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Inside the wild speedrunning community of 16-year-old SpongeBob: Battle for Bikini Bottom

(Image credit: THQ Nordiq)

If SpongeBob uses his "bubble bowl" and "cruise bubble" moves on the exact same frame, his current velocity and base speed will be captured and stored. Do this with the right precision, and a player can exponentially juice SpongeBob's idle walk animation to six times its intended speed. From there, SpongeBob's "uppercut" can be used as a super jump, and his ground pound essentially lets him fly. This technique is called "Cruise Boosting." It is the first and most crucial tactic to master if you want to speedrun SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle For Bikini Bottom. Get the timing down, and the Pacific ocean will fall to its knees.

Inexplicably, a lot of people want to speedrun Battle for Bikini Bottom, a 2003 3D platformer. Cruise Boosting hints at why it's popular: it turns out that Bikini Bottom is a vibrant playground for wild speedrunning tricks.

Essentially, speedrunning Battle for Bikini Bottom is much like playing God

SHiFT

"The game's engine supports speeds up to millions of units per second if the player can find a way to execute them, along with the ability to clip through any wall and floor at certain speeds and lag levels. SpongeBob can also levitate infinitely, float at a set height and fall anywhere out of bounds if the player has deactivated kill triggers with glitches," says SHIFT, the 22-year old New Jerseyite who currently holds the world record in every SpongeBob speed category under the sun. "Essentially, speedrunning Battle for Bikini Bottom is much like playing God."

SHIFT, like most people who are rediscovering Battle for Bikini Bottom, first played the game during his elementary years. It was, and still is, one of those hastily programmed licensed products from the early 2000s—emblematic of a time when comic book publishers, movie houses, and television studios raced to get their mascots plugged into floaty console platformers as quickly as possible. But Battle for Bikini Bottom was different. Unlike, say, Superman 64, or Rugrats: Search for Reptar, or *shudder* Shrek Smash 'n Crash, SpongeBob's sojourn is actually kinda good. Yes, it follows the generic licensed game blueprint, but the charm, heart, and humor of the original series somehow didn't atrophy away in the process. A staunch commitment to quality infected every arena in the SpongeBob multiverse, but it's still pretty impressive that the sense of duty turned out a decent game.

Still, SHIFT tells me that he pretty much forgot about Battle for Bikini Bottom after his 9th birthday. It wasn't until 2016 that the once-and-future SpongeBob maestro would be reintroduced to his youth, in the form of a tool-assisted speedrun that blew his doors off. It was then that SHIFT decided to jump in the deep end in order to master The Dark Arts of Bikini Bottom speedrunning—grinding away at the game's inefficiencies and loose ends until it cracked in two.

Today SHIFT streams the game constantly on his Twitch channel, and says that initially, his efforts caused a stir in the greater speedrunning community: "People were curious to know why anyone would play a SpongeBob game seriously, and the attention that brought helped build my channel up to eventually become partnered with Twitch and get the game into Awesome Games Done Quick 2017," he explains. A yellow, spongey snowball was now rolling downhill. At 2017's Awesome Games Done Quick, SHIFT's SquarePants run topped 108,000 viewers.

Earlier this year, THQ Nordic announced it will publish a remake entitled SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle For Bikini Bottom—Rehydrated. The company showed off footage at Gamescom. The ocean's tender seaweed fields sway in glistening 4K, and you can stare into each and every pore on Squidward's nose. Even in an age of remakes, Bikini Bottom's renaissance is a spectacular outlier. Nobody has a good answer for why it happened. SHIFT tells me that for a period on Twitch, top streamers would list their channels under the Bikini Bottom name as they were delving into some other obscure game. He's probably onto something there, but personally, it feels more like the latest manifestation of memetic primordial soup—how any joke, if told long enough and seriously enough, can beget life. 

But I'd like to think that even if THQ wasn't readying a remake, the Bikini Bottom diehards would still be here, shaving away at the world record pace. The one thing I've learned about Spongebob speedrunning is that it's a surprisingly compelling bracket packed with enough nuance to seduce any aspiring speed player. Another runner, a 17-year old from California who goes by Conker, currently sits in 5th place on the 100 percent format. He tells me that one of the reasons he's fallen for Bikini Bottom is because it plays like "Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time combined." 

"The amount of control you have over SpongeBob is insane and super fun," he continues. "There is little to no downtime throughout the entire speedrun which games like Super Mario Sunshine struggle with. This game is regarded as one of the harder speedruns at the top level and it definitely shows."

SHIFT takes that comparison even further. To him, a SpongeBob speedrun is divided into two distinct parts. The first half, he says, plays like a 3D Zelda run, where you organize extremely precise, Rube Goldberg-like levitation glitches, money generation scams, and damage-boosting cheese that can "skip entire levels." But the back-half is an exacting test of platforming ability, filled with the sort of acrobatic fireworks that get people hooked on speedruns after watching their first 120-star Mario run.

"A good speedrun needs both initial shock factor to interest viewers, and impressiveness of execution to keep people interested in watching the same run again and again," says SHIFT. "I believe that helps explain why the game has gained so much traction competitively in recent years."

Of course, the final ingredient is something more natural to Battle for Bikini Bottom's DNA. This is a licensed game based on a children's cartoon, and those tend to have a lot of bugs. "This game has an insane amount of glitches, skips, sequence breaks, and broken mechanics you can use to beat it as fast as possible," adds Conker. "Lag Clipping is one of my favorites. Using cruise boosting we can fall from a high platform and it will store our downward momentum. After that you mash the pause and select button to bring up the menu which can come out every frame to lag the game and clip you through any floor."

It makes you wonder what will happen after Rehydrated is released. Will THQ do their due diligence and seal off some of the gaping programming oversights that people like Conker and SHIFT are taking advantage of? Or will they instead recognize that the speed community is one of the spare reasons that there was enough interest for a Bikini Bottom remake in the first place? That will be decided next year. For now, SHIFT has his eyes on hitting a sub 1:20, 100 percent run. The Battle for Bikini Bottom rages on.