HyperZone: A Lesson In Crafting A “World Record” Speed Run

In a way, I consider speed running to be a form of art. It can be a therapeutic experience watching a masterful run, (like this mind blowing Sonic 2 example) not to mention the mental benefits of actually attempting one yourself. When I am practicing, it is often times a meditative experience. Every enemy placement, every semi-random event, every space, every obstacle, every pixel perfect jump or doge, it’s astounding if you think about it. And when you reach this level of play in a video game, there is nothing else like it on Earth. Personally, I believe that dedicating yourself to the level of expertise needed to “perfect” a game can bleed out into other facets of your life, in a positive way. It takes passion and dedication to accomplish what was once thought impossible. If a person can commit themselves so fully to something as trivial as a video game, surely they can do even greater things in life as well.

 

Think speed running is a waste of time? Think again!

 

 

As the story goes, I first became interested in speed running back around 2005, in fact, right around the time SDA (Speed Demos Archive) became popular. I probably watched every run on the site back in those early days. This led my brother and I to attempt a co-op speed run of Contra Hard Corps in 2006 (the Joe surrender path). After a month of practice we managed to make it to the final boss and then, sadly, one of us bit the dust and that was it. This was before the days of decent capture cards and we were attempting our runs on a model 2 Sega Genesis via a DVD recorder and it was a huge PITA every time we had to start over, so that also put a damper on things. Then, life got in the way as it often does and neither of us returned to speed running for over a decade… Until now.

And speaking of now…. We have Twitch, YouTube, speed running sub reddits, live streams of supposed world records, competitions, SpeedRun.com, etc, etc, etc. It’s staggering if you really dive in. How could you possibly know what is legit and what isn’t? Are these people cheating? Are they using emulation with tricks? (Tool Assisted Speed Running is a whole other topic) Well, what first drew me to SDA was the fact that they preached the “NO CHEATING” mantra. In other words, original hardware only for consoles, with a stringent verification process to weed out the cheaters and sub par runs. Granted, it’s competitor, SpeedRun.com has nearly 250,000 speed runs compared to SDA’s rather modest *as of this writing* 1247 (although it should be noted that SpeedRun.com allows emulators and Twitch/YT streams whereas SDA does not). But the difference is quality over quantity. You could say that SDA is a bit old fashioned, or even outdated in some respects. But consider this: at SpeedRun.com any Joe Schmo on Twitch or YT can submit a run that goes through a vetting process that is sub par, at best. With SDA on the other hand, you know you are getting a real deal, thoroughly vetted, quality run that looks amazing. So in other words, if leaderboards and supposed world records are your thing, go to Speedrun.com. If you want quality runs that are guaranteed to be real, go to SDA. Win-Win right?

SpeedRun.com has no less than 43 runs of Contra Hard Corps. 43! And the quality varies widely… But leaderboards are nice, right Browny?

Alright, before I get into my speed run of HyperZone and how I managed to accomplish it, I’d like to talk about how it came about. My bread and butter when it comes to “running” games generally lies in auto-scrolling SHMUPS where speed doesn’t really matter. For this reason I have always focused on capturing perfect or near perfect runs (1CC or 1LC) with an emphasis on not dying a single time. Generally, the same rule applies if you are speed running a game that isn’t an auto-scroller, because who wants to die in the middle of a speed run? (unless it saves you time of course) So when I decided to tackle HyperZone for my SHMUP Master channel, I didn’t really give speed running much thought. It wasn’t until I started scouring YouTube for strategies on the game that I came across Patrick ‘PJ’ DiCesare’s speedrun. Wait, a speed run? In an auto-scrolling SHMUP?

Well, as it turns out (and as I neglected to notice at first) HyperZone can be suitable for speed running due to the fact that you have control of your speed, it’s in essence, a race to the end of the game. Albeit, you accelerate automatically to a top speed of 448 (KPH?), which you cannot exceed, but on the flip side, there are a plethora of things that will slow you down. Some examples are: getting hit by enemies or projectiles, veering off the course, hitting your brakes, and of course, taking your time during the boss fights. I have to give PJ some big props here, it was his run and notes that inspired me to attempt to do more than just a simple 1LC of the game (because let’s be honest, HyperZone isn’t a hard game). Instead, I wanted to attempt something that had never been done in HyperZone before, a real challenge. And hence, (after months of practice) my first completed speed run was born.

