From foot races to competitive cooking, there's just something inherently intriguing about watching experts perform everyday activities much faster than you ever thought imaginable. Thanks to the incipient popularity of boisterous events like Awesome Games Done Quick, many gamers around the world have taken up the mantle of speedrunning, applying the exacting shadow of a ticking stopwatch to their favourite games. But while droves of players young and old flow through the virtual turnstiles of Twitch to watch noted runners take shot after shot at famous events, like Ocarina of Time "any percent," or collecting all 120 stars in Super Mario 64, some smaller runners are carrying the brutal second-by-second logic of the perfect run into games that do little to encourage such a competitive atmosphere.
After all, just ask "Zoekay," a speedrunner who currently holds the world record for paying off all the house upgrades in the original Animal Crossing, the charming, colourful life-simulation game for the Nintendo GameCube. While most players take dozens of hours to climb their way out of the capitalist scoundrel Tom Nook's exploitative scheme, through a combination of fortuitous random rolls, optimised movement, and a literal cheat code, Zoekay managed it in just 36 minutes - a feat that would make my tween-aged self mad with envy. As a devoted fan of the series, the irony of making a pitted contest out of an ostensibly-relaxing life-simulation game isn't lost on this runner. In fact, to them, it's an accidental but beneficent side-effect that contributes to Animal Crossing's standing as a runnable game.
"What makes Animal Crossing different from other speedgames is there's no true goal," Zoekay tells Eurogamer. "The story or object of most games translates into the goal of speedruns. In Super Mario 64, it's to collect the stars, defeat Bowser, and rescue the princess. But with Animal Crossing, you hop off a train, move into a house, and then just do whatever you want. The game doesn't tell you what you need to be doing. This leads us to be creative with our speedrun categories, which makes Animal Crossing a much more dynamic speedgame."
This latent creativity is reflected in the game's page on Speedrun.net. While many popular games only have three or four categories - usually "any percent" and its equivalent to 100 per cent, as demonstrated by the gussied-up Spyro from last month - Animal Crossing boasts a half-dozen or so, each with its own slate of contenders. But, as multi-category champ "Coldeggman" points out, as with many small scenes, there's a lot of overlap. Both he and Zoekay identify a common origin point for their interest in racing through Animal Crossing: an "All Debts" run completed at Awesome Games Done Quick 2015 by a runner known as Forstride. As Coldeggman puts it, the scene "exploded" after that.
Though it isn't necessarily surprising both runners profess themselves as mega-fans of the franchise, it's fair to say those who throw themselves into this odd breach again and again require even more patience than you would think. As a form of expressive play that usually breaks from the game's intended path, the experience of speedrunning a game like Animal Crossing boils down to a series of design decisions the creators of the game didn't even know they were making. The result of those decisions can lead runners in strange directions, sometimes forcing them to master neglected subsystems, or even glitches that essentially break the game in just the right way.
Despite its age, the original Animal Crossing has the most bustling speed scene in the series, not for its deft design, but because its plethora of glitches means players can bust it open far quicker than its more popular entries. Even still, since Animal Crossing relies heavily on randomised content to deliver the player a unique experience, speedrunners are forced to grapple with a factor they can't control: the dreaded RNG. Every run of the game begins with around a quarter of an hour's worth of tedious chores assigned to the player by Tom Nook, like meeting all of the town's various animal villagers, or planting flowers around his rat-trap of a shop. As Coldeggman tells it, the location of the post office and Nook's shop are crucial to the success of an "All Debts" run, a category where Zoekay holds the world record.
"If there's a river running between the two, you might as well reset," he says, laughing. "You can't really come back from that."
As part of the game's marketing plan, Nintendo included a function in the GameCube incarnation where players could enter codes from real-life advertisements in order to get furniture and other goods in the game. While later games in the series ditched this feature, it forms the core strategy of the "All Debts" category. Players run through Nook's litany of chores as fast as possible, punch in a code to spawn a special reward item worth a heap of Bells called the "Autumn Medal," and then duplicate the medals with a glitch that has a fair resemblance to a broken conveyor belt. After spawning just enough medals to pay off one of of Nook's debt checkpoints at the post office, they head back to their upgraded house and do it again and again. Though some might appreciate how little All Debts relies on pure chance, the world record holder says it's actually their least favourite category.
Instead, Zoekay prefers Golden Net, where the runner must catch every bug in the game as fast as they can. While the spawning locations of said bugs rely almost entirely on Fortuna's wheel, Zoekay says that's what makes Animal Crossing fun to run. "Everything about the game just makes speedrunning more difficult," they say. "It's a very relaxed speedgame, and anyone can do it. The randomness in each run keeps things interesting, but it's a double-edged sword. You are at the mercy of the game, so eventually you lose interest in continuing if bad RNG keeps ending your runs. But if luck is on your side, you get hyped because there's always a chance you can [get the] world record.
"Any run can do it. In one of my runs, I remember being minutes behind my best time, and it ended up being the world record because I caught a bug early and skipped a segment."
While that randomness can entice runners with the "just-one-more-try" pull fans of Destiny and other loot-heavy games know well, if a player's luck is good enough, it can also preclude future runs. Currently, Coldeggman holds the only record for completely filling out the town's museum, which requires players to dig up fossils and buy paintings from Tom Nook, processes more or less dependant on the game's whims. "There were a couple of people who tried to do it before, but they gave up 20 hours in. I said, 'I can probably stay up for a while, I think I can do it in 20-plus hours.' Somehow, I got really lucky, and I did it in 15. That RNG was so good, I think that's why nobody else has tried it. It's too daunting."
With a Switch entry in the series forthcoming, the community is hoping for a more run-friendly take on things. But while the other games in the series might seem unapproachable, it doesn't stop these fans from trying - a testament to their love of the series. "I still want to get my Golden Net world record back," says Zoekay. "But I'm also interested in getting a time for Golden Net in City Folk. Nobody has completed a run of it yet, but a few of the runners have come close. The community got together and did a race of it, and we made it to the 11 hour mark with four bugs left. It's insane."