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Mazes and Labyrinths: Speedrunning Metroidvania - ShinyZeni

This interview is with ShinyZeni, a Metroid speedrunner. He primarily plays Super Metroid and has held a WR for the 100% category in the past (which you can view by clicking here). 

"Mazes and Labyrinths" interviews speedrunners and Twitch streamers about disempowerment in Metroidvania and survival horror games. The series follows a pretty set of research goals that specifically examine how mazes and labyrinths, along with their historically "heavy" content, disempower players. To read more about these research goals, and more about Metroidvania and survival horror in general, please refer to the series abstract.

To read other interviews in the series, refer to my interview compendium.


Nick: I'm a Gothic ludologist who writes about horror in videogames. My specialty is Metroidvania, but I also research FPS (first-person shooters) and survival horror.

Zeni, can you tell us a little about yourself? How long have you been speedrunning and what got you into it?

Zeni: Hi, I'm ShinyZeni but I usually just go by Zeni. I'm a 30-something year old man with a wife and three kids, a full time job, a degree in cybersecurity and information assurance, and a Twitch stream on the side that I spend most of my "free time" on. I'm a pretty busy guy!

The first speedruns I ever saw were posted on SpeedDemosArchive back in the early 2000s. There were some for Metroid Prime, and some for Super Metroid. I instantly fell in love with both, completely amazed at how skilled the players were, and blown away by the fact that they could collect all the items in "under an hour" (tracked using the in-game timer. In real time, the runs were over an hour).

I started casually trying to copy the tricks and strats I saw in those speedruns—to see how quickly I could get through the games myself. I managed to pull off some of the stuff in Metroid Prime, but was far more successful with Super Metroid. I would casually run both games at least once or twice a year for many years, but took some time off for a few years, between 2010-2014 or so. In 2013 I found updated runs on SpeedDemosArchive. 

Shortly after that I found out about GamesDoneQuick and started watching. I remember thinking that a race of the game [between multiple players] didn't sound that entertaining, but I was wrong! Just like in the early days, I was immediately hooked and so amazed by the runners and how similarly but differently they each played the game.

I found Twitch around the same time and started watching the top runners of the day—mostly Zoasty, who became my favorite Super Metroid speedrunner and Twitch streamer. Finally I poked around in the community a bit for a few years before finally diving into speedrunning myself in 2017.

Nick: Awesome! I've divided the rest of interview into four main sections, which we'll complete one at a time.

  • Ludic, Closed Space
  • The Gothic Chronotope
  • Historical Contributions
  • The Quest for Mastery

Before we start, just a reminder that these are my arguments; they're not universal truths, but extensions of my own research. So if you feel like you disagree, feel free to do so!

Ludic, Closed Space

Research point #1: The Metroid franchise ludically disempowers players by forcing them inside a closed space that spatially limits the power and quantity of their equipment, maneuverability and speed. 

Nick: What about closed space appeals to you? Why not play something more open, and with a protagonist whose stronger from the offset?

Zeni: Well, I wouldn't say it's the closed space specifically that appeals to me. There is something to be said about the upgrades that Samus collects and how powerful she becomes by the end of each game, and that is definitely one of my favorite parts of Metroidvania. This being said, I've played plenty of other games, some of which do start you off fairly powerful, and enjoyed them greatly! 

As for why I spend so much time speedrunning Super Metroid specifically, that's more related to how beautifully put together the game is, and how "cool" it looks and feels. The movement in the game is beautiful, and often times people will comment on that—either in my own stream or other runners' streams. It not only looks cool, but it's difficult to optimize the movement as well. This means there is a payoff, or a return from the hard work you can put into improving your gameplay as time goes on.

In short, I'm totally open to playing games with Doomguy. It just so happens I didn't pick those games as my preferred Speedrun. :)

Nick: Different Metroid games have a different kinds of closed space. Metroid II diverged sharply away from the classic, non-linear maze, offering an extremely linear shooting gallery for Samus to try and complete. Conversely Super Metroid offers the player an incredibly brief starting sequence (re: the collection of essential items) followed by an unusually broad and flexible mid-game. It's hard to say how much of this was deliberate. Nevertheless, a lack of ubiquitous gating combined with a generous amount of innate abilities (re: wall jump, mock ball, and bomb jump) lets Samus sequence break with abandon, creating numerous, varied routes that feel like a natural part of the game.

