on youtube or read a guide written by some importer to try and suss out the mechanics before the English release, or maybe they just have a demo and are playing it over and over to try everything they can think of. I’ve certainly tried to do that myself with fighting games and Cave releases during the long wait before they hit consoles, but it’s never really crossed my mind in a speedrunning sense. I really try to walk into any non-arcade game I’m looking forward to as unspoiled as possible, because that first impression is a big deal. And even if I know how a game kinda looks at a high level before I get my first shot at it, I spend some time playing around and figuring out what feels best to me before really digging in. I’m sure that a lot of these runners take time to enjoy their first real playthrough as well (while of course at least taking mental notes on things that seem to be effective, if nothing else), but I’ve never picked up a game that I bought expecting I’d want to do serious speedruns on it. And that’s assuming you can even call my original attempts “serious”…

Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who played the Melee demo in stores and was blown away by Marth. “Who is this guy? Is he from some Zelda game?” With his shieldless sword stance and his Anime Hair (I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time, I was just twelve and thought it was cool) and his counter-attack (anyone who’s played against me or even knows my mains in most fighting games would know that I love counters) I knew right away I had my favorite character. At least, until I owned a copy years later and unlocked Mr. Game and Watch after countless hours. Anyway, I never had a GBA either so the Gamecube installment was my first crack at this mysterious series that I hadn’t gotten to play before! After playing through the game, I thought it was really cool and seemed like a pretty easy game to run. Before long I got hooked up with SDA’s resident Fire Emblem fan, Molotov. He’d played through the entire series, done or planned runs on most of the games, and was just generally cool to work with.

If you have a purely turn-based game, you’re basically looking at four distinct ways to improve your time:

  1. Offense. Essentially, the most effective way to defeat enemies and accomplish goals. In a game like Fire Emblem this often means blitzing an enemy boss or moving aggressively to a key capture point, while moving as few of your units as possible.
  2. Defense. Methods for avoiding dying (as your resources and power are often much lower than in a “regular” playthrough), or, better yet, reducing the amount of actions the enemies get to take.
  3. Randomness. Many of the FE games are heavily deterministic (if you make the same moves, the game will put out the same results), but as I recall PoR doesn’t do this and allows you to try the exact same suicidal moves repeatedly until they work in your favor. Additionally, there’s a significant benefit to aiming for specific stat gains, because FE assigns each unit unique chances to increase each stat on a level-up. The hero might have an 80% chance of gaining a strength point while a magic-type unit could have something more like 30%.
  4. Execution. Turn-based games are often derided because you rarely get combo-video type material, and while it’s true that there are often “all or nothing” scenarios in action games where being slightly off can make or break a run, the sheer amount of commands in a long game makes a huge difference over time.

As a newcomer, I viewed #1 as by far the most important. It certainly makes a bigger impact on your time than the others, but not to the extent that I treated it as. Not to mention that ignoring #3 and especially 4 makes the run just look sloppy and lazy, which is undesirable given the emphasis on a finished product at SDA.

In THIS game, the rules say I can do it as much as I want!

It’s even funnier to me in retrospect because #1 is almost completely trivial. The game gives you a small number (I think you get one guaranteed, and can find a few others) of items which you can use to teach a character a unique, class-based skill. For most characters this is a creative little move that’s entertaining but won’t change your tactics much. If you give this item to Ike, the hero, instead, his attack will randomly (and frequently) turn into a double attack, with the first hit stealing an equal amount of life from the enemy and the second ignoring their armor stat, which usually just straight up kills them unless it’s one of the last couple bosses. The self-healing and his overall power also makes this strategy pretty much immune to long-term bad luck. The enemies will try to slowly chip away at him while his revenge attacks take them out of the picture and cancel out the damage that he’s taken. Since this is a speedrun though, playing for overall okay luck isn’t really that good of an idea unless you’re doing the game in one shot. If you’re playing for keeps, you want to make sure that you get those big hits against big enemies and gain good level-ups to boot. Not one of my specialties, in this case.

