Collin O’Brien discovered his first speedrunning glitch while replaying Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage! for the gazillionth time. O’Brien’s purple dragon, Spyro, somehow shared the same space as an attacking enemy as if one body were inside of the other.
That’s not supposed to happen.
But it did, and the game reacted by spitting Spyro at warp speed, higher, and higher, above the space where the game’s developers intended the dragon to go. Spyro was a weather balloon.
“It sent me so far in the air that the entire map was basically the size of a cracker,” O’Brien said. That was the first time I discovered a glitch.”
O’Brien didn’t yet know he’d executed what’s called a “proxy” in technical parlance, or that he and Spyro were about to embark on a journey into the world of speedrunning, a gaming subculture whose members find ways to warp, fly, pass through walls, and otherwise exploit games, all in service of trying to beat them as fast as possible. Over the past 10-plus years, a growing group of speedrunners have turned their craft into a sport, vying for the fastest times on speedrun.com, streaming their runs to sometimes hundreds of thousands of fans and even gathering for what has become a massive recurring charity event, Awesome Games Done Quick.
But in that moment, O’Brien was just a gamer who launched his purple dragon into the jet stream.
He thought that was fun.
Which begs the questions: How did speedrunning get so popular?
Consider O’Brien, now known in the community as EZScape on Twitter, YouTube, and beyond. O’Brien, a cyber security major at the University of Akron, is a good but sub-elite speedrunner. He’s become a figure within the speedrunning scene thanks to his YouTube channel, which has 282,000 followers and features such videos as “Top 10 Accidental Skip Discoveries in Speedrunning,” generating 5.2 million views. He even committed $1,000 for a bounty for a Super Mario 64 speedrunning contest. That prize pool snowballed into a $10,000 purse divvied among top finishers after a runner beat the game in under one hour, 39 minutes, referred to in the community as “138.” A Spanish speedrunner named “cheese” won the contest in dramatic fashion in front of live and stream audiences at the ESA Marathon, collecting $17,000 between the bounty and event prizes.
(Crucial kicked in $5,000, becoming the first of several corporate sponsors to fund the contest. More on the contest and why Mario 64 is considered the greatest speedrunning game later.)
Consider, also, the wild success of Games Done Quick. Known as GDQ, the week-long 10th anniversary charity event drew more than 200 speedrunners to Orlando in January, along with a live audience and more than 100,000 concurrent Twitch viewers. Speedrun viewership of the event on Twitch reached the hundreds of thousands. In total, the event raised more than $3.1 million in donations to the Prevent Cancer Foundation, bringing the donation total over the years to more than $25 million.
So, yeah. People like to play games really, really fast, and people – lots and lots of people – tune in to watch.
Speedrunning requires persistence.
Some runners invest hundreds of hours exploring levels and developing or practicing routes, employing as many skips or glitches as possible to shave the most time. The resulting runs barely resemble the original game. For example, the world record for Super Mario 64 considered by many to be the greatest speedrunning game of all time, is more than 20 hours faster than it takes the average player to beat the game while collecting all 120 stars, according to howlongtobeat.com.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, is another speedrunning favorite. The average playthrough of the 1998 classic takes around 26 hours for the main story and 39 hours to complete every objective. The world-record speedrun, meaning the runner doesn’t have to meet any objectives other than beating the game, is under 10 minutes by Lozoots, at least until a 9:09 run by Narcissa is verified. The 100% speedrun record, set by glitchymon, stands at 3 hours, 51 minutes, 34 seconds – just five seconds ahead of the second place speedrunner, zfg.
Then, there’s glitch hunters. Instead of attempting runs, they spend countless hours poking around levels. They seek spots to clip (pass) through walls to access areas early or wrong warp to later stages in the game. A key to SM64 runs is executing backward long jumps that trick the game into speeding the character past its normal limits. Still others poke around levels with a viewer displaying the game’s coding, looking for any anomalies that could lead to a glitch discovery.
