A First Timer’s Rough Lessons on Speed Running

I like to consider myself a skilled gamer when it comes to learning and playing a video game. I’m definitely not Esports material, but when it comes to figuring games out in a singleplayer setting, I’ve beaten more games than not.

So I thought taking those skills and translating it to the act of speed running would be a no brainer, but I’ve learned the hard way that there’s more to speed running than just playing a video game.

The Cup Runnth Over

The game that I chose to dip my feet into Speed Running was Cuphead. I’ve already written about my love of the game and the challenges of difficulty design before.

To me, I felt that Cuphead was too easy, and the thought of Speed Running it made me hope that I would be properly challenged.

Over the last week, I’ve watched World Record runs of the game that showed off the act of breaking it. Playing Cuphead at the Speed Running level is about exploiting several glitches designed to skip phases of bosses. It’s a good mix of mastery of the mechanics and being able to exploit almost frame-perfect maneuvers.

And yet despite my best efforts, it was a lot harder than I thought it would be, and made me realize some important details about speed running.

1: Technical Skill is Different from Game Skill

Just like when it comes to Esports, there is a huge difference between being good at a game and being at the point of mastery needed to compete. While no one will say that it’s easy to speed run games, getting to the point of setting records requires more than just raw skill.

Technical skills refer to advanced maneuvers not normally considered a part of the basic game experience. We can put everything from shell wall jumping in Super Mario World to understanding the timing for glitches.

Learning to speed run Cuphead, the first thing you need to understand is getting the timing down for rapidly switching between weapons. You may only be pushing one button a lot, but you need to do this on top of actually playing the game.

Then there are boss skips that require perfect timing and positioning to pull off. These glitches can mean the difference of minutes off your record.

While getting ready to run Cuphead, I watched these glitches multiple times on YouTube and thought that I had the eye to perform them. In game, you come to realize that speed runners really do make it look a lot easier than it is.

Something that looks like it only takes two seconds to perform can require hours of practice and committing it to memory; speaking of which…

2: The Importance of Memory

One of the biggest differing points between speed running and Esports play comes down to the philosophy of what you’re doing. In Esports, it’s all about performing and adapting to the ever changing strategies of your opponent.

In speed running, it’s all about memory and execution. Even with games built on RNG, you still need a game plan of what you’re doing at any given time.

This is why the Kaizo sub-genre has grown in popularity among speed runners and fans over the years. Kaizo games are designed around very hard challenges; many of which the player has no idea they’re coming.

Beating a Kaizo game requires a combination of game mastery and being able to recall all the traps coming your way.

Going back to Cuphead, while it may not require Kaizo-levels of memory, you still need to prepare for what the game is throwing at you. Even though the bosses do use RNG when deciding what attacks to use, it’s up to the player to know any possible attack patterns, and figure out the best strategy.

3: A Disaster Waiting to Happen

Last and most importantly, speed running can be frustrating to play. Just like with Esports, you need a higher level of concentration and patience compared to just casual play.

Fortunately for me I don’t have to worry about setting world records anytime soon. For speed runners looking to place a top time, every hit, miss, or mistake can mess up a run.

On the video I linked in this post, this was my best run in terms of glitch exploits, but that was compensated for by messing up on other bosses. If all you do is watch WR speed runs, you miss out on the hours of playing, learning, repeating, and failing required to get to that point.

Need for Speed:

Speed running is not for the faint at heart, and requires a lot more than just ability to succeed. The beauty of speed running is that anybody can get into it. At the time of this writing, the current WR for Cuphead is about 25:20; I doubt I’ll get that far, but if I can get below 40 I’ll consider that a success.