Moments in Speedrunning History: The Origins of Any%

The question that always pops up…

For the last seven years or so of my life, I have called myself a speedrunner. A speedrun is such a foreign concept to so many people out there, that they hardly even know what a speedrun is, let alone what goes along with the concept. For some folks, it’s as simple as “how fast can you beat a game”? And yet, for others, it’s more complicated. Especially for those that actually do speedrun, or at the least are fans of watching runners do attempts, or even just watching their PB vods on YouTube or Twitch.

So yes, I’ve become quite familiar with the uncomfortable awkwardness that comes with the territory, especially when explaining to friends, family, or co-workers what speedrunning is. And that conversation that I’ve literally had hundreds of times in my life (and I still, to this day, have trouble explaining speedrunning to people that aren’t in the know) always boils down to a few key points that I try to explain to people:

  • Yes, I play the same game over, and over, and over.
  • No, I don’t get tired of it. It’s more like a sport.
  • Yes, people actually do watch me do attempts.
  • Yes, I do have a life… (that one is the most fun to answer)
  • And finally… how do we keep it legitimate? How do we verify runs?

This is the part where things can get interesting. For the average layman person, this is about where they stop caring (either because the concept of speedrunning bores them, or they have other things going on that they deem more important than listening to some “nerd” explain their hobby). But for the few, sometimes they seem genuinely interested in what I have to say. Those are the moments where they get to see me actually come out of my shell, and the moments that truly get my heart pumping. Finally, someone that isn’t a gamer or a speedrunner is interested in my take on things.

Sadly, this is extremely rare. And I understand why; despite the growth that speedrunning has had in the past 15 years, it is still considered a niché, even in the growing and thriving eSports scene. But when these opportunities present themselves, I am always the first person to stand up proudly and champion the “hobby” that has quickly taken over my life: why I love speedrunning. This conversation typically leads into the area of “how do you time your runs?” or “what rules do you abide by?” And that, my friends, is where I usually drop the words “any%” to them. And they rarely know what I’m talking about. 99% of the time, they ask me the same exact question…

“What is any%?”

Which is where I usually check my clock to ensure I have enough time to explain to them all about how speedrunning rules work. Remember: I’m usually very cautious about how I explain our sport to folks, as they tend to lose interest very quickly if they’re not already into Twitch or gaming.

Any% is a very easy thing to explain, although it’s a rabbit hole that can take up, well, an entire blog post or news article. And to put it as simply as I can, any% is a category of a speedrun in which the simplest way to put the rules, is that the runner is allowed to beat the video game from start to finish, as quickly as they can, and however they can. There are very rarely rules in place; just turn the game on, and do whatever you can (within reason and within the allowed standards) to get to the ending.

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It’s not that cut and dry, however. For starters, very few speedruns allow more than just a game, a console, and a controller. Cheat devices, such as GameSharks, Game Genies, or save states (even through flash carts), are typically disallowed (and, for some communities, even the usage of flash carts themselves is not legal). Controllers that utilize autofire, or a keyboard macro, or an auto-aim bot are just a few more examples of what any% might not allow. Also, in some rare cases, any code such as Arbitrary Code Execution (A.C.E., which we’ll talk about in a bit) or any setups that involve a save file or a setup are not allowed, either.

There are other versions of any% as well that we will talk about next. There are also other categories. Before we get into the origins of any%, let’s quickly discuss those categories.

Any% (with a catch)

“Beat the Game” is not meant to be taken literally (Photo: JSR_ on Twitch)

Any% in its’ cleanest description is just that: beat the game. There are actually some games that do not consider any% the name of its’ “beat the game” category: some games actually call this category “Beat the Game” while others might add a simple twist to the category name, which allows for even more variety for the speedrun. In some cases, this might be to keep a very powerful glitch or skip, or ACE, or something similar, to ruin the leaderboards which have had tons of work put into them in order to exist in their current state. Other games, perhaps, would rather just have two separate categories, depending on what the game and community dictate and decide.

I (the author, JSR) come originally from the “The Legend of Zelda” community (on NES… yes, I am old). In that community, the main any% category (in terms of competitiveness) isn’t called any%… although any% does exist in Zelda 1. Any% is just as it sounds in that case: start a new save file, and complete the game on THAT save file. It’s that simple. So why, then, is that not the main category for TLoZ?

Well, in this case, the difference is rather arbitrary: the category that is most ran is called “Any%, no up+a”. Up+a in Zelda 1 is a trick, found in the manual, that describes how to “quit” the game and save. When a runner presses start on the 1st player’s controller, it pulls the sub-screen up (which has all of Link’s items). If player 2’s controller is then used, and you press up & a at the same time, you get an automatic game over, which can be abused to warp all over the map or back to the start of a dungeon, saving time.

One of the most influential Zelda 1 runners, Darkwing Duck, used to run Zelda 1 long before or any major leaderboards existed. He would always state that he felt like up+a was not the way the game was meant to be played; he also would stick exclusively to the 1st quest, and to the USA version of the game, despite the JP version actually being faster. He ran the game for so long, that as new runners came up and learned Zelda, he would become a mentor to them, and they would get acquainted with the game and get better at the run… and suddenly, they could compare their times to DWD’s. They couldn’t do that in true any%… so they ran no up+a. And thus, despite a true any% category existing, most folks still, to this day, run any% no up+a instead.

