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One Speedrunner's Journey Through Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Leading up to the release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nintendo urged long-time fans to forget everything they knew about the franchise. No more bending brains in temples to solve puzzles and slay bosses. No more waiting until the end of the game to find light arrows and plant one right between Ganon's piggy eyes. Breath of the Wild's directors slaughtered sacred cuccos and promised a Zelda able to adapt to any play style.

Gymnast86, a member of the Zelda speedrunning community, has only one style: as fast as possible. You can check out his regular attempts to shave seconds off his time through his Twitch page.

"In speedrunning, the general goal is to complete the game as fast as possible using any of the game's mechanics, whether they are intended or not," he told me. "Previous 3D Zelda entries usually bar you from attempting to fight the final boss from a very early point in the game, which usually leads to players figuring out how to either skip these usual requirements or figure out the fastest way to achieve the prerequisites necessary to access the final boss. However, with breath of the Wild, we didn't really have to do that as we can simply waltz into the final fight whenever we want."

Like desert thieves drawn to the Triforce of Power, Zelda perpetually attracts new players to the challenge of zipping through its fields and temples in record time. Gymnast is a relative newcomer. In 2013 a friend stumbled upon speedrun videos by Narcissa "Narcisaawright" Wright, one of Hyrule's most popular speedsters famous for blazing trails through the GameCube version of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

"He suggested that we try and speedrun ourselves, and from there we found SpeedRunsLive and began to participate in frequent Wind Waker races against other players," Gymnast remembered. "I personally love to speedrun 3D games in the Legend of Zelda franchise, and have done decent runs on most of those entries."

Gymnast's has two claims to fame at present. The first, bestowed upon him this past February, was finishing 2011's Zelda: Skyward Sword in just shy of five hours, a world record. He earned his second accolade this past Monday, March 13, when he careened through Breath of the Wild in less than one hour—clocking in at 58:01.

It didn't take long for others to hone in. Orcastraw, another Breath of the Wild speedrunner, held second place with a time of 58:06. Not to be outdone, Gymnast shaved off four minutes and change and holds the world record at 53:13 as of this writing.

Gymnast will keep practicing until he's able to routinely beat his own times by milliseconds instead of minutes. "Breath of the Wild is still an extremely new release. In the beginning, my goal—with any game, really—is to just complete as many runs as possible until I'm comfortable and don't hesitate when going through any quick or intense sequences."

The open-ended nature of Breath of the Wild accommodates his and the community's desire to determine the most optimal route. The game permits up to six save files. Gymnast takes advantage by splitting practice runs into different segments such as the Great Plateau, where Link's quest begins; solving early shrines to attain runes; and assaulting on Hyrule Castle, where Calamity Ganon waits for the Hylian Champion to come at him.

Link's path to his confrontation is flexible. "Due to the ability to climb walls in Breath of the Wild, there are a lot of potential ways in which one can go about finishing the Great Plateau and going through Hyrule Castle," Gymnast said. "Just yesterday [Sunday, March 12], fellow BotW speedrunner Venick and I figured out a new path through Hyrule Castle that collects a few less items and instead creates some mighty elixirs to finish off the final bosses quicker than we were previously able to."

That faster but more dangerous route was what spurred Venick on to a 54:05 completion time, knocking Gymnast from his perch. Hours later, Gymnast sanded down rough edges and landed his 53:13 standing. "This process of figuring out more efficient paths through sections of the game will likely continue in the following weeks, along with the usual practice section I do," he said.

Many speedrunners wrestle with what they refer to as RNG, or random-number generation—a game's tendency to shake things up in unforeseen ways, such as getting a tough attack pattern from a boss that can add precious seconds to the clock. Like its developer's namesake, Breath of the Wild leaves luck to heaven and relies solely on player aptitude.

Almost solely.

"Perhaps the most annoying part of the run is attempting to get a wild horse to cooperate and run in a straight line to Hyrule Castle," Gymnast admitted. "The wild horses like to swerve randomly and sometimes won't obey you when trying to dash periodically. This can be problematic sometimes if a mobile guardian notices Link and the horse decides to either randomly stop or swerve into the guardian, which never ends well."

Environmental hazards such as extreme cold are less of a threat. "The only in-game environmental issue we currently face is having to run through Mt. Hylia on the Great Plateau," explained Gymnast, "which gradually takes hearts away from Link because of the chilly temperature. This is easily overcome however with simply eating a little bit of food before and after entering the Cryonis Trial."

