This month, we're spotlighting The League of Puzzle Speedrunners, a community focused on running and racing action puzzle games from the Puzzle League series.
The Early Years
The earliest version of the community that would become The League of Puzzle Speedrunners was a Skype group called Puzzle General that held races on Speedsrunlive.
“When this community came together it was a magical Summer of 2013. Basically, we played Pokemon Puzzle League every single night for three or four months,” said ilikebeingsmart, a member who’s been around since the early days.
Another long-time community member, Bbforky said,“there was no pressure to perform or anything. People were just having fun and trying to improve their time.”
Without the modern strategies, the rounds could take up a full evening, but those races were what really solidified the budding community.
“Without the race nights, we definitely wouldn't be at the spot we are today as a community because of people being active and actually playing the games and encouraging other people,” said Bbforky.
What is Puzzle League?
Although they do branch out into other games, The League of Puzzle Speedrunners primarily focuses on games in the Puzzle League series.
Consistently known as Panel de Pon in Japan, the first of these action puzzler games to be published in the North American and PAL regions was, confusingly, titled Tetris Attack and featured characters from Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island. Luckily, later English-language releases stuck with the name Puzzle League.
As a tower of colorful blocks scrolls upward, players eliminate them by swapping the blocks into matching lines of three or more.
In VS mode, players use combos (matching lines of more than three blocks) and chains (when clearing a set of blocks causes other blocks to fall into lines for elimination) to send garbage blocks to fall on the AI opponent’s screen.
The games are endlessly charming with simple mechanics and tons of depth. On top of that variable RNG luck adds exciting chaos into the mix for even the most seasoned runners. “It's never the same experience. You can't really have the same run twice,” said CardsoftheHeart.
Speedrunning an Action Puzzler
The most skilled Puzzle League speedrunners combine a consistent playstyle that takes advantage of the basic mechanics with an evolving understanding of each Puzzle League game’s specific quirks.
“You're trying to do multiple things at once instead of trying to focus on one big continuous sequence, so the speedrun definitely encourages more multitasking,” said CardsoftheHeart, another member who joined in the summer of 2013.
At times speedrunners even restrain themselves from completing certain attacks in order to make the best use of their time.
“If you're playing casually, it feels really good to get an x12 or x13 chain. But…in a speedrun that’s just going to take more time. Still, sometimes big combos are useful. It’s just about knowing what you want to do,” said Tayman.
Although the community doesn’t make use of many exploits, the enemy AI in Pokemon Puzzle League has a blindspot that comes in handy.
The AI prioritizes lower Garbage Blocks, so when a runner is able to send a few well-timed garbage blocks, the programming will get stuck in a loop.
“They'll run out of moves to try to clear that one garbage block, then they do the little cursor dance up and down. Then they run out of time and die,” said FFR Pro. You can see an example of this exploit performed by FFR Pro here
“That makes the higher level speedruns viable using that exploit. Otherwise, we really couldn't do that mode because the AI is just so good,” said Tayman.
Inside the Games
Since early on, CardsoftheHeart has been working to understand the inner workings of the Puzzle League games.
Without any background in computer science, he’s dug through assembly code to find out how they tick and he’s turned up some interesting discoveries.
His discoveries include some basic RNG manipulation strategies as well as various hidden timers and other values the game tracks behind the scenes.
“There's a lot under the hood that dictates how things happen and we still don't know everything that happens in these games,” he said.
In 2016, the League of Puzzle Speedrunners (still called Puzzle General at the time), took some inspiration from SpeedGaming and launched a tournament series that has persisted and evolved over the years.
CardsoftheHeart winning the SGDQ 2016 race.
Because the games are so dependent on RNG, each match is played as a best of five matches.
“I often refer to these games as RNG hell…anything can happen. times will vary wildly, but more often than not, the top players are going to be the most consistent,” said DevolitionDerby, who joined the community around that time.
“It's super frightening. But at the same time there's nothing more exhilarating than to be rushing with someone who you know might be close by,” said Tolker.
Foxyman, who was already part of the thriving Puzzle League PvP community, joined the League of Puzzle Speedrunners at the start of the pandemic.
With data from previous runs and tournaments, he was able to build run predictions based on each player’s average run times and other variables.
Not only was he using these models to improve his own performance, but he built[tk] bracket simulations to share throughout a tournament.
But even if the odds are calculated in advance, with so much RNG anything could happen. “It's unpredictable. You may think your match is going to have this outcome based on one skill over the other player, but the RNG element shakes it up,” FFR Pro said.
An Unexpected Achievement
It was Tayman vs. FFR Pro, the Winners Semi-Finals of the 2020 Pokemon Puzzle League - S-Hard tournament.
Tayman was the world record holder for the category, having risen from sixth to first place on the leaderboard in February 2019.
With FFR Pro now in sixth place on the leaderboard at the time, everyone expected Tayman to come out on top.
“I'm very competitive and I put too much pressure on myself,” Tayman said. “And I think there was the expectation that I would do really well.”
After three matches, the score was 2 to 1. Tayman only needed one more win to move on to the Winners Finals against CardsoftheHeart.
Then something unexpected happened. In a synergistic display of skill and near-perfect RNG, FFR Pro knocked out one virtual opponent after another at world record pace.
What at first seemed like a cool fluke didn’t stop and throughout the short race, Bbforky and CardsoftheHeart were on commentary getting more excited by the minute.
Then it came to Mewtwo, the final match in VS mode. As FFR Pro set up a multi-chain link, he saw his chance: Mewtwo’s combos had already created an opening on one side.
Giving up on the chain, he launched a small garbage block into the crevice. Mewtwo’s cursor bounced up and down, briefly struggling for life before the battle ended in just 17 seconds.
Although Tayman would go on to win not only the match but the tournament, FFR Pro had managed a different kind of victory. Just as Tayman had in 2019, FFR Pro rose from sixth place to first with a record that remains at the top to this day.
Friday Night Race Nights
On and off over the years, the League of Puzzle Speedrunners has held Friday Night Race Nights for the community to come together and race games in between tournaments.
Over time these laid-back events have become more consistent and contribute to the core of the community’s identity.
“We hang out. We banter. We vent about life… it's the joy in day-to-day life that's hard to really pinpoint exactly.” said Tayman.
Earlier this year, the community rebranded from Puzzle General to The League of Puzzle Speedrunners. The community has become more organized and new players have led to new innovations over the years, but the core attitude of the runners has remained intact.
“Everyone's really supportive, especially of newer players trying to get into it,” said Tai, who joined via the PvP community around the same time as Foxyman.
According to Bbforky, Friday Night Race Nights are reminiscent of the daily Pokemon Puzzle League races back in 2013. He said, “it's just people letting loose, having a good time.”
Group photo from SGDQ 2015
Razorflame, who joined in 2019 and has represented The League of Puzzle Speedrunners at more than 60 marathons, recalled joining the community. He said, “They were a bunch of players I was able to bounce ideas off of and talk about the games.”
Zeplander, who joined the community earlier this year alongside Tolker, said the community has offered plenty of tips and support. Just by interacting a few times, he found himself motivated to get more involved in the community which in turn motivated him to take the speedrun more seriously.
“I take a lot of pride in the community and what it's become,” said ilikebeingsmart.
All images used with permission. Header image is a group photo from SGDQ 2018.