ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Zero Stars —

I have a soft spot in my heart, maybe even a warm and loving relationship, with speed runs.

Speed runs, in this case, refers to a genre of video game recordings wherein people play through a game as fast as they possibly can.

The gold standard for me is “Quake Done Quick (With a Vengeance)” which is a sequel to Quake Done Quick, and represents a speed-run through the iD software game Quake at its most vicious difficulty, and which utterly decimates the point of the game in favor of a level of speed that you wouldn’t think was possible. How fast? Well, there are levels which they complete in nine seconds. If you watch this film and know anything about how the game works, then seeing the tricks employed are magical. (There’s a Google Video version up for quick and easy browsing.)

How do they go through a level in 9 seconds? Well, one of the cinematic aspects of the Quake game was having the exit for the level just tantalizingly out of reach, perhaps viewable from the bottom of a huge room, or across an uncrossable chasm. The actual physical distance of each level exit was short but the built-in puzzle aspect meant that to really achieve that nearby goal was to go through an enormous amount of hurdles. Well, since Quake Done Quick would use tricks to make uncrossable things crossable or high-altitude exits reachable, that massive set-up would just melt away.

After a short time, people who played Quake discovered an interesting technique, which was shared far and wide: rocket jumping (or conversely, grenade jumping). To increase a sense of realism, the Quake engine had a nice trick where an explosion near you would throw your body away from the center of it. So if a rocket blew up to your right, you’d find yourself hurt badly and thrown to the left. Well, all one had to do was jump and aim a rocket below you at the floor, and its explosion would increase the jump by a noticeable degree. Oh yeah, it’d hurt, make no mistake. But you’d go higher and so you’d find yourself in a place that you weren’t supposed to be able to reach, usually with lots of health to make up for your entirely sociopathic and suicidal act. It most likely didn’t occur to the playtesters that someone would use this technique to actually advance in a level, or hurt themselves insanely to manipulate access throughout a game’s map. But they did, they do, and Quake Done Quick shows this technique used to the hilt.

There are multiple places in that video where I see someone throw a grenade and jump on it for lift. In one case, they throw the grenade while swimming in water, and arrive at said grenade at just the perfect time to blow themselves upward to a distantly high shelf, and solve the level in 13 seconds. In another, they throw a grenade off a ledge, jump off the ledge and land perfectly on the exploding grenade to fling themselves up the same distance to an opposite ledge. This is Cirque Du Soleil for gamers.

Like a lot of such weird hobbies, there’s been a number of variations upon the themes and techniques so that they have to be demarcated clearly before you watch them. One of these is the idea of “tool-assisted” speed runs. In these cases, you use an emulator and/or constant reloading to get the most perfect game. Sometimes you slow down the game to half speed, play at that level, and then return the game to full speed when you play it back. In these levels, you go from it being amazing, to a sort of bizarre art. Watch, for example, this video of Super Mario 3 in tool-assisted mode, and then skip ahead to 2 minutes in and watch what appears to be God Almighty playing Nintendo.

Like any “sport”, the use of this sort of enhancement can lead to accusations of cheating or not playing fair, and I certainly agree that comparing a game played by a single person in one take and one played by multiple people doing thousands of takes is not legitimate. But I do think there’s a place for both these approaches.

The two big tracking organizations in this are The Speed Demos Archive and Tool-Assisted Speed Runs, which do their best to provide the most up-to-date short-timed videos of played games in existence. I am especially taken with the level of precision that TASvideos keeps in terms of what techniques are used, what to watch for, who did it, and so on. But both are pretty kick-ass.

But there’s one set of speed runs I just can’t seem to get enough of, and that’s Super Mario 64.

I get a little weird about that game because of several bits about it that really amaze me. First of all, I really do consider it a perfect 10 out of 10. It got a 10 in several magazines at the time of its release in 1996, and because gaming culture generates controversy and flatulence, this was a big deal. To get a ten, some speculated, meant there could never be a more perfect game. This is, of course, retarded, but like I said, retarded is fuel for gaming culture, so it bounced back and forth for a while. But I am firmly on the side that in 1996, Super Mario 64 was truly a perfect 10 of a game. The variation, the game play, the massive size of it, was all just fantastic.