Combined with Samus' productive starter abilities (re: bomb jump, mock ball, wall jump), copious sequence breaks make Super Metroid very nonlinear. Would you consider it the most non-linear Metroid game? What about this unprecedented  non-linearity appeals to you, and why might you choose such a gameworld over something more linear?

I know that other Metroid games offer varying amounts of linearity. I can't speak specifically to each one and how they compare like CScottyW could, but I can compare Super Metroid to say, Metroid Fusion, which is almost entirely on-the-rails.

The freedom that Super Metroid provides means that you can make the game your own. I think that's why its level of openness appeals to me: If I decide I want to do something differently than other runners, it's much easier to switch it up than a game with lots of linear levels or movement. Often times there is no "right" and "wrong" way to do something in Super Metroid. One strat may save frames over another strat, but both are completely valid and viable for runs, and even WR-level play! If you compare and contrast my former WR with Zoasty's current WR in 100%, you're going to find many differing strats, and if you throw Behemoth's former World Record in, there are even more discrepancies!

Super Metroid offers many of those same things to casual players. Before I ever thought or knew about speedrunning, I would use bomb jumps to try and get to places "early." Like trying to get up to the cliffside door overhanging the starting area of the game, only to realize it's an yellow door and I couldn't open it yet anyway! The point is though, that I was allowed to try in the first place. Many games since Super Metroid have leveraged this same "open" mindset, but I have yet to find one that does it as well as Super Metroid does.

source: Metroidwiki

Nick: Does the true boss in Metroid ever feel like the space itself—specifically the maze/labyrinth as something to move through, ignoring its cosmetics features? 

Zeni: I wouldn't say it feels like "the true boss," but I would say that it definitely lends itself to the difficulty of the game. Maridia, for example, is an area that many new players struggle with (and sometimes hate). For me, especially in the early years, it was the part of the run where I would get tired and become demotivated to continue. This meant that often times I would take a break and finish later, or not at all. I've told people over the years how the combination of the design/layout of the area, and the music they use did a fantastic job of making me feel lost and disoriented when I was younger—not an easy feat for a SNES game!

The Gothic Chronotope

Research point #2: The Metroid franchise visually disempowers players through spatiotemporal themes conducive with the prison, graveyard, institution or tyrannical home. 

The narrative approach in Metroid is typical of Gothic stories: the chronotope, or time-space. The space in Metroid isn't just a bare, clean-swept maze; it's littered with markers of the historical past. Metroid specifically treats the Gothic castle as "retro-future"; its walls are covered with hauntological markers of time—relics, effigies, hieroglyphics that serve as dated images of the future, while simultaneously promoting the grim reputations of old structures.

To this, Zebes (and Samus' other unlucky destinations) typically feel like a prison, graveyard, institution and home—often all at once, and to varying degrees. Ostensibly derelict, they're occupied by dragons and powerful, archaic monsters. These agents threaten Samus with physical destruction. However, the space also attacks her mind, promoting themes of involuntary incarceration, live burial, hereditary trauma, and sacrificial power rites.

You control Samus in Super Metroid; tied to each space and its historical reminders, do you ever feel:
  • Jailed?
  • Watched (re: the spotlight scene when you collect the morph ball and missles)?
  • Buried alive, inside a tomb that may or may not be yours?
  • Part of a larger scheme, one meant to hereditarily transfer tyrannical power to you?

Zeni: It's hard to remember how the game made me feel prior to speedrunning over and over, but I would say that Maridia did (and does) sometimes feel like a jail. 

There's a room just after you enter the area with a one-way gate (that can only be bypassed with speedrunning tricks). When you enter Maridia through the "intended" method after leaving Wrecked Ship, you explore the area and eventually find yourself stuck behind this gate. There's a way out in the very next room over, but it's hidden under a block and the only hint is if you watch the crabs, they crawl through the passage under the block. If you aren't paying attention then you have only one way out of the area... which is exactly back the way you came. This obviously is not progression, and it definitely did a good job of making me feel trapped back then.