The other major strategic element involves the Pegasus Rider character, Marcia. She can fly over most terrain features (rocks, trees, holes, water, etc.), as well as other units, friendly or not, and carry Ike at the same time! Aggressive use often allows him to reach his targets several turns quicker than walking, but she also brings in one of the crucial defense trade-offs. Having a passenger weighs down mounted characters, lowering their effective stats. This makes it harder for them to score damage and causes them to get hit for more damage more frequently. Marcia isn’t a terribly strong character to start with, and if she dies before the last mission you have to reset (she’s just too good, all the way to the end), so using her effectively reintroduces some of the luck mitigated by Super Ike.

All that said, I would pretty much sum up my run with a simple statistic: I recorded about 24 hours of footage, for a run that finished under 4. Don’t follow my example.

Radiata Stories

As always, we got renders instead of the sweet concept art for the box.

Pretty much the last time I had a chance to talk to my man Enhasa, he told me, “the better a game is for speedrunning, the better it is in general.” I had to argue a bit to suss out what he was trying to get at, but that’s not important right now. For now, all I really have to say is that as much as I love Radiata Stories, it’s a pretty goddamned terrible game. I’ve thought about this over and over through the past several years, and to date I have not come across another game in which speedrunning forces you to almost completely ignore the best parts of the game and spend the entire time suffering through the bad parts.

I guess depending on who you talk to, maybe the GTA games count? It’s the same deal here, although obviously with a much more JRPG flavor. Kicking things is the primary way of interacting with the world; it opens chests, reveals other items hidden in piles of rubbish or under rocks, and lets you pick fights with almost anyone you want. The game gives you a fairly large world to check out, filled up with a large number of NPCs who all lead their own little lives. The heart of the game is trying to hang out with these people and find out what they want so that they’ll become your “friend” and join you in battle. (If that sounds cool to you, play this game.) The game has a clock which dictates what each one does every day, so you can basically stalk them until you find out what you need to do, then try to do it. A few characters have pretty cool questlines, and my favorite plays with the system and your expectations in a really clever way.

Watch closely…

But none of that matters, because out of about 170 characters in the game, the speedrun recruits less than ten. Hell yeah! On top of that, you can’t skip cutscenes, which basically instantly adds over an hour of holding O and mashing X to skip text as fast as possible throughout the game. The scenes themselves are generally pretty funny and engaging…the first time. But as a runner you get to get sick of them instead!

The most actively annoying system in speedrunning the game involves avoiding encounters. Like most RPGs from the past decade enemies appear on the map as you walk around, and you can try to move around them or at least avoid being put in a disadvantage by being ambushed. In most of those games this is really easy for the most part, but Radiata’s dungeons and overworld aren’t comprised of “field” areas, and instead, a spindly series of trails. As a result, you don’t have a lot of space to maneuver around them and it’s often difficult to even pull off bait and switch tactics to work around them. Obviously, there are a lot of runs on things like older Final Fantasy games where you can’t avoid “random” battles at all, but the fact that in this game you can as long as you get lucky means that you should play until you get really lucky. Or until this happens and you’re too mindfucked to continue for the day:

The battle system is really mediocre too, like a slow and super dumbed-down version of Star Ocean 2’s free-moving mashy action. You only ever get to control Jack, the main character, who has a couple of basic defensive moves and a prepared attack string plus a special move that uses your meter. You can give orders and try using formation attacks with your party members, but their effectiveness is mostly tied to how strong those party members are in the first place and otherwise just waste your meter that you could be using to kill things. Character building and equipment are also ridiculously limited so while the game is super easy playing normally there’s not much to abuse like in other tri-Ace games, where even at low levels you can get game-breaking damage if you know how. The only way to really make fights fast and easy is to recruit the best characters, and regardless of which story path you’re on, they aren’t in your small pool of applicants. You’re lucky if your allies don’t kill themselves trying to play hero too much, since often you need them to be alive so that they get hit by supers instead of Jack (whose death causes game over).

