At speedrun.com, over 1,000 players are on the Super Mario Bros. leaderboard. Only four have run 1996’s bizarre point-and-click adventure Harvester. The latter is one of countless obscure games obsessed over by as few as one fan, but the drive to master them can be no less studied and intense than what’s seen with beloved classics.
Petra Tsimberov owns the world records for ‘90s adventures Dark Seed, Noctropolis, and I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream. She also held the Harvester record for two years but, over the past two months, she and another runner dubbed CaptainBreadbox have traded it back and forth, shaving seconds off here and there. Why speedrun in a slow and contemplative genre, and why choose a game that, when remembered at all, is recalled for its surreal violence?
Diving Into Obscurity
“I would liken it to so-bad-it’s-good shlock,” Tsimberov tells me. “I’m huge on obscure avant-garde film, and this interest extends into games. The bad rap these old adventure games often get is because people took them too much at face-value without attempting to feel around for their weird, off-kilter underbelly. To ‘win’ as fast as possible demonstrates an intimate connection with the game — knowledge of its inner-workings and mastery of its mechanics. That connection doesn’t get mentioned much, but as a game developer I find it fascinating.”
Those mechanics can be combative. A Harvester speedrun features the constant loud clicking of dialogue being skipped, and the game barely seems capable of keeping up. “Harvester is rife with issues,” Tsimberov explains. “It’s this furious test of will and patience. It also crashes at random (several times on World Record pace), and there are bizarre glitches I haven’t seen talked about in non-speedrun circles. Dialogue repeating, weird graphics popping in, enemies suddenly freezing in place… like this old geezer of a game is getting absolutely throttled. It’s both fun and surreal to have seen Harvester speedrunning evolve from being kind of a meme to becoming one of the most optimized speedruns I’ve ever seen.”
By speedrunning the obscure, you can be the first to spot quirks that have gone unnoticed for decades. For instance, Kacey Calhoon owns world records for several old racing games, including the Game Boy Color’s Hot Wheels: Stunt Track Driver. Upon finishing a race, the player is forced to sit and watch their two AI opponents catch up. Calhoon discovered that the best strategy is to be “purposefully mediocre,” thus letting the AI keep pace with you, rather than outperform it but be forced to wait.
“I noticed the sandbagging strategy after a particularly embarrassing string of mistakes,” she explains. “I almost reset, but I realized that it was my best time, solely because I didn’t spend an eternity waiting for the AI. The AI sped up whenever you made a mistake, but wouldn’t rubber band if you were too fast. Over the course of the run, [going slow on purpose] saved over a minute, which is a lot in a run that lasts less than ten. Being the first to figure something out is really cool.”
The inner workings of other games are simply mangled. 1999’s Test Drive 6, Calhoon says, “is surprisingly hard just because it controls so horribly.” Then there’s the Game Boy Advance’s Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed. “In the car I use, there’s a glitch where first gear does not end,” she notes, “So I don’t shift, hold A, and let the walls pinball me to victory. It’s dumb, but every time I’ve run it for an audience they got a kick out of it.”
Sometimes there’s a better game waiting to be discovered. “Auto Modellista is a game I love dearly because it’s got this unique anime-esque art style,” Calhoon tells me. “However, it’s pretty bad, and the meta was basically ‘unlock [a specific car] and bounce off the walls because turning is impractical.’ We discovered that the original Japanese and PAL-region release has completely different handling that’s much better! The community has grown and everyone now runs that version of the game.”
These games were not well-received. One contemporary review dismissed Test Drive 6, noting that “After six tries, they still haven’t gotten it right.” But to Calhoon, these old racing games sit at a confluence of nostalgia for the games she grew up with, her love of cars and motorsport, an interest in gaming history, and the indescribable appeal of overlooked oddities. “I’ve beaten Test Drive 6 dozens of times,” she says. “Why not push myself to do it fast? It’s so janky and ugly and controls horribly, but something about it is oddly charming.”
