Here are my highlights from the European Speedrunner Assembly

Races, memes and 304 litres of free ice-cream

(Header photo credit: Michael Kire.)

This summer, I used my vacation days to attend the European Speedrunner Assembly Summer 2018, an event held from 21–28 July in Malmö to raise money for Save the Children. On my return to Hamburg, I was feeling a little exhausted, but also thoroughly motivated. I had just spent a week around a bunch of people who pull games apart, using an intense level of attention to detail; were it not for the fact that the people were endlessly friendly and encouraged me to take part in social activities, my attendance could have turned into some sort of extreme crash course on speedrunning. As it happened, I missed a lot of the live action thanks to stuffing my face with Swedish fast food, sunbathing on a shopping mall rooftop and, you know, sleeping, so the first thing I wanted to do when I arrived back in Germany was to put on Twitch and catch up on VODs that I missed.

A combination of sitting in on my new friends’ speedruns and watching what I missed made it very difficult to narrow down a list of highlights from the event, but I think I’ve managed it. I can’t recall a single run I watched that I didn’t learn something from. In fact, a lot of the entries to my list aren’t record-breakers, but were instead entertaining or made me feel a level of admiration for the runner for other reasons. ESA wasn’t just a ton of fun, but educated me on games I had no idea about and gave me the tools to start speedrunning properly (no, my very messy run at the event does not count). Due to my day job, I’ll probably not be able to go to the bigger US events any time soon, but ESA next year is already in my diary – if you fancy a European holiday, maybe it should be in yours, too.

1. Densha de D: Lightning Stage, Any% Race, Lordmau5 vs Jugachi

I think it’s fair to say that ESA is as much about the memes as it is about record-breaking, and Densha de D definitely falls into the quality meme game category. In general, making your marathon runs entertaining is very much worth the effort, because it makes people more inclined to watch your runs live at the event, rather than entertaining themselves elsewhere and watching the VOD later.

So, where to start with Densha de D – it is a mash-up of the Japanese Eurobeat-drenched anime (and manga series) Initial D and ultra-stern Japanese train conducting simulator Densha de Go. The result is some absolutely ludicrous train drifting, very funny glitches and Rick Astley. Lordmau5 and Jugachi both did a great job in explaining the mechanics of this bizarre game and giving the audience a good laugh, largely thanks to their decision to dress for the occasion.

2. Prince of Persia 3D, Any%, epicdudeguy

I was the donation reader for this run, and I must admit I was quite surprised by how well it grabbed my attention. To put it in context, I own a few Prince of Persia games for my collection, but I’ve never felt much of an urge to actually put them in my console just yet. Somehow I had missed the memo that the top joke game of recent times, Arabian Nights, is partly a rip-off of Prince of Persia 3D. PoP 3D may not involve a harem of creepily animated ladies gyrating to your character’s apparent boredom, but it is broken as heck.

What I particularly liked about sitting in on this run was that epicdudeguy let the humour of the exploits the PoP community has found – simply pressing Alt+Tab lets the player glitch through walls – speak for itself. He also kept his cool when the shoddy programming meant he struggled to make a certain jump after multiple attempts, while having a little laugh at himself. A lesson for runners everywhere to take hiccups in their stride!

3. Hitman: Blood Money, Silent Assassin, TheKotti

Hitman: Blood Money is a run I was really looking forward to in advance – perhaps the single run I wanted to see. So, it was Murphy’s Law that a karaoke bar was calling out my name during Kotti’s timeslot. I spotted on Twitter that shit had hit the fan, and I wasn’t disappointed with how crazy the run ended up being.

I’ve watched Blood Money runs several times before, and what makes them so rewatchable is Blood Money‘s frankly stupid rules on what constitutes a “Silent Assassin” ranking. Dogs and wheelchairs in the game count as witnesses, so you have to dispose of them accordingly if you want the best ranking. If you kill a bunch of people who haven’t quite raised the alarm by pushing them over a balcony, it counts as an “accident” and your ranking isn’t jeopardised. The result is that a run can look completely chaotic and yet still be absolutely fine. Long live Blood Money!