Like I mentioned before, I didn’t have to figure out much of the overall strategy in this game. A few weeks after I first beat the game, Molotov found me a Japanese Geocities page created by “ogu_dai”, in which he detailed his checkpoint times and overall strategies for each of the separate story paths. His stuff was designed for single-segment play, so it was a bit more luckproof than good segmenting strategies, but most of it was tremendously useful and saved us at least 100 hours worth of testing. In terms of resource management, there’s basically one bottleneck on the “Fairy” storyline that I was running. You want to buy the best weapon in the first half of the game as soon as possible. This basically means taking a detour in an early dungeon during the part of the game where you don’t have any choice of what to do, to get the best item in the game, so you can sell it.

By “best” I mean that it locks Jack’s non-battle movement speed at the medium range where he does a funny “power walk” animation, and does nothing else.

If that sounds cool to you, play this game.

Combined with the small amount of money you get otherwise during the opening of the game, you can head to the weapon shop as soon as the game lets you and buy a big two-handed sword! This triples your damage, which basically still means it’s godawful until the game hands you the best one-hander you can get outside of the bonus dungeon early in the second half.

There are four other crucial purchases in the game, but once you get going money itself is hardly an issue. One is the command to have a party member heal you. They are not always intelligent enough to do this on their own. The second is a large stock of “Flee Balls.” Like other RPGs, fighting non-bosses to level up is almost a complete waste of time. Even when a battle loads because you couldn’t avoid getting into it you lose precious seconds, and to make matters worse there’s no “retreat” command like in other games. You have to buy these items and use them whenever you get hosed over just to cut your losses. Third, you need items to poison the enemies that you do have to fight. Almost every boss is vulnerable to poison, and once an enemy is poisoned, it doesn’t go away. The poison deals damage faster than your low-level sword hits do anyway, and doesn’t build the enemy meter while doing so (like hitting or being hit by bosses does). If you can get both that’s awesome, but in many cases it’s not safe enough to do so, either because the enemy super will unavoidably kill you, or because they can just kill you in one combo anyway.

A nice fat stack of Bison dollars.

But, if you’re really outnumbered, the poison doesn’t help that much, as you put yourself at risk just trying to use the items. It’s also difficult to hit your target because you literally “throw” the poison at them, so if someone else is in the way it will never hit. That’s where the last purchase comes in, and despite it being the most broken and useful tactic in the game, it was the last one we found out about. Molotov and I investigated it on our own because ogu_dai never had to use it. (He leveled up more and actually recruited a semi-useful character instead.) There’s a command called “Earthquake” that you can buy late in the game. If you have at least one living party member, all of you fall on the ground, causing it to shake so much that all of the enemies are knocked over. Your team gets up first, so this stunlocks anyone you want, while dealing damage similar to poison (and stacking with poison if you can hit it, obviously), but it costs 4 meter per use. Every time it touches an enemy though, you gain back 1 meter, so if you hit four enemies at once, it’s an infinite. It’s so good against the hardest boss on this path that it’s actually worth using healing items on his weaker cronies just so they won’t die and force you to stop using the infinite on him. Sadly, I don’t have a video, since this is the point where I gave up on recording the run since I couldn’t get the strategy down. Now it would be easy, really the least of my worries starting over.

I know that sounds awesome, and that it is awesome, but it doesn’t change the fact that this game is really annoying and broken for speedrunning, with all of the other ways being much less interesting and hilarious. It’s unfortunate.

Demon’s Souls

Don’t have nearly as much to say about this one, as I wasn’t involved in any sort of strategic development and just copied what other people had already figured out until I gave up on the game before really learning it anyway. Basically, the key feature of the Souls games is the death system. It’s kind of old-school in that it puts you back in a designated respawn point at the beginning of the current level, but you also drop all of your “souls” (which serve as the money used to buy both items and stat increases) on the spot where you were killed (or a short distance away if you jaunted into some kind of bottomless pit). You can also only have one puddle of souls on the ground at once. The idea is that you’ll figure out what you did wrong and find a way to not die in the exact same spot next time, and thereby succeed in regaining your souls (as well as keep the ones you collected working your way back to where you died in the first place). In order to make this actually dramatic, the game autosaves pretty much all the time and prevents you from backing up your save to cheat death.

“I play shmups and other games where you can’t go back all the time, so this’ll be a piece of cake, right?”

Most accurate fan art of all time.

Nope.