For smartalec24, sharing overlooked oddities is the whole point. Alec owns the world record for the GBA’s Shrek 2, a childhood favorite he discovered many tricks for. It’s a game he describes as surprisingly difficult to speedrun, thanks to the need to control multiple characters and navigate late levels that lack checkpoints but sport enemies wielding one-hit kills. In an attempt to speedrun as many games as he can simply for the sake of experiencing them, Alec holds records in games ranging from forgotten Wii shooter Conduit 2 to long outdated Dreamcast sports title NFL 2K1.
Barney’s World Record
“Some games don’t have a ton of replay value [until] you begin speedrunning them,” Alec tells me. “One of my most popular speedruns is Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City. The game is strange and critics did not like it. And while I agree that it’s clunky and not fun casually, speedrunning it is a whole other story.” It’s not just Alec, either — a runner named BertSasquatch watched Alec’s Windy City run, gave it a shot themselves, and discovered a dizzying array of skips and exploits.
The even more obscure Kiteretsu Daihyakka, a light-hearted Game Boy title based on a children’s manga, had so little information available that Alec and some friends had to puzzle out speedrunning issues like which attacks secretly did more damage, and how the apparent randomness of time-consuming bonus stages could be manipulated. In a stage that features fishing, they saved more than a minute by spotting the exact frame to press B on and guarantee a big catch. Their efforts led to the obscure title being highlighted in a community event, and that, to Alec, is the real joy of speedrunning. “I was ecstatic because I was able to make a tutorial for everyone,” he says. “That’s what makes speedrunning fun: when people genuinely want others to enjoy the game you run.”
Sometimes the games aren’t enjoyable, yet can still inspire fascination. Drakodan is the co-world record holder for the Genesis’ Barney’s Hide & Seek Game, a vaguely educational children’s title that was run as a joke but was hiding secrets behind its simple façade. “At one point, the [record] was tied by about 100 people,” he says. “The optimal way to play was hold Left on Stages 1, 2 and 4, and Right on Stage 3. [But] since your jump speed is higher than your walk speed, I decided to see if it could save time. Turns out, it did. Not much, but enough to shave a second or two off, and suddenly all those people didn’t hold a record anymore.”
Other runners discovered a couple more tricks, and it appeared the game had once again been perfected. Then Drakodan dug deeper. “I used a RAM Viewer tool to constantly track Barney’s speed, and it turned out it wasn’t static. Visually, your speed always looks identical, but once a jump is finished you don’t always return to the same [walking] speed, and the same is true if you stop walking and then start moving again. Every run to this point had been at the mercy of a random element we didn’t even know existed! I established what the fastest possible walking speed was, and made a mental note of how to judge whether I had it [based on] where Barney was in relation to the background and the music.”
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All of Drakodan’s work accumulated in removing seven seconds from the old record. Why go through all that effort for a pink dinosaur? “People were happy to treat this game as a joke,” Drakodan notes, “thinking that it had no hidden depth and could be written off. The reality proved different, and I believe this is an important attitude to take in speedrunning.”
Drakodan also owns four world records for the GBA’s excellent but obscure Astro Boy: Omega Factor, an old favourite he’s played for hundreds of hours over the years. In discussing what it feels like to be the best in the world at something, even when you only have a dozen competitors, Drakodan sums up the attitude that every speedrunner interviewed shared. It’s satisfying to be on top, but it’s even better to see other people start playing a game you love, and perhaps even discover more secrets that contribute to everyone’s understanding.
“I have definitely been motivated by the thought of ‘I love this game, I want to be able to say I’m the best at it.’ The relative obscurity of a title isn’t deterring, because I’m doing it for myself, and with the collaborative nature of speedrunning being what it is, I’ve helped generate interest in these titles. I loved those games for years before attempting to speedrun them, and am happy if others experience the same joy for themselves, speedrun or not.”