My Speedrunning Journey with Demon Turf

Games Features Demon Turf
My Speedrunning Journey with Demon Turf

On February 21, developer Fabraz announced a brand new expansion to their game Demon Turf called Tower, an uninterrupted 50-floor gauntlet of platforming pain. Along with it, they put forth an intriguing challenge: a speedrunning competition, $500 for whoever could climb the tower fastest within the first month of the expansion’s release on March 6. 

After reading the news on Twitter, I looked up from my phone and thought for a minute. Do I really have even the slightest chance of hitting that goal? Eh, probably not, but hell if I’m not gonna try.

It’s interesting, because just a year before this point, I wouldn’t have even begun to consider myself as someone who could speedrun. I had been interested in the hobby for years, checking out speedruns of most of my favorite games, watching Summoning Salt’s excellent retrospectives, and following the record progressions of some top runners for my favorites. I even casually tried my hand at using some speedrun techniques when replaying games I was already very familiar with (doing this I managed to beat Xenoblade Chronicles 2 in a “blazing fast” 10 hours, which, to be fair, is still about 1/9th of the time it took me to beat it on first playthrough), but I never took that very seriously. Despite my love for them, I was pretty bad at most games, or at least I thought I was, and the realm of skill the runners I watched operate in seemed to be at a completely different level from anything I was capable of.

That was especially true for my favorite games to watch be speedrun: Super Mario Sunshine, Super Mario Odyssey, and the legendary Super Mario 64. This pseudo-trilogy of movement-focused collectathons always seemed like the perfect games for speed-based mastery, as their tight movement systems offer an incredible wealth of options to perform impressively tricky maneuvers and their open-ended structures just beg to be combed for optimized routing. Super Mario 64 in particular has a reputation as one of the most popular and most insanely optimized speed games of all time—tons of incredibly skilled people have poured their hearts and souls into absolutely eviscerating this game, taking advantage of every single line of code, every single inch of level, every single mechanical quirk to beat it in almost unbelievably fast times, with some techniques being so difficult people briefly wondered if they were even possible to perform without tool assistance. Seriously, if you’ve somehow never watched someone speedrun one of these games, please check some out; they’re a joy to behold.

With these games as my main point of reference for speedrunning mastery, it’s easy to see why I might’ve perceived an unbridgeable skill gap between me and speedrunning at all. I mean, the runs I watched were from top players who had the time and dedication to put thousands of hours into perfecting almost superhuman performance. I got tilted from getting stuck for too long on some of Super Mario Sunshine’s secret stages—and honestly, they aren’t really even that hard. Clearly, I was not built to speedrun.

That all started to change last year when I discovered Demon Turf. As with many of the more obscure gems I’ve had the pleasure of encountering, I learned about this one from a review by YouTuber and platformer connoisseur Nitro Rad. The game instantly intrigued me, as it looked like it was going for the same sort of thing as those Mario games I listed earlier—a challenging platforming experience that gives you a wide and varied moveset with tons of room for mastery and encourages you to use it in creative ways to carve your own path through levels. With this type of design being pretty rare outside of Mario, I knew I had to check this out.

I started playing Demon Turf pretty quickly after I saw Nitro Rad’s review, and while I’d like to say I instantly fell in love, it actually took a little while for things to click. On my first casual playthrough of the game, I enjoyed it, but nothing really more than that. The movement was really fun and satisfying to get better at, but its approach to level design wasn’t really doing it for me at first. When I played a game like Super Mario Odyssey, my main incentive to try cool movement tricks was to explore, to get to out-of-the-way places in elaborate ways and look for secrets, so for Demon Turf, which has more linear levels, I didn’t initially see the point in experimenting.

But that all changed when, on a whim, I decided to start going for trophy times. Every level in Demon Turf has a trophy which can be earned by beating the level under a set time. The time limits aren’t super strict, and they give you some wiggle room to mess up, but they’re just short enough that you really need to learn the movement and put it to effective use to clear them. This is just a tiny incentive, but as I’ve previously talked about in relation to Sonic’s ranking systems, even the smallest external motivators like this can be extremely potent at encouraging mastery. Suddenly, once I started going for speed, everything just clicked. Demon Turf has a truly excellent speedrunning moveset, with easily its most shining feature being the super jump, an incredibly fast but hard to steer forward launch that can chain into itself by bouncing at the end of its arc. The super jump is one of those moves, the ones that feel so good to use that you’ll occasionally find yourself just running around the hub worlds doing nothing in particular just to vibe while pulling off the satisfying input, and it forms the backbone of speedy play in Demon Turf, pulling off precise yet efficient chains to hurtle yourself through its levels at mach speed.

