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This Guy Beats Video Games Using A Drum Kit As A Controller

A screenshot of a guy playing Mario 64 on the drums

The streamer named CZR finished his run off with a flourish. He’d completed the 16-star route, one of Super Mario 64’s iconic speedruns, in 23:06.2. That’s fast, but not the kind of Mario 64 time that would normally be shown at the annual charity speedrunning event Awesome Games Done Quick. It wouldn’t have been a world record any time in the last 19 years; the current best is Suigi’s 14:34.5. But CZR speedruns Mario 64 using a drum kit as his controller. The flourish at the end of his run wasn’t related to the game at all. He just added a riff after beating Bowser and grabbing the final star.

The existence of speedrunning communities is generally traced to the 1993 release of Doom. The game had a feature where players could record and save in-game footage. The .LMP files, which could play back the run, were small enough to be shared online even over dial-up internet. A community grew around beating the game in various ways, and by 1994 there were multiple websites listing Doom challenges. COMPET-N, launched that November, had the first Doom speedrunning leaderboard.

Speedrunning has grown pretty popular in the decades since. Runners showcase attempts on livestreams and have Patreons. The first event to be called Awesome Games Done Quick, held in January 2011, raised $50,000. Last month’s raised $2.5 million.

As the community grows, so do the gimmicks. Beat Mario 64 with 0 or 1 star (6:16.6 and 6:57.6, both by Suigi). Beat Mario 64 with all 120 stars (Weegee, 1:36:21). Beat Link To The Past without a sword (hotarubi_ta, 47:57). There are modded controller runs, too: At ADGQ 2018, zallard1 used a hacked controller that sent button-press signals to an NES and SNES concurrently. It took him 23:56 to beat Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! and Super Punch-Out!! at the same time. There are lots of alternate controller runs, too: bearzly has beaten Dark Souls using peripherals like a Wiimote, a dancemat, a steering wheel, Donkey Konga bongos, a Rock Band guitar, a Rock Band piano and a Rock Band drum kit.

CZR began streaming in the early stages of the pandemic. He was speedrunning a different iconic N64 game, Ocarina of Time, which has a long introduction. His drum kit was set up in the same room, and he’d play a little while waiting out those two minutes. “Eventually in my head, I was like, ‘What if when I hit the drum, something could happen in the game?’” he said. “And so I put on my R&D hat.”

CZR had played drums since he was a kid—in marching bands, pep bands at the University of Houston, and in heavy metal groups. He is also a professional engineer, which helped him to solve this puzzle. He found a program called Bome MIDI translator, typically used by musicians for live performances, that takes sounds and turns them into computer inputs. Certain devices, like the TAStm32, can turn those into N64 controller inputs. He also met Ownasaurus, who had more experience with programming and the N64 hardware. They communicated over Discord to figure out how to modify a python script to get the TAStm32 to accept inputs via the translator. “It was very interesting to have a drummer and speedrunner talking to a programmer in this lingo of, ‘Hey, when I roll with both my hands on the drum, I want this to happen,’” CZR says.

They are now on version five of the drumkit; a recent modification added another drum for a redundant B button, which allows CZR to use whichever drum location is easier for particular parts of games. The MIDI controllers are pressure sensors: They can tell where and how hard he hit a drum. So he has four drums that are each of the cardinal directions, and he can roll on it to move Mario in each direction. But if he hits a drum hard, he only has to hit it once—Mario will run that way until stopped. But those four main drums are also his C buttons, he just has to hit the rim of the drum for those button presses. This makes it easier to play than adding pads for every input. There’s a little bit of lag. CZR and Ownasaurus are still tweaking it.

CZR says he quickly realized that learning speedrun routes is a lot like how he learns songs. You watch others play, you follow instructions, you practice a lot, and eventually you get the muscle memory to just do it. After creating the initial kit controller, he returned to Ocarina of Time. By June 2020, he’d beaten the game in under 30 minutes. He moved onto Mario 64 the next month, beating the 16-star version of the game in 1:25:15. His best is now 19:48. In his GDQ run, CZR nails a tough trick that opens the 16-star route—the bomb clip, which uses a Bob-omb to push Mario through the bars of a cage that contains a star.

CZR says you have about a third of a second to do the correct input for this trick. “Leading up to GDQ, I practiced that trick hundreds of times,” he says. “That was one of those tricks where I went for flair. I did not have to do that—I could have done another strat that’s 100 percent consistent. This one was more like 50 percent. Even on the weeks leading up to it practicing, I couldn't really do better than 50 percent. But I went for it, and you can see my excitement.”

He’s mostly played N64 games. Since his controller mods do not follow’s rules, all of his 80 world records are unofficial marks in a category he calls Drum%. He doesn’t know of any others using an input like his, but he hopes others take inspiration.

What’s coolest to me about CZR’s speedrunning is the way in which his accomplishments are built on collaboration. Speedrunning is a lot like mountain climbing in this way: In isolation, people work tirelessly to discover new tricks that lead to faster routes. One is just for going up Half Dome, while the other is for swimming through the bomb-disarming level in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But all of it adds up to a new way of approaching a common task. When a new time-saver is discovered, others race to replicate it, and then see if they can improve on that new time. From all that strange work done in isolation, something like a community develops. CZR worked with Ownasaurus on his drum controllers. He used tricks, glitches, and general routes created by Mario 64 and Ocarina Of Time speedrunners over the last 25 years. Maybe people will start following him.

This all adds up to something that is, in my opinion, Art. CZR’s runs are enjoyable and impressive and unique on their own, but he also creates a piece of music in the end. He’s saved the audio of his performance from his GDQ run, and he’s released the audio on his Patreon. He’s talked about a potential vinyl release. Something wonderful can be created from the silliest ideas.

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