In Pursuit of Perfection

A few weeks ago, me and Sandy went to see The King of Kong, which I can wholeheartedly recommend to just about anyone. As reviews have noted, it’s really more a movie about the people involved rather than the focus of their competition. In the movie, there is a segment that is an interview with one of the judges at Twin Galaxies, in which he discusses the workload of the job, and the backlog of submissions that he had to work through. I thought one of his comments was interesting — something along the lines of, “Most people never get a chance to see a world record being broken — I’m lucky, because I see it happen all the time.” While most people would not place the same importance on a video game world record as they would on, say, a track-and-field event, the sentiment still holds — it is exciting to see something, anything, that’s better than anyone else has done.

I had seen sites like the Speed Demos Archive before, and had watched some of the shorter and/or more amusing movies. (Seeing Morrowind being completed in 7 minutes, 30 seconds, via exploitation of spells and items, is a hoot.) The amount of effort that goes into some of these videos is staggering — for short games, massive amounts of iteration on a game quickly add up to a large amount of time spent recording videos. For longer games, just getting through them at all, without costly mistakes, is an achievement — never mind the meticulous planning process that precedes any world-record attempt.

A little bit of reading revealed an important distinction and bifurcation of the “speed run” scene — the demos shown on the Speed Demos Archive are done without any software assistance, and are played in real-time. They are demonstrations of how quickly a human can play games. A second class of speed demos, known as “tool-assisted speed runs,” use a variety of techniques to try and complete a game in the absolute minimum possible time. Some of these techniques include:

  • Slow motion and replay in emulators, to achieve “perfect play.” Damage is only taken in cases where it shortens the length of the run, or allows for shortcuts to be taken due to “damage bumping.”
  • Bug abuse. Almost any bug is fair game for exploitation, it seems, and speed runs frequently abuse these.
  • Luck manipulation in Darkwing Duck “Luck manipulation.” This is, to me, the most impressive technique, and one that shows the lengths to which speed runners will go in order to shorten a demo. Many older games have “flaws” in their use of random number generators, such that the game’s randomness can be exploited by someone determined enough. In short, luck manipulation aims to exploit the behavior of a game’s random number generator for player benefit. For example, this can be used to avoid random encounters in an RPG, ensure that enemies drop certain needed items when killed, or provoke enemies to appear from certain locations onscreen or at certain times.An example of this technique is shown in the image at the right (rehosted from the TASVideos site). Depending on the frame at which the enemy is killed, different items are dropped.Sometimes people go so far as to disassemble the ROM of a game to determine how the random number generator works, in order to construct a faster run. Another example of this technique is an amazing run that produces a Monopoly win in 30 seconds.

A site known as TASVideos hosts a huge collection of these videos. I’ve spent some time watching a number of these videos, and I enjoyed them quite a bit, particularly for the games that I had played in my youth, where I am familiar with how the game is normally supposed to proceed. Here are some of my recommendations for tool-assisted speed runs worth watching:

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