Despite the spotlight that turns on after you collect Morph Ball and the missile pack at the beginning of the game, I never really felt "watched" in Super Metroid. I also never felt like Samus was part of a larger scheme. It always seemed to me like she was in charge of her own destiny and really just determined to get the stolen baby Metroid back by any means necessary. Those means turned into a vast number of upgrades that transforms her from a formidable bounty hunter into an absolutely unstoppable one 

artist: ?

Nick: As the game's most powerful entity, would you describe her as a "benign" destructive force? It seems like everything she comes into contact with dies... Basically, is she a monster in your eyes, and if so, is she a good monster?

Zeni: That depends on how you would define benign. I don't get the feeling that she has ill intent at any point, but you are right on some level. The only games that take place after Super Metroid in the story have her at the mercy of the Galactic Federation, who she attempts to assist in their various missions. Granted, opposing forces generally don't walk away from encounters with her...

Nick: Often there are no "guides" to speak of in Super Metroid—no cutscenes nor dialogue to communicate your peril; these world communicate simply by isolating the player inside the chronotope and having them move around. 

Does exisiting inside a non-linear space like Super Metroid, which forces you to go off the beaten path and pursue your prey, ever feel more disempowering without a guide, than a linear gameworld like Metroid Fusion?

Zeni: It's interesting you say that because Super Metroid (and many older games) did actually have "guides" on how to play the game. They just weren't front-and-center, nor in-your-face. Instead of forcing you into a tutorial, the tutorial was built into the environment. 

For example, when you collect morph ball the game prompts you on how to use it. It then "forces" you to use it, because casually the only way out is to roll through a passageway at the bottom. Samus can't jump high enough to get back up the way she came. When you collect super missiles, you're immediately presented with a green door which can only be opened using super missiles. The game never "tells you" that "green doors can be opened with a Super Missile, try it out!" It just presents you with a situation that is more or less easily solved (and thus taught).

There's also speedbooster and wave beam. Once collected, the game tells you to use it by holding the dash button. If you don't hold the dash button on your way out, lava rises from the floor and kills you. When you collect wave beam, on the way in you open a gate with a switch on the left side. On your way out, you have to open that same gate from the right side, which has to be done with wave beam. I hope all of this makes sense.

You say specifically "these world communicate simply by isolating the player inside the chronotope and having them move around." But to me it's more than just the world saying "move around and figure it out." I honestly feel that there is an invisible hand guiding you on how to progress through the game. There are a few spots that didn't do a great job at it, but for the most part it's all very intuitive to the point that the player doesn't even realize what's happening.

I think any disempowerment that comes from this method of teaching just comes in the form of a more difficult puzzle that may take longer for the player to figure out, or a hidden path to progress (re: entering Kraid's lair).

artist: Noe-Leyva

Nick: Regarding these spatiotemporal themes (isolation, tyranny, live burial, etc): Do you feel more aware of them when close to death? When I say "death," this can be from having low health; can be from being near markers of death (a corpse, a skull, a boss; etc); or in the sense of you trying to perform a difficult trick that will "kill" the run if you fail. Do these concepts ever merge for you when playing the game, effecting your performance and your heartrate?

Zeni: What is "them" specifically?

Nick: Them = feelings of being incarcerated, isolated, buried alive, etc. Call it oppressed, perhaps, and under mental attack. Normally these feelings are more for casual players, so I'm curious if a pro like you still feels them despite your expertise, or directly because of your expertise. 

Zeni: Death in Super Metroid is something I am very familiar with, and in every facet that you mentioned. 

First, Reverse Boss Order runs: In them, you're tasked with defeating the bosses in the opposite order of what was intended. This means Ridley first, and in order to do that you have to move through the entire area with no protection from heat damage. A slight mistake means literal death, and that's a lot of pressure! During the more intense "hell runs," there is absolutely a feeling of oppression as you take damage constantly.

Second, corpses: There are a few areas in the game where you run into dead people or creatures, the first of which is on the title screen, and in Ceres station. I didn't notice it as a child, but the scientists are lying on the floor after being presumably killed by Ridley.

Third, in terms of the "death" of a run, the more optimized a run gets, the more every single piece of movement matters. One slight mistake can mean the run no longer has a chance at becoming a PB, which is very stressful. For example, I wear a heartrate monitor on my stream and when I get on a good pace the stress absolutely reflects in my heartbeat! Part of that is excitement from "being on pace," but a lot of it is pressure knowing that if I don't play well enough or don't focus hard enough, I'll make mistakes and lose the run.