“Lots of glitch hunters don’t even speedrun,” O’Brien said. “Grinding isn’t for everybody.”
Those discoveries add up. World records for popular games are built on the backs of dozens of contributions from glitch hunters and speedrunners, shared on YouTube, the r/speedrun subreddit, the speedrunning Discord server or other online watering holes. Top speedrunners embrace the competition, but every record is a victory for the sport, O’Brien said.
“Everybody wants to see the game beat as fast as possible,” he said. “Whoever has the world record gets to hold that glory and get that publicity, but it’s always going to be more about the community effort.”
Super Mario 64 is not new. Released in 1996, SM64 was released on the Nintendo 64®, one of the first consoles supporting 3D level design. The game, like many of its era, is built upon blocky geometry and graphics that are far less sophisticated than the spectacularly textured and detailed worlds rendered by modern consoles and PCs, such as Red Dead Redemption 2 or Forza Motorsport 7.
That era of hexagonal games is the golden age for many speedrunners, thanks to their ample glitches to find and incorporate into speedrun strats.
Of those, SM64 remains a favorite, O’Brien said, in part because the basic game is difficult to start with. Some of the glitches used to pass through impermeable barriers or skip levels are also extremely tough to pull off on the first try. Winning the SM64 bounty – which basically requires setting a world record –virtually requires perfection.
“That’s why it’s looked at as the holy grail of speedrunning,” he said.
Random events kill speedruns in some games. For example, in Resident Evil 4, the protagonist is in a motorboat when a huge lake monster emerges from the water, prompting a boss fight. The monster can spawn in one of three locations. If its spawns in a spot that takes longer to reach, the speedrunner loses precious seconds. Considering that speedrunner Yuushi’s world record of one hour, 22 minutes, 35 seconds is less than five seconds faster than the runner-up, losing a few seconds tracking down the lake monster costs any plausible shot at the top of the leaderboard.
Such random events are called “Random Number Generation,” or RNG. O’Brien said he had a handful of Spyro Reignited Trilogy speedruns derailed by bad RNG luck on a glitch, producing the most advantageous warp exactly half of the time. Frustrated, he moved on to other games.
Speedrunners play plenty of games with RNG, but one of SM64’s charms is that it doesn’t have any of those coin flips that make or break a run. In addition, there isn’t just one way to chase the SM64 record, adding to the strategy and viewing intrigue, O’Brien said. Some SM64 runners choose less optimal but more consistent strats that can still produce sub-139 times. Others go for riskier routes with greater risk and reward.
“It’s all about having options, a way to express yourself in the way you move,” he said. “It’s not as much fun for me to do every single input the same way at the same time. You want games that give you freedom when it comes to routing.”
All of that compounded to make SM64 an ideal game for the speedrunning contest. The record bounty drew speedrunners and spectators to streaming platforms for weeks before cheese beat the time threshold with a spectacular one hour, 38 minute, 54 second run. The record had to be extra satisfying for cheese, who previously completed a 138 run that wasn’t verified because of frame drops in his submission that rendered the run unofficial.
Cheese capped his record by grabbing Bowser by the tail and perfectly spinning and throwing the big bad into an exploding bomb. The game-ending boss fight is tricky. Slight mistakes have tacked time onto many a speed run.
Cheese executed the sequence in seconds.
With Bowser airborne, cheese gasped and covered his face, Nintendo 64 controller still in one hand.
“Cheese!” the broadcaster said. “You are a legend!”
Following the run, cheese sat with the broadcasters, overcome by emotion and struggling to articulate his feelings.
He looked exhausted.
“Do you know what it’s like when you have potentially $12,000 on the line with one Bowser throw miss?” he said.
Zach Kyle works at Crucial as a content author. He previously worked for 10 years as a reporter at several newspapers. He enjoys tacos, yard games and The Witcher 3.