What Drives This Speedrunner to Master Long, Grueling JRPGs

The Cordellium holds a world record at 18 hours and 39 seconds, but it took hundreds of hours to get to that point.

Sometimes speedrunning a game means you're able to see the credits in a few minutes, but for lengthy Japanese RPGs like Xenogears, it's a different story. The record for Square Enix's 1998 PlayStation classic currents stands at 18 hours and 39 seconds, which adds up to nearly an entire day. It's no joke.

I've profiled longdistance speedrunners at Waypoint in the past, including someone who spent 342 hours recording a speedrun for the card-based JRPG Baten Kaitos. What fascinated me about these speedrunners is the mental and physical dexterity required to reach the finish line.

Connor, known online as The Cordellium, has been speedrunning since January 2015, with a specific focus on the Xeno series from Japanese designer Tetsuya Takahashi. (Xenosaga is a trilogy of PlayStation 2 RPGs that serve as spiritual successors to Xenogears.) His endgame? Mastering all of the Xeno games and speedrunning them all back-to-back-to-back-to-back.

I found Connor after stumbling upon a video called "worst run ending ever," where Final Fantasy X speedrunner Josh Schweers bungled a speedrun in the final moments of the game because he accidentally prompted a single character to do the wrong action, resulting the death of his characters and his record run.

Brutal, right? I had to know more about what drives these people! Sometimes I have a hard enough time playing through a mission two or three times, if the game doesn't properly checkpoint me. 

A few weeks back, Connor took the time to answer some questions about his speedrunning and how he makes it work.  You can follow his speedruns on Twitch.

(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Waypoint: What originally got you into speedrunning games like Xenogears —games that can regularly take 10 or more hours to speedrun?

Connor: The first game I speedran was Dark Cloud which is around an eight-to-nine hour game. However, I only did speedruns of that game for about a month until I wanted something different. I started thinking about other games that I really liked that already had a speedrun, and Xenogears was one that came to mind instantly, as it was my favorite RPG I had ever played.

Besides already liking the game, I noticed the length of the Xenogears speedrun right away being around 19 hours, and found it very appealing. Back when I first started watching Twitch, I watched a lot of XeroKynos' Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII 100% speedrun streams that he did on a regular basis.

I found it so cool that someone was doing a seemingly superhuman stint of endurance, playing a single game 12-18 hours. Sometimes, he even did multiple Final Fantasy VII/VIII 100% speedruns in a row. I wanted to emulate that, so Xenogears (and eventually Xenogears 100%, a roughly 27-hour speedrun) was right up my alley.

Talk me through your approach to a new speedrun. It must be daunting to start breaking down a game that, when played normally, can take dozens of hours to beat.

When I learn a new speedrun, the first thing I set out to address is the route or the plan that is used by current speedrunners to beat the game. When I learned Dark Cloud or Xenosaga Episode II, for example, there was little information available on how to speedrun the games, so a lot of my experience with these was figuring out the best route to beat the game.

For virtually every speedrun I have learned besides these two games—Xenogears, Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy VIII, Xenosaga Episode I—there has been an existing route already in place to start with. With these games, I have tried to be very methodical in my approach to learning, rather than just jumping in and going for doing a full speedrun attempt immediately.

I think a big reason for this is that I grew up being heavily involved in music, and in particular my piano teacher Mrs. Sanders instilled in me a desire to set my standards very high for songs that I played. "Made a mistake? Restart the piece. Made a mistake again? Break up the section you messed up on into smaller parts, then play each of those small parts with perfect execution three times in a row."

A lot of this has transferred to other parts of my life, and speedrunning is no exception. My process has evolved a bit over time, but this is how I would approach a new speedrun now:

  1. Watch and take notes on the current World Record of the new game
  2. Break practice of the speedrun into small sections and do 5-10 repetitions for each section
  3. Do a speedrun attempt
  4. Revise notes and look for routing improvements and optimizations that can be made
  5. Practice small sections of speedrun (movement, menus, battles, etc.)
  6. Repeat steps 3-5.

I'm sure you've had moments where mistakes have botched a particularly good run. But it's one thing when you simply need to go back an hour or so. How do you deal with the anxiety, stress, and pure time commitment related to these longer games?

