Interview: Speedrunner Golden on AGDQ 2014 Super Metroid Showcase Race

A multi-man showcase race pit four of the best Super Metroid speedrunners in the world against each other at this year’s Awesome Games Done Quick speedrunning marathon and captured the awe of tens of thousands of viewers. A Super Metroid run is a grueling test of technical execution and stamina, as Samus plunges into the depths of Zebes to disrupt the Space Pirates, destroy Mother Brain, and learn the whereabouts of the last Metroid larva stolen by Ridley.

There’s more than meets the eye to a speedrun of any game and at marathons such as AGDQ, there’s the chance for commentary to fill in the gaps. For speedrunner Aaron “Golden” Barnhart, this was a grand opportunity to discuss and explain a Super Metroid run in front of a huge online audience. Nintendo Enthusiast caught up with Golden to find out how it all went down, what the experience was like, and much more.

Breaching the Surface
Just a few minutes into Super Metroid, Samus lands on the surface of Planet Zebes. The overworld is daunting, but it pales in comparison to the labyrinth below the bounty hunter’s feet. Zebes is home to an underground network of corridors, rooms, and hallways, packed with dangerous enemies and obstacles, as well as a few treasures for Samus to collect. With the huge amount of ground to cover, new players may find themselves at a loss.

Super Metroid‘s best players, however, know the planet like the back of their hand. Some can complete the game in under fifty minutes in what’s called an “any percent” run or they may opt for a different kind of route with alternative objectives and requirements. At AGDQ 2014, the showcase race was an “any percent” run. The only objective for our racers Ivan, Zoast, Krauser, and Garrison?

Beat the game.

NE: What is an \’any percent\’ run in Super Metroid?

Golden: \”For people who aren\’t familiar with an \’any percent run\’ of Super Metroid, it just involves beating the game in any way that you can. A lot of people will assume that means you have to do it with as few things as they can, just trying to cut corners everywhere that they possibly can, but really, it just means that you beat the game. So it gives anybody an opportunity to jump in and play. That’s one of the reasons that Super Metroid is a really good introductory game compared to a lot of others. You can jump in, grab a lot of extra items, and kind of giving yourself a safety net to get through the game, and then, as you get more familiar with it, you can start to take away some of that stuff and start to use more complicated tricks.\”

NE: How long have you been speedrunning Super Metroid for?

Golden: \”I started speedrunning Super Metroid at the start of 2012, so I\’ve been playing it for a little over two years now, but on and off. I haven\’t really ever focused on it solely; it’s really just been an extra game for me.\”

NE: Just in those two years you\’ve been playing the game, have you seen any major advances that have completely changed the routes?

Golden: \”Yeah, plenty. If we go back even just a year ago, people were surprised at the idea of being able to beat the game in under fifty minutes. For a long time, it was thought, \’Hey, that’s not possible, there’s no way we could do that,\’ and there were a few runs out there that kind of danced with the idea of cutting fifty minutes, but nobody really thought it was possible. There were just not enough strategies that we could use to do that.\”

An Evolution of a Different Kind
By the time Samus embarks on her mission in Super Metroid, she has already become familiar with the ferocious Metroid, an energy-sucking parasite that became the target of the Space Pirates\’ bioweaponry program. In Super Metroid‘s predecessor, Metroid II: Return of Samus, she learns all about the complex life cycle of the Metroid species, each stage producing a completely new kind of Metroid, like the evolutionary sequence of a Pokemon.

For Super Metroid speedrunning routes, they have experienced a different kind of evolution. Speedrunners wasted little time in trimming the fat of their runs, making new discoveries and creating new strategies to complete rooms they\’ve traversed over and over again in the name of optimization.

Golden: \”It’s just been a lot of hard work from a lot of people, finding new ways to do boss fights or room strategies to move through just a little bit faster. I mean, even a year ago, people were doing things like grabbing spazer, which gives your beam a little bit wider of a shot. They were grabbing that as a common item, thinking, \’There’s no reason to skip this, it’s so useful, we can use it to hit enemies a lot easier, why would you ever want to skip that?\’

\”Well, it turns out if you don\’t grab it — and it’s not too a big a deal — you end up saving twenty or thirty seconds just by leaving it alone. It’s a lot of people questioning what’s already out there, saying, \’What can we get away with?\’, \’Can we wait a little bit longer to grab an energy tank if it means we save a little bit a time, because it’s in one of the rooms we are already going into?\’ Stuff like that.\”

Twenty or thirty seconds may not seem like a lot of time, but for a speedrunner, every second is crucial. A big miss on a critical skip or trick could result in a major loss of time and, in turn, the player resetting to start all over again. Super Metroid speedrunners are known to utilize “arm pumping,” which involves pressing the shoulder buttons to make Samus look diagonally up and down while running. Doing so advances Samus one pixel farther for every arm pump as opposed to not arm pumping at all. This may only add up to a few seconds gained at the end of the run.

