Screenshot: YouTube (THQ)

Quest 64 is the first game I ever watched someone speedrun. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing at the time. It was the late ‘90s, and the term was not yet in common use. My younger brother managed to beat the game in a single sitting, something I’d never previously imagined being possible with a role-playing game. He didn’t set any world records, but the determination and passion were palpable.

The N64 was practically a desert when it came to great RPGs. After releasing some of its best games in the genre on the Super NES, Final Fantasy publisher Square pivoted to working with Sony for the next generation of hardware (and convinced Dragon Quest maker Enix to join it). Consequently, the Nintendo 64 had only a tiny handful of RPGs, one of them being Quest 64, released by THQ in 1998. It wasn’t good, but for RPG lovers with an N64 it was something we could call our own, and so we loved it anyway. In many ways it is to the N64 what Mystic Quest was to the SNES: baby’s first role-playing game.

Unlike RPGs on the SNES though, Quest 64 didn’t have save RAM inside its cartridge. Instead, saving the game required a separate memory card jammed into the back of the N64 controller. We didn’t have one. Getting to the first inn and not being able to log my progress was about when my interest in the game first began to dry up. My brother wasn’t as discouraged, though. Every day he’d pick the game back up, start over from scratch, and master a little bit more of it. Days later he made it to the second town and then the third. Eventually he was able to get even farther in half as much time. One day he finally beat it. I’ve rarely witnessed perseverance in such an unadulterated form, and for a second, watching him unload a torrent of spells on the final boss, it convinced me the game was worth all the time he had dumped into it.

This experience has been on my mind while watching speedrunner DriftingSkies’ most recent playthroughs of Quest 64. Earlier this week, he set a new world record of 1:59:28 for beating the game after collecting all of its Spirits, the points of energy littered throughout the world that permanently power up your spells. A day later, he shaved another minute off, bringing his new best time to 1:57:19. Any% runs of the game, in which players simply get to the end credits as fast as they can, revolve around an exotic strategy called “death cloning” where the game can be tricked into leveling up your spells while in the middle of a death animation. But the “All Spirits” runs like DriftingSkies’, on the other hand, rely less on glitches and more on encyclopedic knowledge of the game’s world. Players concentrate on traversing the entire map as quickly as possible using the most efficient known routes.

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DriftingSkies recently discovered a new route, which is why he was able to set two world records in the same week. He now focuses on raising his agility early on in the game and skips building up his defense entirely; higher risk but also higher reward. The run does use some glitches to gain an advantage in battle and also get outside of the map in certain dungeons to avoid enemy encounters, but it also has the burden of still reaching all the far corners of the game’s world inside of two hours. If only Twitch were around 20 years ago, my brother could have avoided days upon days of wasted game progress.

For all of Quest 64’s simplicity and banal RPG elements though, its magic system stood out as a key reason to invest time into it. The battles involve dodging attacks in real time as well as mixing spells on the fly using one of up to four different elements. For instance, one of earth and two of fire yields a rolling rock attack, one of the most powerful damage spells in the game. It’s a system that’s actually fun to experiment with and no doubt part of why someone might be hell-bent on finishing the game when so much else in it was uninspired or downright nonsensical.

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The rolling rock spell, combined with a magic barrier (one earth, one fire, and one wind), are the key to defeating the game’s final boss in record time. This is the combination DriftingSkies uses at the end of his runs, with a few recovery items mixed in depending on how confidant he’s feeling. By now, DriftingSkies has done this fight hundreds of times. Done correctly, the whole thing is over in just over one minute.

Decades later the incessant pitter-patter of Quest 64's protagonist’s feet and the generic musical themes are still pleasant reminders for me of what some people will go through to beat certain games, no matter how generally terrible they may be to actually play. It’s as if the act of beating and mastering a game can somehow help it on its way to fulfilling the original promise of what it could back when it was just a piece of plastic sitting in a box up on a store shelf. And thanks to speedrunners like DriftingSkies, glimpses of that magic haven’t been lost entirely.