When someone sees you playing Speedrunners, they usually stop and ask what it is. You won’t be able to reply. The best you’ll manage is a few grunts and jumbled words, as you juggle talking, thinking, running, jumping, ducking, swinging and probably-dying. Then suddenly, they’ll understand. “Ahh, it’s Micro Machines with running, right?” Well yes, sort of. But it’s better than that.
Thankfully, I’m not playing Speedrunners right now, so I’ll try and explain. It’s an endless runner set in twisting, 2D stages. It’s been in PC beta since the beginning of time, and it’s out on Xbox One this week. Each one is filled with traps, power ups and surfaces you can latch onto with a grappling hook. By doing this, you can swing around corners and over obstacles, accumulating speed as you go. Up to four people compete in this controlled environment, all attempting to outrun each other. Players are eliminated when they fall behind and touch the edge of the screen, and the process continues until one runner remains. So, yeah - it’s Micro Machines with running, in the same way Texas Chainsaw Massacre is Scooby Doo with meathooks.
Of course, that wouldn’t work on its own. Two talented players could memorise the tracks and flawlessly sprint around forever. That’s why the screen gradually shrinks after a certain amount of time, zooming in until your field of vision is the size of a USB slot. It’s amazingly tense. Even when you know the layout of every track, one mistake can end you. Throw in a selection of random weapons and the result is glorious chaos. You can drop crates behind you which other runners stumble over like sleepy drunks, fire homing missiles or lay timed explosives which let you eliminate your most-hated enemies. The golden hook is Speedrunners’s version of Mario Kart’s scandalous blue shell: it grabs the player at the front of the pack, dragging them backwards and flinging you ahead. It’s deeply satisfying, but not so much as a perfectly timed duck to avoid the hook, leaving your worthless, mewling challenger lagging at the back like a doomed wildebeest. Factor in a host of preposterous cartoon heroes - including a delightfully portly man in a bird suit, a confusing cat-witch and a dog that looks like Sherlock Holmes - and it feels natural selection in spandex.
It’s ace fun online, but the ideal way to enjoy Speedrunners is sat with four buddies, staring at the same screen. This is competitive couch gaming at its antagonistic best. Blocked paths and cruel grapples will test even the firmest of friendships, and you can’t help but feel persecuted every time the dreaded golden hook chooses you as its victim. You’ll need to learn the levels to remain competitive - especially when you factor in switches which alter the layout of each track - but there’s a rhythm to each stage that’s pleasingly intuitive. It also helps that the game feels incredible to play. There’s a palpable sense of momentum when you hit a perfectly-timed grapple, and few things rival the simple thrill of swinging around a corner at full speed.
So there you go. It’s Micro Machines with Mario Kart’s powerups, Bionic Commando’s grappling hook, Canabalt’s platforming, a birdman that looks like Walter White and whole host of complicated reasons why I can’t describe it and play at the same time. Just try it, okay?