This is more of an aspect for me now than it ever has been in the past, as currently my best run has a very strong early game. You couple that with a difficult late game and a route that has many extremely difficult tricks right at the end of the run, and I definitely get stressed out!

Historical Contributions

Research point #3: The Metroid franchise successfully communicates its diegetic narratives of disempowerment historically through speedrunning metaplay—at various speeds and routes, with various glitches and tricks. 

Note: For this section, I'm largely referring to that runs that are recorded and uploaded online as historical documents. I'm also focusing on NMG (no major glitches).

Nick: The story in Metroid is generally historical, and concerns the gameworld's literal past. This past includes the diegetic elements that exist strictly onscreen, but also their emotional and ludic connections to the player, who exists offscreen.

Speedrunners like yourself incessantly record your playthroughs for other people to watch. 
These historical documents extend "the screen" to include whatever metaplay you vocalize (re: cries of joy or frustration, small talk, etc). In your opinion, can the on-screen historical markers (re: the in-game corpses, gargoyles and icons) in Metroid intimate the player's off-screen emotions—their private joys, terrors, and inside jokes? 

Zeni: I think speedrunners inherently make a connection to their respective games just because of how much time they spend with them. As you've mentioned, this may or may not apply to any of the on-screen markers; oft-times, speedrunning is more about the meta-community and things that have been experienced together outside of the game itself.

Nick: Provided the audience is familiar with the runner—in this case, you—and has been there with them for the ride time and time again, do you feel like your historical contributions as a speedrunner add to whatever "symbolic freight" the games' diegetic markers convey—i.e., the countless times you've been killed onscreen; or otherwise felt trapped, lost, or traumatized?

Another way to look at it is the process where your chat projects their memories of your past runs onto a current run and its onscreen markers. Might they project you specifically onto the dead guy outside of Kraid? I.e., "Here lies Zeni" or "Zeni was here," but in a way that feels appropriately spooky or unsettling according to the game's intended experience. 

Zeni: I think my audience/community in general has definitely made connections with me and my experiences on a personal level. When I lose a run, I always say things like "I'm sorry you guys" even though I'm the one that lost it. As for projecting it onto pieces inside of the game, I'm not sure. Maybe some people do! They've never told me that, though.

source: ShinyZeni

Nick: Despite being a 27-year-old game, a lot of history is still being made in Super Metroid. As something for the game to communicate, this total history include the glitches, tricks and other metaplay performed by speedrunners, even if it's not strictly a part of the gameworld. 

For example, as a speedrunner you exploit your avatar's basic mechanisms to move as fast as possible. Many glitches, like Samus' mock ball, fail to break immersion when performed. Probably the strangest glitch is arm-pumping. Can you think of any other movement glitches that make Samus' movement look so bizarre as to "break" the story?

Zeni: In RBO, there's a trick called Moondance which involves "moonfalling" (another glitch) while glitched inside of some blocks 176(?) times. From there, you run to the room to the left and magically "jump" down through the floor which you're not supposed to be able to do. There is absolutely nothing natural-looking about that trick, haha, and it made lots of people mad when I put it in my run.

Nick: Does a runner's performance anxiety conflict with the story's intended sense of death (re: dead Samus)? Or can the intended story—one of disempowering motion through a historically weighty location—still occur when all of the drama is centered on an off-screen speedrunner whose heartrate is as high as 180 BPM?

Zeni: I think that depends on the runner. I would say in most spots where my heart rate spikes, it's in regards to me being afraid of failing a trick that would kill the run, but have no direct impact on Samus (thus breaking immersion). In 100%, there's a spot where you have to fall down the middle of 2 blocks to get 2 missile packs. There is no danger to Samus here whatsoever, but if I mess that up, the run is dead.

Nick: In that sense, would you agree that your danger is completely at odds with the danger Samus is facing?

Zeni: Not completely, but mostly, yes. There are spots (re: Baby Skip) where my heart rate definitely spikes and there is a direct impact on what happens to Samus. [It coincides with the story Super Metroid wants to tell].

Samus doing the baby skip in the "Big Boy Room" (source:

The Quest for Mastery

Research point #4: This final section concerns the runner's quest for mastery amid all of this history. 