I had so much fun playing through the levels faster that eventually I didn’t just stop at the trophy times. I had to keep going, keep shaving seconds, keep inching my way further up the in-game leaderboards. Like magic, this speedrunning thing I had been observing from afar for years, which I assumed wasn’t for me, suddenly made perfect sense, and felt like something I’d wanted to do all along. And through all of this, I kept a close eye on the leaderboards of the levels I played through. As a smaller indie game, Demon Turf does not have a very large player base, meaning the barrier to entry into the higher leaderboard placements is much more feasible than similar more popular games. I started to enter double-digit rankings, and the numbers got lower, and lower, and lower, until eventually I cracked the top 10 on one of the game’s early levels. And wow, let me tell you, the feeling of seeing that is like a drug, knowing that through your hard work and skill you earned a time better than all but a small handful of people who’ve tried it in the entire world. After that moment, I knew that speedrunning was for me.

Demon Turf had unlocked something in me—I now had speed on the brain when I booted up almost any game. And then I heard about Fabraz’s speedrunning competition. This was it. This was my chance to put the skills I’d been developing, the mindset I’d been growing into, to use, and to prove to myself that I could be really good at a game like this. Plus, I mean, come on, that cash prize was more than a little alluring for a then-unemployed college student. I knew I had to try.

So I started practicing. In the two weeks before Tower’s release, Demon Turf was pretty much all I played, grinding faster and faster times on the levels in the base game and its expansion Neon Splash. I learned a ton of great new strategies and techniques from watching speedruns of the game uploaded online, especially by the incredibly talented NitroBW. Not all of the things I learned returned in Tower, including the tricky midair wheel bounce, but I’m glad I took the time to learn anyway as it allowed me to score a bunch of new records in the base game (I’m still ranked top seven in nearly all of the first trip levels in Apocadesert, the game’s first world, because of this). 

Before I knew it the release date for Tower had arrived, one week before the start of my semester’s spring break. It was time to get on the grind.

There were three prize categories for the competition: first clear, Any%, and Hex%. Speed demons Valyssa0 and NitroBW had already managed to get both first and second clear before I even sat down to play the game, so I set my sights on the Any% category. Again, I knew my chances of actually placing in the top two spots for the competition was unlikely, but I would be damned if I wasn’t gonna do my best.

However, things did not go very well at first. Demon Turf Tower takes the movement system of the original game and applies it to what the developers describe as a “roguelite” structure. The game consists of one very long, very difficult level, a huge tower with 50 floors that you have to complete contiguously, with absolutely no deaths. To make things even more punishing, each “floor” isn’t actually a full floor; they’re filled with empty space that you can fall down through and onto lower levels, leading to some points where, if you’re not careful, a mistimed jump could send you hurtling downward and losing a sizable chunk of progress. And to top it all off, you’ve been hexed by an evil jester, locking you out of all of your moveset except for the basic jump and forcing you to re-unlock it all piece by piece as you make progress up the tower. Thankfully, the Any% category lets you use your whole moveset, but you still have to unlock it first. Tower is much, much more difficult than anything in the original game, and despite it being advertised as such, I think I still wasn’t fully prepared for how much of a challenge it would be to even beat in the first place, let alone speedrun.

How do you make a game challenging again for someone who’s spent a while mastering its toolset? You take those tools away. The early game of Tower really made me realize how dependent I had become on fancier maneuvers, as when stripped down to basics, I had a lot of trouble. It took me multiple days of attempts before I could even clear the first section of the tower up to floor 20, and it only got even harder from there. It was pretty demoralizing at first—I had been going into this game with the intention to speedrun, and now I couldn’t even beat it? Maybe I really was in way over my head. Maybe I was wasting my time.

But then, ever so slowly, I kept improving. A big turning point was unlocking the bird dash power, a returning ability from the base game reworked for Tower in a super cool way. What was previously a slow glide is now a slick diagonal-upward launch. Like the super jump, this is another one of those moves; it feels insanely good to use—fast, frantic, and just unwieldy enough to make it satisfying to get the hang of—and with Tower’s more vertical nature, it even somewhat supersedes the super jump as the core move of the run. One of the best parts of learning it is the cool element of risk and reward that it comes with. If used while grounded, you can do a midair high jump out of it, but if you use it in midair, you fully commit to its arc with no midair control, meaning you have to be totally sure of its trajectory or else it’ll just send you hurtling away out of control. That constant tantalizing option, wondering whether it might be worth the risk, added a dynamic texture to my runs and kept me invested in coming back again and again, even as I continued to fail.

