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Link overlooking a vast landscape, heading to a space between two mountains in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.

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How Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom players are breaking an ‘unbreakable’ game

All in the name of speedrunning

Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Link isn’t that fast, but he can sprint for short periods of time — something that’s determined by a stamina wheel that players can upgrade as they progress in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. Players clear shrines and gain a Light of Blessing each time, which they can spend on increasing that stamina wheel. It’s a smart system that ties Link’s strength to his experience, and one that works for the everyday player. Link’s early constraints fall away as the game moves on.

But speedrunners are not everyday players. Speedrunners need to go fast; the current official record for beating Tears of the Kingdom is just over one hour, in a game where it’s easy to clock 100 hours without touching the endgame. Tears of the Kingdom lets the player head straight toward the big Ganondorf fight at the end of the game; there’s just a bit of preparation needed. To get through it quickly, speedrunners and the glitch-hunting community are trying to break an “unbreakable” game.

Tears of the Kingdom, unlike The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild before it, is designed to be exploited; the Ascend ability started as a cheat code for developers, after all. It’s built into the game’s new abilities, like Ultrahand and weapon fusing, which let the player make ungodly combinations of things; Ascend, which negates ceilings to send Link swimming through stone; and the Recall ability that’s helpful for reversing time and mistakes. Nintendo hasn’t made any real “intended” solution for its puzzles, instead creating a sandbox that allows for experimentation and multiple outcomes. It’s hard to break a game designed around exploits, but the glitch-hunting community has done just that.

None of the glitches the community has found so far are game-breaking enough to negate the starting sky island tutorial region, or for players to be able to defeat Ganondorf in one hit. Instead, glitch hunters have focused on finding ways to shave off precious seconds from Tears of the Kingdom speedruns. It’s stuff like sprinting without using stamina, which allows Link to travel just a bit quicker, weapon stacking for higher damage, or exploiting Autobuild to fly without building a contraption.

“I know it sounds like, Oh, why would that be too useful if it only gives him a slight boost?speedrunner Carl Wernicke, who goes by gymnast86 online, told Polygon. “But over the course of an entire run, all those slight boosts add up to 30 seconds of saved time over the course of an hour-long run.”

Those 30 seconds, combined with other time-saving measures, could mean the difference between breaking a record or not. Then there’s the fall damage cancellation glitch, which lets speedrunners skip over getting the glider, which saves around six minutes, Wernicke said. To pull it off, players must perfect a complicated input sequence.

Wernicke is known for his speedruns across the Legend of Zelda franchise. He was the first unofficial record holder for the Any% run — finishing the game’s story without meeting a specific threshold for percentage completed — two hours after Tears of the Kingdom was released on May 12, clocking in at roughly 90 minutes. He started speedrunning The Legend of Zelda in 2013 with The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, his focus being 3D Zelda games. He continued breaking records with Breath of the Wild, a game that has been important in understanding what makes Tears of the Kingdom tick.

“It was a pretty safe assumption that Tears of the Kingdom was, on a mechanical level, going to be similar to Breath of the Wild,” Wernicke said. “The sequel takes place in the same world. Aside from the new stuff you can do, we didn’t see huge differences in the mechanics, based on what was shown before the game came out.”

Nintendo has patched out a lot of the glitches that worked in Breath of the Wild speedruns (and is quickly patching Tears of the Kingdom), but that knowledge and expertise have been beneficial to the community, which is finding new exploits at a hasty clip. Wernicke said there are two common ways that glitch hunters look for exploits: The first is just finding things by accident while playing regularly, or finding and reverse-engineering glitches seen in clips online. The most common way, though, is combining two or more action inputs at the same time and just seeing what happens.

“There are hundreds of little things you can do in the game,” Wernicke said. “What happens when we combine these things individually to see how the game responds?”

It’s how the community finds things like crouch sprinting or throw sprinting, which lets Link run without losing much stamina, or the Recall launch, a move that uses the Recall ability to launch Link into the air — high enough to reach sky islands.

Link looks in wonder at his Zonai arm in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

A glitch hunter who goes by Blize online used both methods to reverse-engineer and expand on the Recall launch.

“The process involved a lot of testing and trying to shoot down as much variables as possible,” Blize said. He studied a glitch of using a Recalled spear to fling Link into the air, but found the method inconsistent. Blize needed to tweak the method to get Link flying as high as possible.

“I started to figure out all the possible factors that could make this glitch work/fail and tried to just change one of those variables at a time,” Blize told Polygon. “Every successful launch I clipped and at the end of play sessions I would skim through [the recordings] and see if I could figure out any pattern. In the end it was [a] small comment in a friend’s voice message about one of those clips that gave me the missing puzzle piece.”

The process took Blize around 10 to 15 hours of his 50 hours in Tears of the Kingdom, a few hours at a time, to narrow down the variables he was confident about. But still, he’s not done: “I still believe there’s a way to make this even more consistent and overall better.”

The Discord community is a huge part of glitch hunting and speedrunning; a lot of work happens in Discord servers and is documented in spreadsheets. It’s a way to make the process easier and more iterative, especially when things are happening so fast. “It’s a very hectic time because the game just came out,” Wernicke said. “New glitches are being discovered every day.” There’s power in numbers, he added.

“Sharing knowledge on how things work is hugely critical for all these different glitches and exploits to be found,” Wernicke said. “And it’s not just glitches and exploits. You know, like, ‘This combat strategy saves two seconds,’ or ‘We can go get this food instead of this food over here, because there’s a better drop rate for this food that we need.”

Glitch hunting is beneficial to the speedrunning community, but it’s also a good thing for the game as a whole, extending the lifespan of an already popular game. The Breath of the Wild community was still finding new things up until Tears of the Kingdom’s release, and will probably continue to do so going forward.

“It’s great that communities [form] around themes like glitch hunting and speedrunning a game since they extend the lifespan and experience of great games like Tears of the Kingdom just so much more,” Blize added.


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