Seems insignificant? The first and second place AGDQ 2014 Super Metroid runners finished with a separation of less than a second. Yes, every frame counts.

Golden: \”The most recent thing I think that’s been found is the big metroid skip you see at the very end of the run.\”

NE: Krauser was the only one who got it, right?

Golden: \”Yeah, actually, that was one of my favorite moments of the run. It’s not often that the third place guy provides the most exciting moment of the race, so I thought that was really cool for Krauser that he was able to pull off the big metroid skip being in third place. It was one of the those moments where we were already talking about the other runners because they are competing for first and second, and he suddenly put an immense amount of pressure on us because they both miss it and then, he’s gotta come up on it because the crowd is already riled up because the first two guys, Ivan and Zoast, missed it. And then, he pulled through and got it and pretty much put himself back in the race because of it.

\”That’s the newest tech in the game — that I know of, anyway — and that was one of those things that came about just by people saying, \’We really need a way to do this.\’ Which is cool about Super Metroid. A lot of games have, \’We really need to do this,\’ and then, they find a way to do it. But with Super Metroid, it seems to meet that a lot more often than other games. People were saying, \’Yeah we really need a way to skip this big metroid\’ and with enough practice and trying, they were able to do it.\”

NE: We saw these top players using exploits like \’Ocean Fly\’ and \’Fast Pillars.\’ Is it common to see these players get almost every single trick down and perform these tricks, at least to an outside viewer, so well?

Golden: “It really depends on the trick. Some are much easier to do than others, but to get everything in one run is just insane. The small amount of frames that you get for each trick that add up over the course of the run, to hit everything is really impressive. It’s a game of percentages, but the good thing about it is that, at least at a beginner’s level, there’s a huge amount of time when you\’re starting out that none of the randomness matters in the game because you can beat any run with better execution. But it really sucks when you\’re at the top of the game because you need the really good execution and the good luck to cooperate.

As much as Super Metroid rewards players for their finely-tuned technical capacity, the game involves a lot of randomness, from enemy positions to resource drops to boss patterns. For example, boss Phantoon has six movement patterns that are selected at random. Get a fast pattern and you\’re on your way to a faster time, but get stuck with a slow pattern and you may find yourself losing precious seconds towards a personal best.

Golden: “At this point, if you want to have a world record run in Super Metroid, you have to have a fast Phantoon or you have to reset. So it sucks for being someone trying for that because, at no fault of your own, you lose twenty minutes.

Enemy Metroids Destroyed Quickly
This year’s race was not Super Metroid‘s first Games Done Quick marathon — the Super Nintendo title is a familiar pick for speedrun line-ups. In most cases, Super Metroid is run by one person. Nobody anticipated involving another three racers.

NE: Considering Super Metroid is such a game of inches — and luck, too — but also, that anybody can die at any moment, just the nature of a four-man showcase race, was that always the plan to do the race at AGDQ?

Golden: “Yeah, that was a big concern for us. Typically, Super Metroid had always been presented at GDQs with one player playing and a couch doing standard commentary. And we felt we were really fortunate with AGDQ this time around to have four of the best players attending. So it was initially pitched to be a one-person showcase of the game. And then Sinister1 actually approached me and said, \’Hey wait a minute, we have an opportunity here and we should try to convince Mike and some of the other guys that are running AGDQ. Let’s see if we can try to make this a four-way race.\’

Golden teamed up with fellow speedrunner Sinister1 for the official commentary of the showcase race.

Golden: “And I think we were a little bit surprised, at least logistically, how it ended up working out. Because, well, our biggest fear is that speedrunning is not eSports and so, you can\’t have that same eSports attitude about how you present it. I can\’t scream into the mic when somebody gets the Kraid quick kill — that’s just distracting to the runners. We\’re in the same room as them when we\’re commentating. So we had to balance our excitement with being able to relay what was happening.

\”That’s the other thing, too: when you\’re watching Starcraft or League of Legends, it’s very obvious when someone is winning or losing. It’s very obvious that someone has more units or \’Oh, this guy is dead, I can see that on my screen,\’ but Super Metroid is a game of numbers. Being able to be the people that could translate that to the audience was really cool and was something I was really excited about. I\’ve always wanted to do play-by-play commentary and I thought that was a great opportunity in such a unique game, to present it in such a way that people who\’ve never seen Super Metroid could maybe appreciate it.

NE: You guys can give a different kind of insight because you know what’s coming next. Having that preparation is key. And you mention doing commentary with Sinister1 — did you guys do a lot of preparation going into the event or do you guys just play so much that it just comes as second nature?