And then, finally, after just shy of a week of attempts, I cleared the Tower for the first time. I was ecstatic. But this was just the beginning—my time had clocked in at just over an hour, and the top few spots were circling around… 10 minutes. I had a lot of work to do.

Fortunately it was spring break and I had a lot of time on my hands. At first, learning the run was exhilarating—each attempt would be a significant timesave as I learned the tower’s layout more and more, growing more accustomed to its ins and outs, burning its full layout into my brain. Along the way, I consulted the speedruns of frontrunners Webbinmaine and Kaloncpu57, both of whom graciously uploaded their best runs to as they got them. During this time, I really grew to appreciate the team effort of speedrunning—Tower was brand new, and so many different people were trying to crack it at once, learning new strategies, trying new routes, finding exploits, and so on. And with players like Webbinmaine and Kaloncpu57 showing off their new strategies as they found them, it made it possible even for me, someone who felt a bit too shy at the time to be active in the Demon Turf Discord server, to keep up to date with that collaborative process and keep learning and improving as I went along. I cut my time down to 40 minutes, 30 minutes, 25 minutes, lower and lower and lower. I was on a roll, and man it felt good, especially after how much of a struggle it had been to even get a clear in the first place. I felt like I had gotten back in the groove, like I had what it takes to run this game like a champ.

But then, things started to slow down. Recognizing that the top two slots required for the cash prize might be a bit out of reach, I had decided to set a more reasonable personal goal: top six, chosen because that’s how many positions are shown by default when you pull up the in-game leaderboard. And it looked within reach: I had cracked the top 10, and I was still improving. But then, gradually, the improvements started to slow. Minutes shaved turned to seconds, seconds shaved turned to runs on par, or even slower than my personal best. I felt like I had hit a wall right at the 18 minute mark—I had gotten within a few seconds of it early over spring break, but after daily attempts for over a week afterward, I still hadn’t been able to clear it. And that was a problem, because to get into the top six, I’d need a time of significantly less than that. So I kept throwing myself at the run, over and over and over again, every time clocking in around the 18-25 minute range. It started to feel like every run was basically the same, other than the ones I really screwed up. And with the competition deadline looming, even though I knew my new goal wasn’t bound by it, I still felt the fear of the ever-approaching failure to meet my own mark by the time I had planned to do it. I started to get more frustrated with the game—little screw-ups on my end became big deals, and as days passed with no improvement, I started to feel like I had hit a wall with my own skill that I could never pass. I was never going to make it onto the front-page leaderboard.

But then, just a few days before the end date on April 3, it happened. I wish I had it on video, but unfortunately I had stopped recording my runs because my computer really started to chug while running both the game and Twitch Studio at the same time. It started off as a normal run, but something was different. All of the areas where I often messed up and lost a bit of time, I cleared. I tried a couple risky strategies and pulled them off successfully. I was moving fast. Really fast. And then, at some point in the last 15 floors, I realized: this could be the one. My nerves were off the charts, but I did everything I could to keep my cool and just keep playing the route like I knew how. And then I hit the top of the tower and got out… in 16 and 31 seconds. I got the one thing every speedrunner hopes for: The Run, an attempt where all the stars aligned and I executed better than I ever had before, and set a new personal best—not just sub 18, but a full minute and a half faster than my prior record. Trepidatiously, just to make sure it was real, I walked towards the in-game leaderboard port and turned it on.

Sixth place.

I hope my neighbors weren’t too bugged by how hard I popped off that night.
I’m not just here to flex what is easily my proudest accomplishment in videogames. I do really love Demon Turf and want to give the game, and its many talented speedrunners who I looked up to throughout this process, including Nitro, Valyssa, Webbinmaine, and Kaloncpu, the shout-out they deserve. And above all, I want this story to encourage anyone out there with an interest in speedrunning. Try it! For years, I never let myself put in the effort to speedrun because I just assumed I wouldn’t be good enough, exclusively comparing myself to the best of the best in some of the hardest games to master. But with time, and after finding a game that really clicked for me, I found an avenue to express that need for speed on a level that fit my skill and commitment capacity. Now I feel like I’ve unlocked a new way to enjoy games that I never would have known otherwise. The experience of speedrunning is one of emotional highs and lows, depressing ruts and triumphant successes that wash them away like nothing, and now that I’ve experienced it, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. 

To anyone out there who may be like I was, afraid to give speedrunning a try, I say to you: pick a game you love and try it anyway. There’s no other experience quite like this in the world of games, and I promise you won’t regret it.

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