By Neil Merrett
SpeedRunners, released on Nintendo Switch in 2020, developed by TinyBuild Games and DoubleDutch Games
Physics can be a cruel mistress, and not just in an academic sense.
Within the real-world, we spend every day of our lives governed by its principles. It binds us to ground below us and accentuates or limits every action that we take.
Embracing the transgressive thrill of pushing back against and overcoming the forces of gravity, velocity and resistance then, even on a temporary basis, is hardly a new basis for a videogame – especially when it comes to racers.
However, that doesn’t mean that engines are the only effective means of exploring fast-paced thrills.
SpeedRunners, which was initially released as a browser game before being shifted to Steam and consoles, seeks to shake-up the time-old thrill of defeating friends and enemies in a high speed, high risk race by ditching motors and vehicles altogether. The game instead opts to pit two to four players together in a kind of simulated superhuman foot race.
In essence, the game serves as a combination of a modern 2D platform game mixed with competitive multiplayer experience of Mario Kart and the decades old Micro-Machines series of videogames.
The screen boundaries of life and death
Much like Micro Machines, the objective of the game is to retain a deft level of control at high speeds in order to battle or push their way to the edge of the current game screen.
Any player that fails to keep up with the leading player within that screen is eliminated. Once a first player is eliminated the boundaries of the screen increasingly enclose the in-game reaction putting further pressure on the player to memorise their route across a level, or have the reactions or good fortune to avoid stumbling off cliffs or launching themselves into death traps.
Think the innocent childhood contest of who can run the fastest, and then combine this with leaps, death defying grapples and the use of momentum from ramps and pushing oneself off and onto walls.
The concept of SpeedRunners is basically that simple – you run and leap and bounce off walls, hoping to avoid traps and swing yourself at high velocity ahead of your opponents. Failing that, rival players can also be defeated with a range of unlockable weapons in the risk and reward-style of the Super Mario Kart series.
Beyond the basic physical peculiarities of selecting a player character depending on your personal preference – an obese man who lends his name and physicality to a beef burger, a racer with a penchant for dressing as a pink unicorn, a generic superhero type or a sci-fi soul diva – all the characters move with the same abilities.
Success or failure in the game is ultimately down to how the player seeks to use the environment and weapons to grapple, sprint or explode their day ahead of rivals. On any particular run, a race can be run by perfectly timing a homing missile to take down the leader, or using a remote mine to block off the route of your nearest rivals.
Yet poor use of these weapons can prove to equally be a hindrance, such as the case of a mis-timed explosive trap that serves only to propel forward the opposite players with increased velocity.
It is often in these moments where the simple structure of a game comes alive. Take a a last-minute desperate grapple that succeedes in flinging a player directly from defeat back into competition, or some audacious stunt that backfires and sends the player hurling into oblivion as punishment for having held onto a grappling hook for that fraction of a second too long.
Speed running and following instinct
It is the use of the decades-old mechanic of 2D platform games, rather than using a fully realised three-dimensional racetrack, that allows the player to focus on the game’s core mechanics of running, jumping, double-jumping, wall jumping and swinging. As such, following instinct is the key requirement of the player.
For over a decade, gamers have sought to take even the most deeply personal single player games and turn them into a kind of a communal spectator event online or real-world.
Hundreds of thousands if not millions will now happily watch and serve as patrons to strangers that have a particular proficiency at a specific game, particularly in being able to conquer difficult quests in some obscenely short level of time or show some elite-level of ability.
‘Speed running’, as the term has become known, highlights the versatile appeal games can have as entertainment, and the broad new approaches to gameplay that are possible even in from well-trodden and seemingly simplistic genres.
There is a technical thrill that – web connection permitting – four players from around the world can compete in competitive real-time foot races using retro-game mechanics. Old and new gelling perfectly as a fresh game experience.
In recent weeks, the gaming press have begun to be given insights from developers into the likely technical capabilities of a new range of gaming hardware that will potentially hit the mass-market by next year and what the software may play like.
Beyond the graphical flare, there was an example of the potential for players to traverse high definition 3D worlds unencumbered by those basic humdrum laws of the real world.https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js
From a visual level, it is a breath-taking spectacle. But beyond visual appeal, the world is arguably waiting for new forms of gameplay experience that might mimic that sense of being fully in control and smashing through those all too real physical limits.
SpeedRunners uses its stylised, yet toned down two dimensional aesthetic to let players focus on a kind of simulated sense of superhuman reactions where every trip, fall and breath-taking, impossible leap from the jaws of death feels their own.
As we look to the next generation of games, a real technical question for developers will be how AAA 3D worlds might begin to recreate a similar sense of not just performing but flourishing in doing the impossible.