4. VVVVVV, Any% no telejumping race, tzann vs mohoc vs lennart_underscore

(Note: due to a technical issue, mohoc and tzann’s screens are the wrong way round in the recording.)

I knew precisely nothing about VVVVVV before the event, and now I want to play this game – though not in a speedrun setting, as I’m nowhere near spatially aware enough for that! The game lent itself especially well to a three-way race, since it’s pretty easy to see who’s in the lead; this was enhanced by excellent commentary.

Furthermore, the people I was hanging out with at the time were super excited to see all of the punishing platformers, such as Celeste and Boshy, and that enthusiasm was quite infectious. One of the bonuses of coming to a speedrunning event instead of watching it at home is being encouraged to watch things that would otherwise pass you by, thanks to your friends’ influence.

5. Super Mario 64, 70 Star Relay Race, Team 360Chrism vs Team Fuzzyness

Good gravy, this was probably the ultimate highlight of the event. Last year, the same game was ran as a simple relay, and it was so popular that outlets such as Kotaku wrote about it. This year, the demand to take part was so great that the schedulers went one bigger and better: two teams of 70 speedrunners, plus potential stand-ins, some who had never even touched the game before ESA. 

It was pretty close towards the end, and 360Chrism and Fuzzyness did a brilliant job supporting their teams throughout. It was a great show, and I was happy to watch it from behind the donation station, instead of taking part and potentially messing up my star.

6. Tetris the Grand Master, Exhibition, Qlex

Tetris played upside down. Just enchanting to watch. Anyone with the ability to play Tetris with that level of automatism deserves a round of applause, in my book.

This is also the perfect time to point out that the French speedrunning community really pulled together throughout the event, turning up to each other’s runs with flags and the occasional baguette. I felt like they did a lot to elevate the mood of the event, so shout-outs to the entire French squad!

7. GeoGuessr, Co-op, havrd and janmumrik

This game got the audience shouting and groaning at the screen, but let’s be honest: none of us could have done anywhere near as well as these guys did. For the uninitiated, GeoGuessr is a game built around Google Maps, where people use clues in Google Street View to find out where they have been placed on a map. The poor co-op team ended up having to read the Cyrillic alphabet to work out one location in Russia, but thanks to a great deal of practice, they didn’t go over time. It was quite an unorthodox choice for Stream 1 of a speedrunning event, but it did not disappoint. Stay tuned for the interview at the end!

8. Awful Games, Any%, various

As has become tradition, every speedrunning event needs its terrible games. Aside from Wild Animal Racing and Dog’s Life, to name but a few runs devoted to individual shite games, there was an entire complication of surprise shovelware and student game dev attempts for an assortment of runners to speed through. Runner Heinki was even on hand to provide a small amount of commentary on one of his own university projects, which made a brief appearance in the block. Much of speedrunning is painfully precise and runs can be invalidated with one false move, so more relaxed events like these that encourage viewers to have a good giggle at speedrunning are a welcome change of pace.

9. Final Fantasy IX, Any%, Metako

Speedruns of JRPGs have a bit of a Marmite quality to them: some people think they are incredibly dull and a waste of five to ten hours that they could spend doing something else, while it’s all that other speedrunners occupy themselves with. While I didn’t want to spend hours upon hours in the event space watching one run, when I had other runs to see and people to socialise with, I did sit in on a lot of them for an hour or so. Final Fantasy IX was the one I sat in on the longest (practically the entirety of Part 1), and it made me want to buy the game. I don’t think there’s much higher praise that a viewer can give to a streamer or runner: that the way the streamer played the game and discussed it made the viewer want to experience it for themselves.

I also believe that if you’re going to watch any JRPG speedrun, Final Fantasy IX is not a bad one to start with. Sure, there are shorter options (including a Final Fantasy V GBA run at ESA2018), but Final Fantasy IX is the pinnacle of PS1 performance, so it still looks good today. There are also great story beats that make for fun watching. It’s definitely better to watch as a speedrun than my beloved Persona, which often struggles to get into speedrunning events.