Nick: I view the speedrunner's challenge as a kind of metaplay informed by the gameworld's coded instructions. The more runners move, the more they record; the more they record, the more history the space accrues.

You've played Super Metroid for hundreds of hours, mapping the same old map. Does it feel "unmappable" to you? To that, is there a sense of elusive mastery to the experience, and does it ever make you feel disempowered because always one more map to fill in? Or do you enjoy it for precisely that reason?

Zeni: As a Super Metroid runner, I understand that I will never meet the game's full potential. It's too complex and too intricate to humanly achieve everything possible in the game. I wouldn't say that makes me love it more, but I do love the game more because I can always improve on it should I choose to. People often come into my stream (or another top runner's) and ask, "what is the best humanly possible time in Super Metroid?" From me the answer is always the same: "We don't know, and we never will."

[editor's note: Perfect runs are nearly impossible to achieve. The rare example of a perfect run is the so-called "human limit" in Super Mario Bros. 1. By design, SMB1 plays in incredibly linear fashion: run to the right of the screen until you reach the end of the level. To this, Mario can only run so fast, and the player can only save so much time (re: frame rules); by extension, SMB1 can only be played so fast. After nearly forty years, this human limit in SMB1 has yet to be attained by a human. 

By comparison, the non-linear gameworld in Super Metroid allows for much more variability than SMB1 ever could, thus pushing its human limit to relatively unquantifiable extremes.]

(source: arstechnica)

Nick: Do you feel constantly drawn back to Super Metroid, thus unable to escape, because its somehow "greater" than you are? For example, speedrunners dissect games, but games give them the tools to do. Metroid in particular introduced many staples to the speedrunning practice: a maze-like, deconstructible world, and hidden, time-based reward system helped lay the groundwork for speedrunning as a practice.

In this sense, do you ever feel feel "taught" by the game, even though it contains no active instructor? That is, do you feel conditioned to respond not only by the walls that guide your steps (re: the hidden tutorials), but also by the game constantly robbing time from you (in a speedrunner sense)? And once you become aware of the rules and how they've coded you, do you submit to them willingly?

Zeni: I don't feel unable to escape by anything the game has done or does necessarily. I'm continually drawn back to it by my desire to improve. I know that the game can't "beat me" unless I choose to let it. After all, it's my choice whether I give up on a goal of mine or not. Super Metroid has no control over that.

This being said, I do feel like sometimes the game does things that I'm not expecting that consequently help me improve. For instance, I'll lose a run in a specific way (sometimes even through death) that I never have before. When that happens, I feel a pull—to go dissect that, figure it out, and prevent it from happening again.

Nick: Is the past you're contending with inside Super Metroid essentially yourself, mainly your personal best? Do you ever visualize this former, past record as being represented by Mother Brain, or any of the game's other bosses? Effectively a historical marker to run against, that only grows more and more powerful over time?

Zeni: It's not something I really contrast with enemies in the game, no. It's always just been a representation of myself that I'm trying to best.

Nick: Does the thought that the history of the gameworld will survive you ever enter your mind, like you're contributing to a legacy bigger than yourself?

Zeni: I often wonder where the speedrunning community will be in ten years. Will I still be running at that point, as a 40-something-year-old? Will I have retired? Will people still be coming to me with questions, or will my methods and ideas be dated by that point? What will the technology look like? Will people still be playing on CRTs, or will everyone have moved on from legacy hardware?

These questions are all obviously impossible to answer. Time will tell of course. As for "leaving a legacy behind," I wonder sometimes how long people will still reference my runs and performances, but speedrunning was never about the fame for me. It's not something I do for glory. I'm just trying to have fun and get satisfaction out of something by improving myself.

Nick: To that, it sounds like Super Metroid is good at providing a means of self-improvement, regarding the space as something to master.

Zeni: I would say that is absolutely accurate. :)

Nick: This concludes the interview. Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down with me and answer my questions, Zeni! Where can people reach you online these days, if they want to follow your work?

Zeni: I use "ShinyZeni' as my username on Twitch, and Twitter. Thanks for the opportunity!


About me: My name is Nick van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I primarily write reviews, Gothic analyses, and interviews. Because my main body of work is relatively vast, I've compiled it into a single compendium where I not only list my favorite works, I also summarize them. Check it out, here!

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