Cosmo Wright knows The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker better than anyone — maybe even the people who made it.
The 23-year-old from Chicago is the world’s fastest player of the GameCube adventure game, which came out in 2003. He’s spent thousands of hours obsessively playing this one game over and over, shaving seconds off his time until he completed it in less than four and a half hours. About a month ago, Wright embarked on a new challenge: The high-definition remake of the game that Nintendo just released on its new Wii U platform. He’s gunning to get the record in that, too, and broadcasting all of his practicing on Twitch, a streaming video website.
On September 22, 6,000 people were watching Wright play.
Link, the protagonist of the Zelda series, is down to his last little bit of health. Wright plants a bomb at his own feet. It’s a seemingly suicidal move: The bomb explodes and Link loses his last bit of health. But it’s not game over, not yet. Instead, Link flies into the sky. Wright pounds on his controller, averaging an insane 13 button inputs per second as Link’s nearly-dead corpus rises off the ground, twitching in the air and emitting a series of truncated, staccato yelps. He floats all the way up to the top of a tower, a tower that Link is not yet meant to access.
Wright is speedrunning the new version of Wind Waker, attempting to exploit every single loophole in the game play, including bugs that Nintendo never fixed, in an attempt to finish the adventure in the fastest time possible. Speedrunning is something akin to setting high scores in games that don’t have a scoring system, a way for top-tier players to rank themselves. With a few exceptions, speedrunning is usually not something for which these video games reward you: You get the same ending in Super Mario 64 whether you finish it in 3 hours or 30 hours. But top speedrunners can become Internet famous, thanks to the popularity of streaming sites like Twitch.
“With a lot of these viewers, they’re pretty much living with these speedrunners,” says Twitch community manager Jared Rea. “It’s very authentic. They’re watching them do it live and they’re watching them physically perform it. They’re watching them face challenges and meet new obstacles and have these really great runs that end in heartbreak.”
Heartbreak about sums it up. For as fast as these players are whipping through the games they have set out to master, speedruns can actually take many hours for each attempt. Wright’s Wind Waker record is 4:27:53. That means speedrunners can play, and the audience can watch, for the better part of an evening only to make one tiny mistake and have to junk the whole thing. The agony of defeat comes much more often than the thrill of victory.
Many speedrun fans remember the time that Mike “Siglemic” Sigler, the record holder for Nintendo’s 1996 game Super Mario 64, was tracking ahead of his own record but blew it by missing an easy jump. It was like watching Tiger Woods whiff a tee shot. 8,000 people watched in horror. “There goes the [world record],” one wrote. “Please kill me,” added another.
Sigler didn’t let that flop get him down. He wound up setting the world record the following day, and since January has held the number one slot with a run that’s a full three minutes faster than his previous personal best.
“Speedruns are not inherently important by themselves,” says Wright. “They become important when an audience is paying attention and is captivated.”
The practice of recording and posting one’s video game completion times to the internet has roots that stretch all the way back into the early 1990s with games like Doom and Quake. But Nathan Jahnke, a staff member at Speed Demos Archive, says that speedrunning “was not yet a thing” until about 2003, shortly after the release of Nintendo’s GameCube game Metroid Prime.
Unlike Zelda, the Metroid series actually did reward players for finishing the first-person space adventure more speedily. It inspired a growing group of players, mostly posting on message boards like GameFAQs, to begin capturing and posting videos of their full playthroughs. Back then in the days of dial-up, it could take days to download one of the hours-long video files.
Despite the limitations, the ability to share video footage of runs allowed speedrunners to collaborate and learn from each other.
“People were watching one another’s every move,” says Jahnke, “and the effect was [that] information about time-saving tricks [built] up more and more rapidly.”
Soon, the speedrunners found that they’d wrung Metroid Prime dry of secrets — at least, as far as they knew. Hungry for something else, the Metroid players began to branch out to new games. Speed Demos Archive began to accept and post runs for almost any game, quickly becoming the de facto hub of speedrunning leaderboards. Today, speedrunning is so popular that some players like Cosmo Wright can make a decent income off the advertising that runs over their streams.
The most popular speedrunners understand that, if they want to make money, they are first and foremost in the entertainment business.
Daniel “GoronGuy” Sword, a 17-year-old high school student from Stockholm, Sweden, has become the most popular speedrunner of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, even though he isn’t necessarily the best player of the game.
When Sword does his runs of the 2000 Nintendo 64 game he jokes around, laughing and replying to things posted in the chat channel by his viewers. Whenever he finds himself with downtime — waiting for the game to catch up to him, basically — Sword entertains his viewers by showboating, performing complicated stunts using master-level glitches and exploits.
Sword estimates that he’s spent over 1,800 hours practicing and attempting speedrun records in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. This is normal for a serious player.
“I’d say it takes about 100 hours to learn a game,” says Wright. “That’s about the point you know if you actually enjoy speedrunning it or not. From there, assuming the game is mildly complex, you could spend thousands of hours both practicing or attempting runs if you really wanted to.”
Because of the high level of precision needed to pull off even basic maneuvers at a speedrun-worthy level, players can spend years improving their top times.
“Getting the ‘perfect run’ is basically an impossibility,” says Wright. “There is always room for improvement. This is where it becomes interesting to see who can hold out and actually improve it, and who gives up.”
Sigler is well-known for spending entire days in front of his Twitch stream, repeatedly trying and re-trying to top his own records in Super Mario 64. Once, after collecting the 90th of the game’s 120 collectible stars, he sighed deeply and declared: “I’ve been playing for seven hours. I haven’t eaten yet today.” (Sigler did not respond to repeated requests from WIRED to participate in this story.)
At this level of play, the act of moving characters around in a game world becomes second nature for speedrunners. At some point, they say, it all becomes instinctual, and they’re no longer actively thinking about the inputs needed to perform basic actions. That’s why speedruns are so fascinating to watch, especially if you’re already familiar with the game.
Super Mario 64 is not a forgiving game, especially by today’s standards. It’s nearly 20 years old. Nintendo’s designers were still coming to grips with how to create a 3-D world and the result is rough around the edges. You have to fight with the virtual camera and strain your wrists on the uncomfortable controller. Some of the levels are deviously designed. And yet Siglemic runs through them like he’s playing hopscotch, stringing together death-defying leaps with perfect timing, one after the other after the other. It’s mesmerizing, like watching a magic show.
When thousands of hours of practice come down to shaving a few seconds, it’s no wonder that speedrunners can get a touch competitive if their thrones are threatened.