In MAME you can make save states. All of the 360 Cave ports have a training mode where you can start on any stage (and usually any boss) with perfectly calibrated parameters that match your usual/desired progress, which is basically as good as a savestate aside from the more limited starting points. Fighting games have training modes where you can try almost anything you can come up with (unless you need the dummy to do something that you can’t figure out how to record) over and over. Even beatmania IIDX has a practice mode where you can break down individual measures at ridiculously slow speed to see what’s going on.

In Demon’s Souls, you can’t reload your save to repeat a level with the same conditions. If you try to go back, you’ll have more stuff and be stronger. The bosses are dead permanently.

Most of Demon’s Souls is not a hard game when you know the easiest routes and how to build your character. Out of the hour-long run, maybe 10-15 minutes of the game at most has actual ways for you to screw up and lose a lot of time. Every time you want to practice those parts, you have to play most of the other 50 minutes too. Obviously, once it’s crunch time before the marathon, you want to get used to just going through the whole game no matter what happens, but I gave up before I could get to that point.

I’m not going to play Demon’s Souls again. I still haven’t even played the sequel, which I was looking forward to before all this happened. I probably will someday, but I’ve held contempt like this for much longer than a year before. It’s just not time.

Endless High-Speed Running

This is gonna be one hell of a party.

So to date, my involvement in the M2K2/SDA community has lasted about seven and a half years, and although the time that I started really moving away from the hobby (which I almost completely glossed over in the previous post) was nearly three years ago, the sea was already shifting by that point. As it turned out, the speedrunning world was moving in a direction that I think is overall a lot more interesting and exciting than during my original experiences.

When I first entered the community, it was pretty small, and I felt this was simply how it was going to be. How many people are actually interested in seeing “expert” play? How many would even recognize it? The brutal realization if you go back and watch many runs that were on the site in 2005 or 2006 is that even most self-discovering members of the community didn’t really know what they were dealing with at first. (Unsurprisingly, this took me longer than most to realize.) SDA has always used a community verification process to determine what runs are suitable for publishing: volunteers watch the run to ensure that it meets expectations for video (so that you can see everything that’s going on acceptably) and play quality. In those days, the “finished” video was often the only product of a runner’s efforts; even popular games didn’t have enough players to rigorously search for techniques, and there was generally little if any indication of how much blood, sweat, and tears had gone into the recording.

Even near the end of 2006, it seemed to me that the majority of performances on the site had been completed by a very small number of players, maybe less than ten, often working in specific categories. One prolific runner in the early days almost exclusively played bad (wait, is there another kind?) N64 games, a couple had a large number of NES titles under their belt each, and one player (who was, much later, discovered to have cheated in multiple cases by splicing together different attempts to make a sort of “best possible” run) had records on all of the major entries in the Zelda series.

Their definition of major, not mine.

And the admins had other worries on their plates. In retrospect, these seem like silly growing pains, but there were perceived rivalries with two other websites: Twin Galaxies, and TASVideos (then called “NESVideos”). TG had long been a leader in classic arcade scorekeeping, and as the site expanded to track best times in console games as well, it seemed as if the “official” nature could hinder SDA’s growth. And TG still required video recordings of the playthrough, but these videos were never released by the site, leading to a small number of players who used the site’s scoreboards exclusively in a “save that shit for nationals” mentality, in fighting game terms. This was, of course, their prerogative, but I (and others) felt that it was petty and counterproductive.

The TAS community presented quite a different threat, with many players feeling that the demonstrations of inhumanly “perfect” play presented by its members would cheapen the impact of their own efforts. M2K2’s nate, driven partly by the effects on some of the best Super Metroid players, hoped to make a pre-emptive strike by trying to brand their work with negatively-loaded names. They never caught on, and while at first he was frustrated by the compromise “Tool-Assisted Speedruns” (feeling that “speedruns” should refer only to human performances), he eventually relented. By now, the knowledge base and standards of TAS recordings have risen comparably to SDA’s, to the point where once again the idea that anyone could confuse the two is usually patently absurd, if not for the same reasons as before.

