Avid runners strive to break a four-minute mile. Test pilots used to risk their lives trying to pierce the sound barrier. In the Nevada desert, rocket cars are raced ever closer to 800 miles per hour.
But for Texas' Mike Damiani, 22, the outer limit is the five-hour mark on the 1998 Nintendo 64 game "The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time." To conquer the game by that mark requires sustained focus. "You can't be perfect at this game for five hours," he said. "Some mistakes are going to slip in."
Mere mortals generally require over 20 hours to complete the game. But in the spring of 2004, Damiani clocked a run of five hours and four minutes. He has dedicated this year — his graduation year at the University of Texas — to break on through and topple records in every other major "Zelda" game while he's at it.
"I want to have the world record on each," he said. "That's my lifetime goal."
For a select group of players, the glory of gaming involves not simply completing a beloved title, but beating it more quickly than anyone else in the world — and letting everyone know about it. Captured in video and posted to the Internet, these sprints through games are called speed runs.
The biggest online repository of speed runs is SpeedDemosArchive.com, run by 25-year-old Nolan Pflug of Pittsburgh. "I'm pretty swamped," Pflug said, noting that he receives about five runs a week for the site, which started with 10 a year and a half ago and now has more than 100. Even the least popular get 50 downloads a day, he said. A quarter-hour dash through the epic "Morrowind" was downloaded 100,000 times in a week.
The site hosts runs through "Pokémon" and "Resident Evil." Damiani's "Ocarina" run is on there. So is the five-minute, nine-second run-through of "Super Mario Bros.," a virtuoso demonstration in which the player keeps Mario at a constant sprint, nails every precarious jump, dives into several secret warp areas and doesn't waste time grabbing mushrooms.
Earlier this month Pflug posted a jog through the massive "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." At more than seven hours long, it is the lengthiest run on the site.
"The good thing about speed runs in general — especially with modern-day games — is that it's like watching a live cartoon," said Robert Mruczek, who runs TwinGalaxies.com, a site that tracks video game records, including speed runs.
But even the runs of the old "Mario" games can draw an online crowd. In fact, it was speed-running an older game that happened to lead Pflug into becoming the world's leading archivist in his rarefied field. As a teenager, he was a fan of "Super Metroid," a game that rewarded a player's swiftness with time-based rewards. The official Nintendo magazine ran a contest for quickest times, and Pflug squeaked his run in at under one hour.
Years later he became immersed in the first-person shooter "Quake" and began comparing completion times with online friends. Competition bred collaboration and, ultimately, a project called QuakeDoneQuick, a run-through of the game in which group members tackled different levels. They combined for a run of under 13 minutes (the record for a single player, Pflug said, is 14:02).
Soon Pflug was trying other games. He posted a blistering run on "Metroid Prime" that he said drew 60,000 hits overnight. Some of those hits may have been from the makers of the game. Pflug said in a later printing of "Metroid Prime," some of the shortcuts he exploited in his run were blocked.
Pflug started his current site in 2004 and soon he was attracting the work of gamers like Damiani, the "Zelda" aficionado. He also started linking to other sites in the scene, such as The-Elite.net, whose members burn through the shooters "GoldenEye" and "Perfect Dark" while exploiting a time-saving routine that has their rushing character's first-person view almost always focused down on the floor.
The Elite site, like Pflug's, includes bold warnings against cheaters. After all, even in these types of races, some players are looking for artificial enhancements. One of the most popular tricks is to use an emulator, a program that simulates video game hardware on a computer but can allow a game to be run at a slower speed, thus making tricky moves easier.
There are other ways to cheat. In some games, a character who dies may re-spawn somewhere nearby — but not exactly where they died — which can help a crafty player use death and reincarnation as an efficient way to quickly cover ground. To keep things simple, Pflug discourages his runners from letting their characters get killed.
And then there are the tricks that are legal because they can be done in the spirit of playing the game clean: skipping a time-consuming quest for high-jump boots by riding the shockwave of a small bomb to boost over a barrier, for example, or taking the warp pipes in a "Mario" game. Some runners hunt and peck for shortcuts, trying to finish the game with the fewest possible power-ups and add-ons. Others are racing for the quickest 100 percent completion.
As for Damiani's efforts to break the five-hour barrier on "Zelda," he estimates he's played "Ocarina of Time" for 10,000 hours, training more than three weeks at a time to pull off a single run (throwing controllers and cursing when he dies in the last minutes of an attempt), and tends to go without food on the day of a run.
As one of the most accomplished speed-runners, Damiani has enjoyed some fame for his "Zelda" feats. But at home in Texas, his mother, Jeane, can't believe that her recently graduated son is talking to MTV News about his speed runs: "I said to him, 'You're graduating. You have a degree. Can't you get a real job out of this?' "