Ahaha yes, many many times. In fact, the first time I attempted to speedrun Xenogears had some of the biggest mistakes I have ever made. I died twice—once to a random encounter and another time to a boss—which lost me about 3 hours.  On many of my other first speedrun attempts for games, I have made similar mistakes, but when doing speedruns the first time, I will often save my progress all over the place just to finish a full run. Instances where I have been more experienced and still lost runs have happened plenty, too.

For Xenogears, random encounters are the biggest enemy in certain parts of the run. Back when I used to do more risky strategies with certain equipment setups, I had many runs die in the 8-14 hour range for Xenogears.

Another interesting incident was when I was near the end of disc 1 of Xenogears once. I play Xenogears on a PS2 I bought used, and the fan on it has never been stellar. Usually, I will have an external fan running to blow air on whatever console I am using, but on this particular day I had forgotten to turn it on.

I was getting a bit concerned with how hot the console might be running, so I decided to just touch the top of the console to check it. What happened after this? Well, the game just froze. Completely. And I hadn't saved the game in a very long while. I don't know if it was because of a possible static discharge or because the console itself has been heavily used and the slightest touch set it off, but this was an incredibly frustrating way to lose a run.

"Usually the day before attempting a run, I will eat most of my meals early that day so that on the day of the speedrun I can go to the bathroom shortly after waking up. During runs, I will drink water but in smaller and smaller amounts as the run goes on."

The worst way I have messed up, though, over everything else, has got to be when I reset my console when I was on world record pace for the Glitchless Japanese category of Xenogears. I was playing the PSN version of Xenogears on a PlayStation TV [PSTV] last year when I did the attempt, and things were going really well. I was getting nice luck with fights and escaping from battles quickly, executing well, and I was even about seven minutes ahead of the world record at the end of disc one (around 14 hours into the speedrun).

Being that it was being played on a PSTV, swapping the disc means a bit more than just popping open the lid and switching discs. I had done many speedruns of the North American version of Xenogears on PSTV, so it never even crossed my mind that I might have difficulty remembering which boxes to select to change to disc two if it was in Japanese. But sure enough, instead of choosing to change to disc two, I chose the "reset game" option somehow.

I was so upset with myself, not just to throw away a good run but to lose it to something so silly. But, live and learn, they say. I learned a lot from that experience.

Other speedrunners I've talked to have very detailed approaches to bathroom use, hygiene, and food for their speedruns, usually taking into account cutscenes in order to make sure they can stop their bladder from exploding. What about you?

Speaking just on Xenogears, there are several breaks in the first three-to-four hours of the run, next to none during the middle, and then one or two in disc two. Usually the day before attempting a run, I will eat most of my meals early that day so that on the day of the speedrun I can go to the bathroom shortly after waking up. During runs, I will drink water but in smaller and smaller amounts as the run goes on until getting near the end of disc two.

For fuel during the run, I usually have something small and light like some oatmeal before the run starts and then that will be all I eat until I am done with the run. It is a bit of a stretch, but there is very little free time to be eating or doing anything else since there is almost constant text mashing to do. And having to go to the bathroom again isn't really an option due to the low frequency and length of the breaks that there are in the latter parts of the speedrun.

As far as sleep, regardless of whether I am doing a long Xenogears speedrun the next day or not, I like to sleep until my body decides to wake up. And just as important as quantity of sleep is the quality of sleep. I have blackout curtains in my bedroom, I use a sleeping mask, and I try to turn off the computer/other electronics a few hours before ideally going to bed between 8-10 pm most nights.

The thing with long speedruns like Xenogears that I've come to understand is that it is a mental game as much as it is a physical one. Yes, eating a good diet, staying hydrated, sleeping right and being in good shape go a long way to make them easier. But the strength of one's mental reserves is perhaps what is most important. The knowledge of how to execute the speedrun in the best possible way and especially the mental toughness to go on even when fatigue starts to set in is the difference between success or failure in any great endeavor.

And then when I think of how some people run (on their feet) in ultra marathons for over 24 hours (and over 100+ miles), I am put in my place because all I am doing is just twiddling my thumbs for that amount of time.