For some gamers, there is no higher calling than playing through a game as fast as humanly possible.
For others, that's not nearly fast enough.
Late last year gamers on the Internet were abuzz about a 16-minute clip of "Super Mario 64," the 1996 platforming game considered by many to be among the finest games ever made. The movie showed the game being conquered in record time, chopping minutes off of previous best efforts.
Some gamers were astounded at the action on the screen, which seemed to show a player of exceptional timing. Mario avoided enemies within a hair's breadth and jumped and ricocheted across gaps he had no business clearing. He dropped blindly off of a cliff, only to land right on a needed edge. And never once did Mario die.
So how'd the player do it? "Anyone with a fast enough computer could do it if they had a few hours to kill each day for two weeks," the movie's creator, an American gamer who goes only by Spezzafer, told MTV News. The trick behind the clip is that it was created using a hacked version of the original game and run by a computer program that enabled Spezzafer to slow the action down dramatically, freeze his progress and retry tough maneuvers over and over. His 16:27 "Mario 64" run was started and stopped, tried and tried again — some 26,109 times.
Speed running first became popular in the mid-'90s and has since become a vibrant subculture for gamers looking to break their hobby's equivalent of a four-minute mile. Standard speed-run rules required players to beat a game in record time without dying and without using any extra programs or trick controllers to make their efforts easier (see "For Some Gamers, Merely Finishing A Game Isn't Enough").
But in 2004, a speed run of "Super Mario Brothers 3" started making the rounds on the Internet, and the quality of the play dazzled the community. Celebration turned to scandal when gamers discovered the game had been run on an emulator, using tricks like freezing and restarting the game in mid-action. Today, however, those tricks are staples of what have become known as tool-assisted speed runs (TAS).
"People bashed these new tool-assisted runs because most believed the creators were trying to deceive everyone into thinking they were real," said Mike Damiani, a California-based gamer who is a top player of traditional "Zelda" speed runs. "Even those who associated with these tool-assisted makers were branded traitors."
Those attacks were frequently leveled at Joel Yliluoma, a 27-year-old Finnish gamer who began archiving tool-assisted runs at his NESVideos site. "Two years ago, I fought against claims of cheating and other bad-mouthing," Yliluoma said. "Today, although I still see some people who hate the movies and consider them cheating, I see more people who recognize the value of both types of speed runs."
Yliluoma, who has made some tool-assisted runs with games such as "Super Mario Brothers" and "Castlevania," says the main goal of the runs isn't speed but aesthetics. The FAQ on his site states: "Although most of our movies intend to play games as fast as possible, with respect to art, our main goal is to create movies that are beautiful to watch." The site champions movies that exhibit surprising moves, deftly chosen shortcuts and innovative play.
Those values may be important even to traditional speed runners, but the techniques used by Spezzafer and Yliluoma allow for some pretty unlikely magic moments, including programming loopholes that allow Mario in "Super Mario Brothers" to do a standing jump from a pixel-sized foothold on a wall or stomp a turtle without even getting on top of it. That's the kind of trick that's tough to pull off without using a program that can slow a game down dramatically. Playing a game frame by frame enables "feats that nobody could do in real time, barring some freaky luck," Yliluoma said.
Nevertheless, some gamers can't come to peace with TAS. "My basic thought is 'don't like them, haven't made them, don't watch them,' " said Nolan Pflug, who oversees Speed Demos Archive, a Web site that houses traditional runs.
One sore point for some traditional speed-runners is that an impressive TAS of a game can spoil the interest in slower, regular speed runs of the same title. Gamer Jacob Cannon, posting on Pflug's site under the tag LeCoureur103, said in October that he was abandoning his quest to break the 18-minute mark of "Mario 64" with a traditional speed run in part because of Spezzafer's run. (The non-TAS record is still north of 19 minutes.)
"I watched the TAS run and it was just at a level that can never be matched," he said. "For me, a speed run isn't about the end-time so much as it is about having impressive tricks in it. All the stuff in the TAS was just so crazy and inventive, and anything I did would pale in comparison. If I recorded a 17:43 run, I'd feel slow and stupid, and if I mastered a few of the new TAS tricks to squeeze out another 20 or 30 seconds, I'd feel like an unoriginal copycat tool."
In fact, Spezzafer told MTV News that his run was based entirely on tricks he picked up from gamers like Cannon. "I didn't really discover any new tricks, since 99 percent of the tricks were found by speed runners before [me], he said. "So give them credit."
Damiani, the "Zelda" runner, said that the tool-assisted runs can be helpful teaching tools for regular runners, but that he's hesitant to make one himself. "I think any legit competitive gamer has to consider what making one of these videos means for their previous work," he said. "It's like tasting a bit of the dark side. Can you really go back to making legit runs after you've had this much power over a game you thought you mastered?"
Spezzafer, at least, is content with the TAS he created and is looking forward to more. "I'm hoping my run will be improved sometime soon and eventually obsoleted," he said.
There is, after all, always room for improvement. "What could have been cool a year ago would now often be judged sloppy," Yliluoma said. "Those of us who have seen hundreds of TAS videos don't become impressed as easily as those who see them the first time."