Now, if you’ve never played HyperZone, I will say that it is a somewhat obscure SNES “launch” title that is quite a bit of fun. Think Space Harrier mixed with F-Zero. I’ve been playing the game on and off for over 2 decades and it was one of my first SNES games back in 1991. It’s been on my short list for over 2 years to cover for my channel. And while technically my run of HyperZone is a “World Record”, I do have to emphasize that this term should be used loosely here as there aren’t exactly a lot of people clamoring for the title. Regardless though, attempting a speed run of just about any game is a Herculean task that requires time, practice and most of all, patience. If you are the type of person that wants instant gratification, then speed running is not for you. So with that in mind, let’s delve into the intricacies of HyperZone and what it took for me to accomplish this run from a psychological standpoint.

One of my favorite words in life is moderation. And for me anyway, it also applies to practicing for a challenging run. I know some guys like to jump right in and practice hardcore for hours at a time, and it may work for some, but I generally take the opposite approach. First, I familiarize myself with the game. This will usually take anywhere from 1-2 weeks, maybe 30 minutes a day. Once I can comfortably finish the game, the real practice begins. But rather than go for broke, I take it slow. Thirty minutes to an hour a night usually. This can last (depending on the length and difficulty of the game) anywhere from a couple weeks to a month or more. HyperZone took me a total of 3 months of consistent practice (and years of prior experience I might add) until I could pull this run off. The first two months I spent mostly in an emulator trying to perfect certain boss fights and enemy patterns, and the last month was me and my SNES, hitting the record button, and going for broke, once a night. Yes, my method takes longer than some I would imagine, but it’s the only way that works for me. It also helps me avoid burn out and keeps my mind in the game. Remember, moderation + dedication = results.

But practicing is only part of the battle, you really need to know this game well in order to accomplish a sub 24 minute run of HyperZone. I’m talking every enemy, every bullet, every boss pattern, and even then you’ll still make mistakes. And those errors will cost you precious seconds that you cannot afford to lose. So with that in mind, here are what I consider the most important points to consider when speed running HyperZone:

  • Never, EVER, hit your brakes!
  • Never, EVER go out of bounds! (until you get the last ship)
  • There are 6 total ship upgrades, 2 of which you can skip, saving you a whopping 16 seconds of time
  • Score chasing (and timing) is incredibly important on the first 5 stages
  • Stage 3 is the hardest in the game, by a long shot
  • No matter how fast you think you can beat a boss, you can probably beat him a little faster
  • There is a glitch in the 6th boss that if triggered, allows you to beat him roughly 4-5 seconds faster than normal
  • Allowing yourself to get hit at certain bosses will save you time if it means you can fire off more rounds
  • In most cases during boss fights, button mashing is your friend, charge shots are your enemy
  • There is a trick on the final boss that will save you roughly 2-3 seconds
  • The final ship doesn’t lose speed when going out of bounds, use it to your advantage
  • Mastering the timing of each ships charge shot is vital (they are all slightly different)
  • Think of HyperZone as a rhythm game and you will probably play better

Now that you have an idea of the type of dedication it takes to complete a speed run mentally, let’s get into how I actually accomplished it, from a gameplay standpoint. Step by step.

 

When I decided to attempt this run, I wanted to make it ALL about the “ship skip” trick. As I stated above, it is possible to skip two ship upgrades saving you 16 seconds (due to the new ship cinematic that plays before the level starts). You can accomplish this on levels 3 and 5 if you time your score just right. But the score chasing really starts on stage 1 (which takes place in… a weird trippy rubix cube factory?), and that score needs to be at least 25k just before the first boss. In order to get this score, you need to mash the hell out of everything on the screen. The stage itself isn’t very challenging once you memorize enemy placement, and once I practiced enough, I was able to beat it without getting hit on most runs.

In all honesty, the trickiest part for me was the very beginning. There are red, blue and green stationary enemies that appear in a pattern on the screen. You need to kill as many as you can and preferably have a score of around 7k when you get through the wave. Doing it requires moving your ship in an almost rhythmic like pattern. It’s not too tough, but takes a bit of practice (there is another wave of these guys right before the boss which acts as a nice bonus if you aren’t quite to 25k).