Such is that perfection that watching people play it quickly using all manner of tricks and glitches, is hypnotizing and attractive to me. In the game you collect stars. There are 120 possible stars in the game. Once you collect 70, you can actually “win” the game, although it’s only when you track down and win all 120 that you get the real kudos. So, people have successfully played through the game, tool assisted and not. Here is a 120 star tool-assisted speed run, which takes about an hour and 41 minutes to complete. It’s quite beautiful to me.

But it turns out you can glitch the system; there was the “bunny trick”. At one point in the game, about sixteen stars in, you are able to chase down and catch a bunny. When you do this, he gives you a star. But more than that, it lets you walk around with the captured bunny post capture. And even more than that, there is a bug where you can drop and pick up the bunny quickly and it stops paying attention to doors. As a result of this little oversight, you can get through a door that’s not supposed to be openable until way further along the game, and which allows you to get to the final boss and win the game having only sixteen stars captured.

It is too easy to focus on the fact that the trick works rather than why. It works because the door is a real thing, that will eventually open. This may sound obvious, but it’s not. In years previous to games like Super Mario 64, just because there was a door somewhere didn’t mean that there was anything behind that door. That door was, effectively, a painting that was later replaced with a real door when all the objects you needed were assembled. But before then, there was nothing you could do to get through that door, because, again, not a real door. But in the era of Mario 64, that means that there was a working set of rooms, all functioning, all in place, and it was only the addition of new powers or the ability to unlock portals that granted you access to this persistent environment. This is both minor, and the most important thing in the world.

The sixteen-star hack was amazing. But then someone did it in 1 star.

To do it in one star, they had to depend on an interesting glitch in the system, where if you jammed little mario in a strange location in the first room of the castle, it would blow him into another piece of the map. It’s surreal to watch, like something out of the Matrix. One moment he’s jumping around and the next moment he’s flying through the castle at top speed and jammed into a door, which he should never have gotten into.

And then someone used this trick to do it in zero stars. Zero stars! He walks into the castle, as any tourist and rube and then he’s face to face with the final boss, ready to kick some ass. Here’s a youtube link of this action, and it’s at the 1:10 mark that you say to yourself “you ok, little guy?” and then he’s suddenly blowing through the castle at 100mph and right into a high-end level. And then he just keeps going from there. The run is tool-assisted but still great to watch. And zero stars.

I have issues with the terms “cheating” as being applied here, sicne it’s made clear that the emulator and slowdown techniques are in play. But more than that, there’s a greater situation here.

During the GET LAMP documentary, one person puts forward the theory that we, as people, are changed by technology. As technology advances and we absorb this into our daily lives, we internally change our processes and selves to accommodate this new methodology. I buy into this theory entirely. So what I am saying is that the people who play Quake Done Quick or who slam Mario with zero stars are not the same human beings the games were written for. A decade of time, learning new ways to play games, changes your relationship to the original games, and so what is meant to be reliant on your lack of familiarity with the world is no longer to the game’s advantage. I can think of no more appropriate example of this, than speed runs.

I wrote this in two hours. I look forward to your film of you doing this faster.

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  1. Chris Orcutt says:

    And to think, 100-120 years ago, typewriter races were all the rage!

    “A symbol of the newfound dominance of the Underwood is when a typist using an Underwood 5 set the world record for typing at 84 words per minute. This was at the World Championship of Typing. Links to Online Exhibit, Underwood 5, and Williams Rose Fritz was the champion of champions when it came to typewriter racing, her fasted recorded speed in competition was 84 words per minute. She beat out all her male competitors in typing contests, and her success, along with that of others made typewriter racing a popular activity to follow for the American public. The reason behind her success was not the Underwood typewriter that she was using, rather the coach of the Underwood team Charles E. Smith. He was an inventor of speed typing techniques. By 1923, Smith had trained Albert Tangora to type at an amazing 147 words per minute on an Underwood 5.” (118-130, The Wonderful Writing Machine)

  2. Church says:

    Minor point. I believe rocket jumping started in Marathon. There were special caches and terminals that could only be reached that way.

  3. Jason Scott says:

    Believe it or not, Romero claims that Rocket Jumping was the intended methodology for reaching a secret area in doom! (here).

    But I agree the way I wrote it makes it sound like it originates with Quake, which is not true.