Every second counts, so much so that Gymnast doesn't even stop to dress Link in the simple tunic and trousers found in the Shrine of Resurrection starting area. That leaves him defenseless against threats like guardians and Calamity Ganon. Fortunately he's come up with a foolproof workaround: don't get hit.

"Most of the attacks enemies attempt to make in this game are predictable enough so that not getting hit is easy for the most part," Gymnast said.

To date, Gymnast struggles more with precipitous ledges than he does Moblins or guardians. In his 53-minute run, he made one tiny slipup and paid for it by plummeting off the side of the Great Plateau. "It's a pretty dumb mistake to make," he admitted, "but I continued my run as I knew I could still beat my previous time of 58:01 even with the 30 seconds of time loss. So hopefully I can get a run in the near future which doesn't make big mistakes like that one."

As speedrunners learn a game's ins and outs, tricks of the trade materialize—glitches, exploits, and strategies that make short work of once-daunting areas. "Whistle sprinting is a technique that allows us to run at nearly sprinting speed without using any stamina at all," Gymnast explained.

Whistle sprinting involves holding down on the d-pad to whistle while tapping B to sprint. Holding B and d-pad down won't work; the game seems to prioritize sprint, and drains Link's stamina. If executed properly, whistle sprinting lets players sprint with negligible impact to their stamina meter. "Whistle sprinting isn't quite as fast as regular sprinting, though," said Gymnast, "so the ideal technique is to sprint until the stamina meter is nearly depleted, and then whistle sprint while it fills back up."

Amiibos affect gameplay in other ways. Every Zelda-themed toy drops supplies and gear into the player's game. The Smash Bros.-style Link warps in Epona, the hero's faithful steed since Ocarina of Time and the tamest yet fastest horse in Breath of the Wild. Gymnast opts out of using Epona, but only out of personal preference. An Amiibo's boon can only be used once every 24 hours, and he'd rather grow reliant on proven methods that work independently of external sources.

To his surprise, many speedrunners recoiled at Orcastraw's use of Amiibo during her speedrun. "Amiibo have always been used in speedruns of Twilight Princess HD, and speedruns of Wind Waker have always utilized the Tingle Tuner ability to buy things such as health and magic potions while in places where there may be none," said Gymnast, referring to the option to link a Game Boy Advance to the GameCube while playing Wind Waker. "I had never heard anybody complaining about the rules for these other games, so I was surprised to see the amount of resistance that happened with Amiibo usage for Breath of the Wild."

No Amiibo—and as of yet, no exploit—can save speedrunners from the toughest part of any Breath of the Wild world-record attempt.

"The hardest part of any run of the Any% category will most likely always the Calamity Ganon fight," said Gymnast. "Currently there is nobody who is very consistent with Calamity Ganon at all; all of us runners die more than half the time when facing him, and if that happens we usually reset the timer and start again from the beginning."

Link's fight to the death against Calamity Ganon is compounded by the fact that Nintendo anticipated many players skipping the four main bosses to go directly to Ganon. While the shortcut is permitted, the consequence is having to face all four Divine Beasts in succession. Only then will Calamity Ganon step up.

Still, Gymnast enjoys the challenge. "When comparing the different parts of the run to each other, the most fun I have is definitely fighting Calamity Ganon. It's a very intense fight that gets your heart pounding with all of the flurries and laser deflects that are required to finish the boss as fast as possible, and it feels very rewarding once you finish the endeavor."

Gymnast fully expects Venick, Orcastraw, and other runners to close the gap. That's the nature of the beast, especially for newer titles. World records pendulum between top runners, their momentum occasionally interrupted by new blood. He welcomes other speedrunners pushing him to improve.

"Players who have been in the community for a long time know that speedrunning at its core isn't about the individual player; it's about everybody in the community pushing a game to its limits. Every time somebody sets a new record in a game, what you see is the collective effort of everybody who is involved with speedrunning that game and the unique ways in which they've all contributed."

In an industry where publishers routinely lock even the most innocuous and banal information behind embargoes, the air of collaboration and unity among Breath of the Wild's speedrunners is refreshing. They realize that coveting tips and tricks hurts themselves more than their perceived competition.

"Publicly sharing the techniques we find allows all of us to improve our times, and it allows others to mess with new discoveries who may find different applications not previously thought of," Gymnast explained. "I guess as a comparison, it makes speedrunning feel more like a group of friends all playing a board game together rather than some sort of long intense competition, and I really like it."

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