There’s a ton of other games out there that do this: Super Mario World is one example; Super Mario 64 is another. In most of these odd cases, a “true any%” category isn’t necessary, since there aren’t any game-breaking glitches or skips that allow for a “0 exit” or “0 star” run to be completed faster than the route already dictates. Therefore, an “any%” category isn’t anything needed; in the event a skip or glitch, etc. was discovered that made it necessary to reconsider, there would likely be pressure to “split the leaderboard” which might create an any% category, though each case is different.

Doom is the grandfather of modern speedruns. Back in the 1990’s, Doom was one of the first speedruns to be popularized on the internet. And since Doom didn’t track a player’s item progress, a percentage couldn’t be applied to it. So, they never bothered calling their run “any%”, instead calling it “UV Speed” (among other names, which dictated the type of run and the difficulty they played on). To this day, there is still no true “any%” category in Doom.

That seems as good a segue as any other: where did the term any% come from?

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The origins of any%

A screencap from showing Nolan “Radix” Pflug’s 2003 Metroid Prime speedrun, which might be the first recorded speedrun to include a percentage in a category listed in the description.

This is where the origins of speedrunning get a little fuzzy; while some folks might point the fingers at Super Metroid on Super NES as the first category that had an “any%” designation, in fact it appears that Metroid Prime might have been the first speed game that included a “100%” category.

This is an important thing to note, as Metroid Prime (and Super Metroid) both include a percentage counter on your file screen, and in the ending screens as well. As you can see in this run here, posted by Nolan “Radix” Pflug in November 2003, the run is referred to as “100%” meaning he collected all the items needed in the game to dictate a “100%” rating at the end. This meant that he must have visited every area, found every secret, killed every boss, and done all the things. But that inevitably led to people wondering what times they could put up if they didn’t collect all the things. And that is the most likely origin of the term “any%” as regarding a speedrun that does not collect every item.

During the 2000’s, many speed-games became very popular that dictated using percentages. One such example is the Donkey Kong Country series on SNES. In that game, you are also greeted with a percentage on the file select screen (you also achieve different endings, depending on what items you collected, and how many you neglected to).

A screencap from the “Speed Demos Archive” page for Metroid 2: Return of Samus on the Game Boy. Note that the author, carlmmii, refers to their run as “Any%”
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Around 2004-05, when “Speed Demos Archive” began accepting more games than just Quake and Doom, is generally considered the era in which modern speedrunning, as we know it, began. And after this point, there was an explosion of new content and leaderboards. Twin Galaxies, SDA, and many others threw their hats into the ring, and they called their content a variety of things, but the constant was that most of the general “fastest” categories were almost always called any%. Is Metroid Prime the true any% origin? It’s impossible to say, and that fact might be lost to time now…

Any% compared to other categories (100%, low%)

Any% is the most generally-accepted definition of a category in a speedrun that is to “beat the game” as quickly as you can. However, many games (including the aforementioned Metroid games) require you to do other things in other categories, and to differentiate the categories, they usually are called other things (and please, keep in mind, this is FAR from a definitive list; there are likely thousands of categories across all speed games):

  • 100%, which typically requires the runner to collect every item in the game (in games where a percentage is not given, for example Mega Man Legends, the runner might be required to grab an arbitrary list of items that the community generally agrees on).
  • Low%, which typically requires the runner to beat the game with exactly the least amount of required items. In most games, this is the same as any% (Super Mario Bros., for example), but in others it is definitely slower (Ninja Gaiden is an example of that).
  • Other%. These categories can change rulesets to fit the description (Tyson%, for example, is a Doom category that requires the runner to use their fist attack for the vast majority of the game). The % indication is typically not required, and is usually only there because the other categories in that community’s leaderboard are percentages. This can change, however, and varies with each game.

There are also categories called “Arbitrary Code Execution” (an example can be found here), which typically revolve around a runner using a setup or specific file names to achieve a warp or glitch that takes the runner directly to the ending of the game. This is usually accepted as a separate category from “Any%”, and in those cases is typically the fastest way to beat a game, although there are examples of exceptions (such as the above example, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time).

Speedrun to Conclusion

While “Any%” is simple enough to describe and set, actually figuring out the origins of any% is quite tricky. A lot of the internet from that time period has long-since evolved or changed, so the evidence is no longer as easily discoverable. I’m sure the rabbit hole could be dived into, if you asked the right people, and spent countless hours reading old blog posts from the early- and mid-2000’s. But at the end of the day, knowing that SDA and Metroid Prime were at the least the most likely origin of any% in the popular opinion is still quite fun and cool to read about. It shows how something as arbitrary as a description of a run you did almost 20 years ago, could lead to verbiage and rulesets that revolve around those 4 characters you typed on your keyboard to celebrate your personal best.

It’s a reminder that any of us could be that same person 20 years down the line. Who knows, perhaps someday, “Zippy%” will take off… although, common sense dictates that I am careful talking about that in public.

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