10. Battletoads, Any% (No Wrong Warp, plus blindfold incentive), The Mexican Runner

The first I heard of this run was the very loud cheers coming from the Stream 1 room when TMR completed the blindfold incentive of his run flawlessly. People were talking about this feat for days afterwards, and it really increased excitement for the NES block in the early hours of 28 July.

Alongside Tetris The Grand Master, this was one of the more technically impressive runs shown at the event. While runners are there to entertain, they are also there to show off the fruits of their labour after many gruelling hours of practice, so it’s great to watch runs where that effort has so clearly paid off.

Honourable mentions

  • BK 100% “run”

OK, this one has a bit of a story behind it. French runner Baffan has previously done a 100% Baten Kaitos run, which is quite legendary because it takes two whole weeks. Admittedly, you can leave the game running some of the time and only play eight-hour days, but your machine has to stay on for the entire fourteen days – as well as the recording equipment, of course. Whenever he was asked why he wasn’t doing another 100% BK run at ESA, the answer was: well, the event doesn’t last two weeks.

But that didn’t stop the French speedrunners, who were always up for a good gag. They decided to do a 100% BK run after all…but not quite the one speedrunning fans might have in mind. Instead, sixteen of them hungrily “completed” the entire Burger King meal menu between them, filming their progress and hitting time at just under three and a half hours. Get it on the leaderboards!

  • I Wanna Be The Boshy, Rage mode, BBF

BBF is a runner who does things that are so beyond my comprehension, as a person with incredibly poor reaction times, that I felt his run was worth a mention, even though he wasn’t too happy with it afterwards. Rage mode of I Wanna Be the Boshy removes a huge amount of the save points, which for a game that is like the schoolyard bully that pushes Super Meat Boy around, is absolutely terrifying.

It didn’t quite work out for him on the day – something I strongly identified with, because nerves ate at my reaction times during my own run and caused me to fail a level. It was still an absolutely memorable run; despite having to apply a few cheats to get through the game, he was still playing at such a high level that I was seriously impressed with his skills. And everyone in the audience was rooting for him! There was a real sense of people pulling together and supporting their fellow runners.

I have decided not to link to his run, in case he is still not feeling great about it. I’ve instead linked to his Rage mode leaderboard video, which promises to boggle your mind.

  • Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft, Any %, eidgod

This is a run I only saw as a VOD when I got home, because it was on pretty early. I was scrolling through Twitch to find something I missed that I could put on in the background, and decided to watch this and henyK‘s Bioshock: Infinite run. Both were really interesting, but Tomb Raider III edged it for me because of the nostalgia factor and the fact that the Tomb Raider series lends itself particularly well to runs. Not only that, but the build-up to the donation incentive – Eidgod getting a haircut – had a pretty tense build-up. Some of the incentives were pretty unusual this year, helping to bring in large donations.

  • Mafia

Nope, not the PS2 game, but a group party game that has become part of ESA tradition. I was roped into it early on in the week and had a great time my first night and was…completely lost on my second night. It’s similar to Werewolf, if you’ve ever played that, and involves a group of “mafia” and a group of “citizens” trying to figure out who is who and make sure their group wins by staying alive the longest. Of course, the mind games were intense and people were taking it incredibly seriously. Be prepared for Jedi mind tricks.

  • Our Lord and saviour, the ice-cream machine

We got through a record level of free ice-cream and lots of free popcorn, and it was lovely to watch a stream with a snack in hand. I think we were all very glad to hear we’ll be returning to the same hotel for ESA Summer 2019!

Have you been to a speedrunning event before? Were you watching ESA Summer 2018 at home? If so, which were your favourite runs? Let me know in the comments down below!

Charlotte Cutts
Likes games, loves speedrunning. Ships herself with the PlayStation Vita.