Once you get to the boss, it’s best to take him head on, mashing as hard as you can. If you allow yourself to take a hit or two you can probably beat him in under 10 seconds. I did it in 5. Killing him nets you 5k points which should take you over the 30k you need for the H-Wing ship upgrade.

 

Stage 2 is a fire themed stage and isn’t too difficult, but can surprise you at times (practice dodging those damn flares!). The goal here is just under 53k before the boss. And I say “just under” because in order to skip that next ship and save 8 seconds, you need to acquire both ship upgrades on stage 3. One at the very beginning, and one at the very end. If you go over 53k before the boss, you get the P-7 upgrade before stage 3 and you’ve blown it. Sometimes this can even mean downplaying the level a bit to avoid getting too many points. Towards the end of the stage during the last wave of enemies I had to stop shooting because my score had hit 52,900 which is the perfect number to get before the boss.

Skip, Skip, Skip to My Lou….

I wish I could say that this stage was perfect (I ran it perfectly many times) but I made several mistakes. I take a minor hit at 4:12 and another harder hit at 4:33. I then grazed the boundary slightly at 4:46. I also didn’t execute my pattern quite right on the boss (an orange ball dragon thingy that swerves from one side of the screen to the other) and as a result, I killed him a few seconds slower than normal, 7 seconds total. I figure these 4 mistakes cost me 4-5 seconds, at least. The rest of the stage went pretty smooth. Once you beat the boss he gives you 7k points, and you end up with just under 60k starting out on stage 3.

 

Stage 3 appears to take place in some sort of deserted, futuristic cityscape. And if you timed your score just right on stage 2, your first shot should be accompanied by the 1-UP sound (which also means you earned a ship upgrade). Also, as I mentioned above, stage 3 is the hardest in the game. The reason for this is the fact that it is the only stage where enemies are coming at you from both the front and the rear, sometimes simultaneously. This creates a nightmare when you are trying not to get hit and keep your momentum going. The second wave of enemies from 6:02-6:15 is the hardest enemy wave in the entire game in my opinion. Luckily, I only took two minor hits, one at 6:10 and the second at 6:13 (followed by grazing the edge very slightly at 6:14). This was one of my better attempts at this section and I’m honestly not sure if I ever managed it without getting hit (maybe once?). The rest of the stage I played pretty much flawlessly on, which was quite frankly a miracle.

From the front! From the back! UGH!

The goal for your score on stage 3 is at least 70k before the boss fight (I managed 70,400), the more you can get the better. Once you beat the boss (who is a flying Super Famicom controller, silly, I know) you will get an additional 10k that will put you over the 80k you need for the RW-91 ship upgrade. Unfortunately, this boss requires charge shot to knock out his buttons before you can assault the core of the controller by mashing your main weapon. I was able to beat him in 17 seconds, which is about as good as you are going to get for the most part. If I aimed a bit better, maybe I could have knocked off another second or two. Overall this was by far my best run of this stage, I got super lucky.

 

Congrats! If you made it this far, and have exceeded 80k, you will now have the RW-91 ship upgrade! Not to mention the score timing used on the previous 3 stages has enabled you to skip the P-7 entirely, thus saving you 8 seconds of ship delivery animation! (not to mention you get a ship that is somewhat OP for the level you are currently on) It’s a great feeling the first time you pull it off, let me tell you.

As for stage 4 itself, it’s some sort of peaceful, serene grassland. There are lots of branching paths and narrow track to swerve your way through, so it’s paramount to memorize the correct route to take. Due to the narrow paths, staying on the course is sometimes just as difficult as avoiding enemy fire. Stage 4 is also similar to stage 2 in the fact that you need to not exceed a certain score if you want a chance at skipping that second ship upgrade. In this case, the score is 123k, or in my case, 122,800 right before the boss. I took two hits also, a fairly hard one at 9:10 and a second, lighter one at 10:21. Neither of them slowed me down too much, I may have lost a second or two at most.

Luckily for me, I was able to beat the boss in record time, 20 seconds to be exact. That is the fastest I have ever managed to beat him, although I am pretty sure it could be done at least a few seconds faster. He is basically a giant flower that sways back and fourth across the screen. Learning to move with him in the pattern he uses is key to being able to button mash him as quickly as possible. First the petals, then his core. He gives you a total of 17k points which should bring you right below 140k to start stage 5, or in my case, 139,800.

