I am, at present, the world record holder on one level in Neon White. Admittedly, “world record” is less impressive when only developers and media have played, and I expect to be toppled soon after it launches today. Point is: while writing this post about how much I adore the speedrunning FPS, several times I’ve had ideas about how I might make that record time even faster, so I’ve stopped writing, dropped into Neon White for a few minutes, and come back out with a new record. I love this game, and I might never finish this post.
As I explained more in detail after playing the demo earlier this year, Neon White is a speedrunning FPS about an extremely anime group of dead idiot assassins (called Neons) trying to enter vaporwave Heaven by winning a demon-slaying contest. As Neon White, we’re dashing through short levels, grabbing different guns (represented by cards) which can spray death or be ‘discarded’ (right-clicked) for a single-use movement ability: double-jump, airdash, stomp, and more. You can play through the story without getting super serious about scoring medals for fast times, but I’ve fallen hard for the joys of working to improve my own times and climb the online leaderboards.
One level, named Race, got stuck in my head. It is fairly simple. Dozens of demons are connected in a chain and once you kill the first, it’ll send death down the line, ultimately leading to the destruction of a platform you need to reach the goal. Stab that demon to start the clock and you must reach the end before the chain reaction does. You have a few unconnected demons to kill along the way too, and your only tool is a rifle which does an airdash when discarded. I liked the level. After getting the gold medal and then the ace medal, I stuck around and kept honing. And kept honing. I even beat the developer time set by Neon White creative director Ben Esposito and claimed the #1 spot on the leaderboards. Then I still kept honing, competing with myself, reveling in improvements big and small.
I’m going to show you two runs. A successful-but-bad run first, then my best time. The difference between them is only 6 seconds but that’s plenty to make my heart pound.
It’s a combination of dozens of tiny shaves and optimizations which delights me so. The big one is realizing that once I was ahead of the wave, I was stuck waiting for it to kill all the demons and unlock the goal—unless I triggered a second cascade farther along the chain. Figuring out how late in the chain I should shoot was a whole other problem. Then I was distracted from writing this post by the idea that while a second bouncepad demon was waiting to boost me down the path, maybe I could cut across the gap instead. All along the way, dozens of little attempts to shave seconds by improving my path, timing jumps better, trying killing enemies different ways, making the most of resources, and putting everything I’ve learned together in the same run. This process is a delight.
I’m far from finishing the story because I don’t want to move on from a level until I have a solid run. Playing a level at pace with a good route is an entirely different experience, even if the outcome is only six seconds faster. And the timing in medals is perfectly placed, with a gold medal feeling like a good run of the obvious route but an ace medal requiring mastering another route or an exotic trick. Even before the results screen shows me the medal, I can tell what I got from how the run went. Neon White does freely suggests one shortcut to push you past gold to ace on each level but beyond that, you’re on your own.
God, I do not understand how Esposito managed some of those dev records. But I will. While I half-wish Neon White would let me watch other players’ replays from the leaderboards (a wonderful feature in Devil Daggers), it’ll be more fun to figure it out all the hard way.
I don’t doubt that my record will be beaten within hours of the game launching—especially given that I’ve just shown you, reader dear, a route. I’ll soon tumble from #1 down into the hundreds or thousands. That’s fine. Even now, I’m thinking about how I can shave fractions of a second off my best time. You see the sloppiness, don’t you? You see the mistakes? How I needn’t stray so near that second pair of pickups? The time wasted basically standing still? How could I airdash farther down the viaduct if I had the snapshot aim of a young person? How maybe I could misuse the second bouncepad demon for an extra boost? You too see the opportunities to go at least 200ms faster, don’t you? I want to be better. I will do better.
Disclosure: Ben Esposito and his fellow Arcane Kids once DJed at an event I helped organise.