Golden: “Predictability was a big bonus. Just being able to know what to expect is helpful; it keeps us on track. We definitely did some prep before the event just to try it out and make sure that we had good banter and back-and-forth. We didn\’t want to go into it being completely unprepared for how we were going to talk. We kinda wanted to be able to bounce off one another and make sure that, when one of us had something to say, we weren\’t interrupting the other.

\”We also worked on not being too noisy. We knew going into it that we\’d be in the same room in all likelihood. We actually thought we\’d be sitting right behind the guys while they were racing. We were fortunate enough to be isolated — they actually put us back with the rest of the spectators in the projector area of the room, so at least we had a little bit of distance so we could explain things without distracting them too much.

The Next Mission
Golden: \”It’s unique. I don\’t think it’s something that could work every week. You know, we couldn\’t just show Super Metroid races and explain every trick every week and people have noted that. But I think that’s something other games could take away from us. You don\’t always need to assume people know everything about the game. And there are people out there who want to know more and they are asking those questions and they\’d like to know or \’Could you guide me through this a little bit?\’

\”So I\’m hoping other games kind of maybe learn something or commentators of those games keeping in mind the new player while accommodating the veteran that already knows what’s happening on the screen. I mean, even professional sports will break down plays after they happen, and I think that’s incredibly useful for someone who’s just starting out. So that was our goal. Our game-plan was to make sure we explained the important parts before they got there and just told you the basic information, so that you could process what happened and say, \’Hey, that turned out really well for that player\’ or \’Well, he’s a behind as a result.\’\”

NE: Have you seen an increase of streamers or even viewers on your channel since AGDQ?

Golden: In the community, yes; as for me personally, not so much, but I did take a bit of a break after ADGQ, so I wasn\’t streaming minutes after the marathon. But it’s not uncommon for somebody to have a great run at one of these marathons and suddenly see a large increase in viewership. Sinister1 actually had that with his Punch-Out!!! run. He did a blindfolded Punch-Out!!! run and that was well-received and his viewer count has been up ever since. But yeah, I think the Super Metroid community is sort of booming after that marathon. A lot of new players have been showing up and learning any percent.

\”The Friday night races that we\’ve been doing, we\’ve been doing those for a few years, and last year, they were kind of hitting their peak of thirty to forty people in the race. As we got closer and closer to AGDQ, those races just started diminishing and it looked liked they might even go away. At one point, we were sitting at like, six or seven people for our Friday night race. After AGDQ, we\’re back up to those big numbers, we\’re at thirty to forty people racing again. We got lots of new players, lots of players who used to play got interested in the game again, and I think that race had a lot to do with it.

NE: How can people get involved in speedrunning? How can they get new information or even just get into Super Metroid from just learning the game to optimizing the routes?

Golden: “First of all, no matter what game you\’re interested in running, watch people who already run it and don\’t assume you have to do everything they\’re doing. Take away big concepts from what they\’re doing, so look at the large picture of somebody’s run. What do they do consistently throughout the run that’s something you could incorporate into your run? And then, maybe pick apart the little things. Find a room that you see somebody doing well and tell yourself you\’re going to learn to do that.

\”As far as actually learning Super Metroid goes, there are two tutorials out there. There’s the one that I did a couple years ago that’s really outdated now, but it’s catered toward brand-new players that just want to be able to play the game for the first time. Then, there’s a very in-depth tutorial from Zoast, which goes through all the most recent strategies. And, if you put all the pieces together from that tutorial, then you yourself could be competing for the record, too.

\”It boils down to having a drive to want to play it. You have to like the game. With Super Metroid, you have a lot of people for the first time playing the game now as a result of seeing it at the marathon, but I don\’t think you have to play a game you don\’t like just because everybody else is playing it. Play something you like. Find something you like because you\’ll be playing it a lot if you speedrun it. So you have to like it enough so you can sit through it.

 \”Super Metroid is a game, like you mentioned earlier, where anyone can lose. It’s a tough game. If you\’re sleeping at any point of the run, you can get knocked out by something you weren\’t expecting. It’s a tough game but it’s still a lot of fun.\”

Golden plays Super Metroid, as well as a plethora of other games, over at his official channel. He frequently updates his Twitter and YouTube accounts, too. For players interested in learning the ins and outs of the game, check out SpeedRunsLive, which features a Super Metroid IRC channel. Look for the channel “#supermetroid.”

You can also get involved in the weekly Super Metroid races ran on Friday nights at 11pm EST. Streamers like Golden usually broadcast themselves participating in the race.

Finally, and most importantly, be sure to check out the AGDQ 2014 Super Metroid showcase race, featuring Golden and Sinister1 on commentary, if you haven\’t already.

Dakota Lasky