September 14, 2009

Tomb Raider Speedrunning

Before there were Tomb Raider time trials, before there were unlockable cheat codes and achievements, there were speedrunners. Not content to sit back and raid tombs at a leisurely pace, these hardcore players race through levels employing skill, dexterity and clever planning in order to finish as quickly as possible. They maintain leaderboards with the fastest times for each level, as well as for each full game, and they're constantly spurring each other on to new records.

Tomb Raiders weren't the first speedrunners—the hobby has existed practically as long as video games—but since the original Tomb Raider came out, with its statistics screens showing how long the player took to complete each level, TR players have been vying for the fastest times.

Caves in 1:35
RadxxRyan currently holds the record for a
glitched run of the Caves in TR1.
Click to watch the video.

Early tomb racers would post savegame files and screenshots of their stats on message boards. But if nobody's watching, it's easy enough to cheat using a flight patch or by Photoshopping the clock readout. Today true speedrunners back up their claims with gameplay videos detailing their achievements. You can find these on YouTube and dedicated sites like Tomb Runner and Speed Demos Archive.

Speedrunners spend hours practicing until Lara's movements become second nature. They look for shortcuts and spots where glitches can be used to skip entire areas or at least get through more quickly.

They are quick to point out the distinction between exploiting bugs in the game engine (good) and cheating (bad). Cheating—such as using a flight patch, position editor, savegame editor or cheat codes—is strictly forbidden. Glitches are accepted—even encouraged—though of course competitions for glitched and glitchless runs are kept separate.

Finnish speedrunner xRikux89 put it this way: "People don't always know to appreciate how time-consuming finding these tricks can be. These runs also need to be re-done more frequently, because the biggest new discoveries are usually glitches. One of the most common arguments, 'They make the game too easy!', is also plain wrong and misinformed. Incorporating glitch shortcuts often makes a run harder."

Most of the players who are active in the Tomb Raider speedrunning community today prefer the classic Core Design games to the Crystal Dynamics titles. The blocky graphics and odd glitches that may seem dated today actually make the older games a speedrunners' paradise. TRs 1-5 are rife with exploitable glitches—from well-known specimens like the "corner bug" to relatively new discoveries like the "dive bug"—and the levels are generally less linear, enabling players to find previously undiscovered shortcuts.*

Tomb Raider corner bug
The corner bug shown here in TR2.
Click for more info.

A few players are tackling the new games. For example, the current record holder for Underworld is Czech raider jarekhanzelka, who used an amazing glitch (discovered by another player, Tl2ophy) to skip the entire Mediterranean, Thailand and Croft Manor levels, resulting in a complete game speed run in less than 25 minutes! (He also used some nifty shortcuts in other Underworld levels. I especially admire his Out of Time run. I couldn't do that in a million years!)

jarekhanzelka's Underworld speedrun employs a massive shortcut,
found by Tl2ophy, to skip about half of the game.

You might expect participants in such a competitive hobby to be secretive and arrogant. Not so at all. Speedrunners compete against each other, but they also support and encourage each other. All the runners I've encountered were quick to praise their colleagues, and their videos and web sites give extensive credit for other players' discoveries.

rr_carroll runs the Tomb Raider Tourist site and is considered by many to be a one-man pit crew for the Tomb Runners. He applauds their camaraderie: "If someone announces his intention to run a level or a game, people start right in with suggestions for improving the run. Of course this has an egotistical aspect ('Use my trick!'), but it's also like we're a team trying to see how fast this can be run. This sense of teamwork is pretty heartwarming."

This article barely scratches the surface of this exciting hobby. If you'd like to learn more, just follow the links below. And if you're thinking about trying speedrunning yourself, check out Tomb Runner webmaster Ewil's article "The Process Behind Making a Speedrun" and the Speedrunner Profiles compiled from my interviews with a few of the most active TR speedrunners.

  • "The Process Behind Making a Speedrun" - by Tomb Runner webmaster Ewil.
  • "Speedrunner Profiles" - Why they do it, how they do it, awesome speedrun videos and more. (Basically a bunch of great stuff that didn't fit in the main article above.)
  • Speed Demos Archive - Hosts speed runs for hundreds of games, including Tomb Raider
  • Tomb Runner - About 2½ years ago Ewil and AjAX founded this dedicated site for Tomb Raider speedrunners. The "Area 51" section includes many helpful tips on faster movement, timesaving glitches, etc.
  • Tomb Raider Tourist - rr_carroll's site focuses on useful bugs in the Tomb Raider series.
  • Tomb Raider Bugs - Hungarian site (also in English) devoted to useful bugs.
  • Fraps - Software for recording PC gameplay.
  • Wikipedia - Speedrunning article includes a brief history of the hobby, including the now-legendary Quake Done Quick (entire game in just over 12 minutes).
*The discovery of corner bug is generally credited to Jason McAllister, who no longer seems to be active in the TR community (unless he's going by another name these days). Aurimas discovered the dive bug in TR2, and rr_carroll refined it for use in the other classic games.

Corner bug animated gif courtesy of Jeff Reid.


  1. Wow. Tha video of the Caves speedrun blew me away. And I'd like to say how much I'm enjoying this blog. Keep it up!


  2. there's something interesting!i don't know if the pc version of tr1 has the same buggs,glitches like in the ps1 version because the ps1 version is a little bit slower that on raddxryan can do that speedrun with 5 seconds faster on pc!we must request him to try it!
    oh,i found about that bugg in laras home a couple of months's a very good glitch,lol,because it works everytime i try it!

  3. i love how in the caves speed run, the wolf lies motionless as lara pulls the lever. Apparently Lara was moving so fast, it just wore that poor wolf out.

    Love your blog, by the way.


  4. I find the whole subculture of speedrunning most interesting. There's one aspect of it I relate to, which is this almost religious devotion runners dedicate to master every nook and cranny of their preferred game. Now as I don't have the time nor the guts for this sort of thing I'm kind of a watcher by the sidelines. I really enjoy watching speedrun videos. The last one I saw, from Metroid Prime DS, showed moments of brilliancy that had me grinning ear to ear before the computer.