But the steady growth of SDA through the years put all these issues at ease, and a large number of new members, inspired by TSA’s videos, created the first sort of “clique” in non-Quake SDA: the Ocarina of Time community. Which I know nothing about! Still, these became more and more common, and with the increased competitiveness and ability to find tricks, came much higher standards across the board. This had very little to do with my surrender, though: for me, the move from VHS recordings (which nate abhorred due to awful quality and compression artifacts) to DVD was the biggest factor. I decided I’d rather spend the money on new games than invest in, again, hobby equipment. And SDA was almost completely focused on the finished product, still. “Here’s a nice video! The best anyone has ever made, just for you!” The quality was rising, in all aspects, but the core of the site stayed the same. That was fine, but maybe…it just wasn’t right for me?

Then my good friend and then backend site guy Enhasa changed the game. Inspired by high-score boards on similar community websites (shmups, general arcade games, etc.), he presented a new “Casual speedrunning” forum on the site, along with fun “speedrunning tournaments” in which entrants would compete on games selected by him, that hadn’t been run before. He hoped that it would get people playing new games, more games, not just to get The Run (gotta use all this new slang I guess) but to mess around and have a good time. Well-intentioned as it was, it never really ended up working out the way he seemed to intend, but in my mind, it’s a clear point on the line between SDA and Speed Runs Live.

That one! Right there!

You know what?

I love Speed Runs Live.

At least, I do in theory; I don’t race much. Check out that race list and I bet you can figure out some of the reasons why! Point is, it’s a fresh and competitive venue for speedruns, where you’re not trying to beat some video a guy got once out of ten thousand tries. You’re trying to beat that guy right now. I’m also a fighting game guy and just love live performance in general, so really, it’s not that hard to see the connection.

And that leads into the current dominating form of speedruns: live streaming. Like a DVD recorder, I still really haven’t picked up on this facet of everything yet, but streaming has really changed speedrunning more than everything else combined. From the overwhelming popularity of Mario 64 superstar Siglemic, to the charity marathons and connections with other competitive communities (like Josh Ballard‘s ambitious fighting/mystery game tournament+speedrunning marathon Kings of Poverty, streamed by none other than the man Spooky himself), streaming has vastly increased the spectating audience and done some real good in the world at the same time. But from an inside perspective, the thing I find most magical is how it drives home the reality of speedrunning: there is a lot of fucking hard work, dedication, practice and perseverance. Siglemic’s stream monsters get as hype for a “reset” as anything else, which is something I never would have expected. It makes sense, though, if for no other reason than that people love watching it, and a reset means there’s going to be more.

The fact that marathon runs also often run into these randomly unavoidable disasters doesn’t have the same effect, since players just don’t start over to get it right, but there is the same sort of competitive undercurrent that you see in versus events. You’ve got one shot to do your thing, so are you gonna pull it off, or not? The great thing is that it’s still hype either way. Pull off that impossible trick as if it was nothing, and it becomes a legendary moment. Encounter bad RNG or some crazy scenario you’ve never seen before? People love trainwrecks even more!

But what I love most about the marathons is, once again, the “hobby” aspect. Even SRL has some of the cynicism and drama that creep in at times, with players who want to raise their rating scores more than their actual proficiency, for example. But people go to the marathons to share their stuff, play for a good cause, have fun, and most importantly, hang out with some friends. And those are the factors that drive me in anything. Not recognition, popularity, or winnings, but the opportunity to share the results of my hard work, something I’m hopefully proud of, with people I care about and just have a good time. And that’s the same reason I’m wary of “esports” in the fighting game scene. I’m just not that interested in dealing with people who think of these fun and cool things as chores. I’m not saying that there’s a lot of people like that, but it becomes more likely the more ulterior motives there are.

But for a lot of people, SDA is still the heart of the speedrunning scene, despite its slow upload pace. Insanely skilled players like Kryssstal (who has the Link to the Past record) who have streamed amazing runs over and over always get asked, “So when are you submitting to SDA?” And if you just want to watch the single best run, it makes sense. Especially with SRL and events filling the live and competitive niches in various permutations, SDA holding its spot as the record-keeper is only natural.