 

Ripple Field is your token water level with super cool atmospheric music. Unfortunately, I started out the stage sloppy and took two light hits at 11:29 and 11:32 for a loss of a couple seconds. Thankfully, I played the rest of the stage flawlessly. And like on stage 3, if you timed your score right, the first shot you take out of the gate should net you the 1-UP sound as well as ensuring a ship upgrade at the beginning of stage 6. You should play stage 5 the same way you played stage 3, in other words, go for broke and shoot as many enemies as possible. You need to hit at least 157k before the boss to ensure you get that second ship upgrade by the end of the stage and skip the X-003 (sadly, my favorite and by far the coolest looking ship). In order to hit 157k you need to play just about flawlessly. There are many places you can screw up here, particularly by smacking into the water jets that will cause you to miss shots on the “UFO” like ships that zing across the screen. There is also that second to the last wave of enemies… It’s the most important for achieving the score you need. The enemies are spread out almost across the entire screen (mostly pink squid like dudes), so hitting them all is almost impossible. However, if you aim just right at the middle you can hit most of them and give yourself a nice score boost before the final wave.

UFO’s and water blasts…

I managed to get to the boss with 157,700, which was more than enough to achieve my goal. The boss itself is a re-skin of the boss from stage 2, except he’s blue this time, and disappears as he moves about the screen in a sort of zig-zag pattern. I was able to kill him on his 8th pass which is as good as I’ve ever been able to do it. I’m pretty sure he could be beaten maybe one pass sooner, but it would be very difficult. I managed to beat him in 11 seconds. Either way he gives you the 13k you need to put you over 170k for the final ship upgrade… the BM-4 Reform!

 

Stage 6 looks like a… well.. a Megalopolis! And guess what? No more score chasing! As you start out, you can revel in the fact that you have an extremely OP ship for this level and that you managed to skip your second ship upgrade of the game (sorry X-003, we need that extra 8 seconds). This was something I never knew you could do until I decided to do the math. And the math works out, barely. The margin for error is very small, so like I said, timing those first 5 stages perfectly with your score is the only way to pull it off.

Since you now have the BM-4 Reform (sadly, just a re-skin of the original BM-4, maybe they ran out of cartridge space?) it’s fun to see how many enemies you can kill. The ship will fire a charge shot about once a second. Because of this nifty upgrade, one of my goals became shooting every baddie on the level. I came up 5 short on this particular run. Although I did manage to pull it off, once. Another great thing about the BM-4 Reform is that going out of bounds no longer slows you down. It’s great to use this to your advantage as much as possible to both avoid enemies and cut corners as need be.

Time to start showing off…

As for how well I played, I only made one mistake. At the beginning and end of the level, there are these laser turrets called “Yokabaries”. They shoot a continuous beam across your path and you have to weave up and down between them to avoid getting hit. If you do, it takes about half your life. I managed to clip one at 15:45 for a minor hit. Luckily it didn’t slow me down too much. The boss comes right after and is basically the stage 1 boss on steriods. It now shoots more bullets and moves much more erratically. I managed to beat him in 13 seconds which is pretty good. The bad part is that as a general rule, you have to start out with the charge shot in order to break his 4 blue modules, otherwise he is invincible. However, there is a glitch you can use that sometimes works that will free him up and let you button mash, but it only works some of the time and only saves you about 4 seconds (it seems to depend on your first charge shot and the timing of the hit). Granted, 4 seconds is a lot, but I was doing so well this run that I didn’t want to risk it. So I took the slightly longer method to avoid the unpredictability.

 

Stage 7 is my favorite stage and favorite music. It was a nice showcase of what early SNES mode 7 effects could do. If you have the BM-4 Reform, it’s also not very difficult (the same can’t be said if you have the RW-91). This level tends to barrage you with large groups of circular “cell” enemies that fire lots of projectiles. Avoiding them is a matter of keeping in rhythm. Remember when I said HyperZone was in essence a Rhythm Game? Well, this stage really puts your skills to the test. Doing a dance as you dodge them all is essential to not getting blasted.