I don’t mind that it holds the most prestigious spot, and a lot of my best friends in the community are still most closely associated with SDA. But for me, and judging by my conversations with some other people, I’m not the only one who feels this way, these other aspects and having a community interface are worth a lot more. Josh, for example, doesn’t necessarily view himself as especially attached to any community. He once gave me a sports metaphor comparing the two communities, saying that record times are like individual season statistics (which are popular to compare but more “random”) and live events and performances more like full careers (which in many cases say more about who’s better overall). He may have lots of runs up on SDA, but he’s also excited to build interest in the community and events and especially to further the cause of live streaming. The most excitement I see from him is when he’s on his stream, doing marathon/session style practice (where you don’t reset and just go for it) and really interacting with his stream chat. It helps a lot that he plays fairly popular games and has an outstanding personality compared to a lot of speedrun streamers, but to me it just reinforces once again what I think he and I both love most about doing this.

I told you this wasn’t gonna end.

My future aspirations in speedrunning are not to become another “funkdoc,” although I respect and admire what he’s done quite a lot and consider him one of my best friends in the community. (I hope that’s obvious by now.) For starters, I really don’t have the ability to work with people’s nostalgia nearly as much. Like I mentioned, I didn’t grow up with many games (until I was about 13, all we really had was an Atari and Lemmings 1 and 2, which are awesome games but not really that great for speedrunning), and while I’ve certainly developed a soft spot for a lot of old games, particularly Genesis titles, I don’t see any reason to try and ape him other than sheer competition.

Instead, I see myself as much more of a marathon and semi-causal stream type of player if anything. That’s not nearly as simple as it might sound either, but a lot of the potential I see in speedrunning still draws back straight from the younger days of SDA, when every game was fresh and unexplored. It’s not that I want to completely shy away from competition, but I can’t find a whole lot of drive to “catch up” with players who I know love a given game much, much more than I do, whether it’s speedrunning, score-attacking, or fighting.

And my interest in playing semi-poverty doesn’t make the marathons any easier. PJ has made his name in the scene largely by becoming way better at stupefyingly bad games than they have ever deserved, but my alley is more underloved games that I genuinely adore. His strategy is better, not just because pure shock factor plays well in modest doses at marathons, but also because you always run the risk of coming to hate whatever you’re trying to master…unless you already do hate it! As less of a retro gamer, I can’t even really slip in obscure stuff that’s short enough to justify time slots; the shortest runs I’ve ever worked on to any extent were in the vicinity of an hour. ~1% of the time budget doesn’t sound like much, but the competition is just too stiff.

This year, I decided to pick up Devil May Cry 3 for the marathon, but it turns out I wasn’t the only one who realized that despite repeat performances from the first game in the series (and one from its semi-successor Bayonetta, neither of which I like quite as much as DMC3), the title which I assumed to be the most popular in its little sub-genre hadn’t made an appearance yet. We ended up splitting the characters, left to be decided at a donation bidding war, and while I have the good straw in terms of practicing, I’m not sure that I can beat Flicky in a reverse money match. His Bayonetta run and other random commentating went over really well with the crowd last year while my “having never done anything noteworthy in any online community” leaves me as a complete unknown, particularly to spectators.

On the plus side, Vergil is significantly easier to play than Dante, aside from a small number of rooms and situations where his slightly poorer movement really comes back to bite you. And all else failing I can surely get on the bonus stream, where the only real difference is knowing that only 1/5 as many people are watching. But looking towards future marathons, I think if anything my opportunities are going to be in digging up smaller, older games where it’ll be easier to justify time:popularity ratios. It’s true that I’m a bit jaded from knowing Uyama is never going to allow Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter in an AGDQ marathon even though it stands out as a truly stellar, quick and understandable RPG run, but more importantly it’s just exhausting to put in the kind of rigorous practice needed for a marathon on games that take more than an hour to get through all of. And more manageable games also just make better bite-size stream material, like the kind I’m expecting I’d be doing, as I certainly don’t have plans to quit arcade games anytime soon.

Could it really all fit together that nicely? I’m not sure, but I have plenty of time to figure it out. For now, this is a good break point. Next time, I’ll finally actually get around to some of my actual experiences involving speedrunning instead of just talking about related topics!