Overall I played very well on this stage, except for one spot, which turned out to be my biggest screw up. Towards the end of the level (18:04 and 18:07) I managed to take a hard hit not once, but twice from the “Womacy” worm-like enemies. I got out of my rhythm, and getting slammed was the result. I figure the mistake cost me a good 5-6 seconds, although it could have been worse.

Dance baby! DANCE!

I’ve said this before, somewhere. But in every game I have ever attempted a speed run or 1cc of, there is always a boss that just drives me nuts. For HyperZone, it was what I like to call the “meatball”. It is a group of 6 fleshy looking balls that float around the screen. When they group into a swirling mass of flesh, they are invincible. You can only hit them when they are out of their swirling phase and in a line behind one another. Each ball has it’s own invisible health bar and the more balls you kill, the harder they are to hit. For instance, if you shoot only the first 5 balls and leave the last one, good luck! It is imperative that you use the button mashing technique on this guy or it will take forever to kill it. Although even with the mashing, this boss tends to be the one that will waste the most time. I spent countless runs playing nearly flawlessly, only to get to this guy and loose 20-30 seconds trying to kill the last damn ball. It was infuriating at times. Even on this run I didn’t do my best. I managed to beat it in 45 seconds, which isn’t great. It can be beat in the low to mid 30’s if you have lightning thumbs and really good aim. But I had to take what I could get.

 

Guess what? Stage 8 is a boss rush! You get to fight them all over again, in the dark! Well, except the stage 1 boss for some reason… Here is a synopsis of how I did:

 

Fire Dragon, aka “Orange Ball Dragon Thingy” 

4 seconds, my best ever on this boss!

SFC Controller, aka “Super Famicom Controller” 

15 seconds, 2 seconds faster than earlier, I had one missed shot that cost me maybe a second.

Death Lotus, aka “The Mean Flower” 

24 seconds, 4 seconds slower than previously, I hesitated more to avoid getting hit as your life matters more now on the final stage.

Water Dragon, aka “Re-Skinned Orange Ball Dragon Thingy, Except Blue” 

11 seconds, same as before.

Brainworm, aka “The Meatball” 

41 seconds, 4 seconds faster than before.

Mega Ton II, aka “Stage 1 Boss on Steroids”

13 seconds, same as before.

Final Boss – Starfoetus, aka “Krang”

And finally, we have the final boss! I always liked to call him Krang because that’s basically what he is, a brain encased in a metal shell. He’s actually one of the easier bosses in my opinion, once you learn his tricks. And speaking of tricks, there is one you can use to save roughly 2-3 seconds. When he first comes out, button mash as hard as you can until he shoots a volley of energy blasts directly at you, dodge the first one and time your shots on the second just right and it will aggro him, causing a direct charge right at you (literally in your face). If you hesitate too long, or aggro him too quickly, he will linger for a good 2-3 seconds (and then charge). There is a sweet spot in the middle of those volleys that will bring him right up to you immediately, saving you those precious seconds.

“Krang” is one of those bosses that will get in your face, literally!

Krang’s second phase consists of direct shots like before, combined with a circular flurry of energy blasts that go off one at a time. Just dodge each volley as they come at you, center yourself in front of him and blast away with your guns. Again, charge shots are useless on him if you want to beat him quickly. I managed to finish him in 33 seconds, pretty good. Although I had times where I was able to do just under 30.

And there you have it! My in depth analysis of what it takes to create a world record speed run, in this case, HyperZone. All in all I made roughly 15 mistakes which cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of 44 seconds. It is my belief that a sub 23 minute speed run of HyperZone is very possible. You would simply have to play perfectly, beat the meatball faster and use the boss 6 glitch. Maybe I’ll try it one day… But I am happy with what I have accomplished with this run for the time being. If anyone wants to try and top it, I wish you the best of luck. Competition is what drives us further than ever before.

*Special thanks to Patrick ‘PJ’ DiCesare. Without his amazing run I probably never could have pulled this off. Please check out his YouTube channel for LOTS of awesome speed runs: TheSuperSNES

*Also a special thanks to Flying Omelette who runs THE HyperZone Shrine. The lengths he went to in order to explore every facet of this game is quite frankly, astounding. He was also awesome enough to rip most of the sprites, which I used here in this article. For that, I am grateful as you won’t find complete sprites for this game anywhere else on the net.