Some games are made to be watched. Games like I Wanna Run The Marathon. This hardcore platformer was designed to be played by four streamers for the first time at Fangame Marathon 2016, presenting a succession of eyewatering challenges intended to please the crowd.
And no wonder: it’s a supremely entertaining and pacey gauntlet of cruel traps, wry references and intricate level design, set across various sharp fangame parodies of games like Sonic, Mega Man, VVVVVV and Pokémon, incredibly. Seeing it played is like watching someone simultaneously unravelling a puzzle and telling a joke.
“It was exhilarating, watching the game debut,” co-creator Patrick ‘Patrickgh3’ Traynor tells me. “Both the players’ and chat’s reactions were heartwarming, in addition to being on the edge of our seats about things breaking.”
“We were praying that nothing went wrong,” adds Pieceofcheese87, who made I Wanna Run The Marathon along with Traynor, Wonderful and Kadykunde. “A crash, a softlock, something being too hard. We don’t do any large-scale testing.”
And sure enough, Pieceofcheese87 immediately felt there was a problem with its first stage, an homage to Michael ‘Kayin’ O’Reilly’s 2007 I Wanna Be The Guy, the game which kicked off the whole fangame scene. “It ended up one of the hardest stages in the game, so it’s one of the biggest faults,” he says, but it also contains one of his favourite moments, a tree which appears to be part of the scenery but falls on you for an instant kill, maybe two seconds after the game starts.
“What I love about that moment is that the racers were like, ‘Oh, here we go!’ That was the reaction we were hoping for.”
I Wanna Be The Guy (IWBTG) fangames are a category of freeware platformers made in easy-to-use engines like Multimedia Fusion 2 and GameMaker. You play a little guy who can double-jump and shoot horizontally, and who instantly dies on contact with the spikes and traps that typically fill the levels. But that’s not to understate their many flavours, from ‘needle’ fangames, which are about incredibly precise platforming, to ‘trap’ fangames, which are out to hoodwink you, and adventure fangames, of which I Wanna Run The Marathon, which you can download for free here, is one.
“Our goal was to make a really entertaining-looking adventure game with funny traps that people can laugh at,” says Pieceofcheese87. Adventure fangames are bundles of traps and spikes bound together into a flowing series of stages punctuated by boss battles, and I Wanna Run the Marathon’s stages are series of homages to classic games, starting with that taster, I Wanna Be The Guy. But the second stage, a take on Super Mario Bros., is where it really kicks off.
The stage starts out gently, with you standing in an archetypal World 1-1 scene, facing a koopa and a platform with a question mark and goomba, and coins hanging above. Jump on the koopa and it leaves behind its shell, just as you’d expect. Walk into the shell and it starts to bounce back and forth, just as you’d expect. Jump into the coins and they play their classic twinkly chime, just as you’d expect. But what’s this? There’s a spike on the pipe beyond, and after the first chasm there’s a wall with a layer of bricks at the bottom that blocks the way.
“As you progress it gets a little more zany,” says Pieceofcheese87. “You have to hit a question mark block and a koopa appears, and then you have to bounce its shell off the bricks, which isn’t something you really find in a Mario stage because you’re usually running through, instead of solving puzzles.”
But you *do* face this kind of challenge in Mario levels that weren’t made by Nintendo. “I was inspired by Mario Maker, which had come out just a couple of months prior,” says Pieceofcheese87, who kicked off design on the stage not long after the project began. He liked the kind of playful puzzle- and trap-making he saw becoming part of the Wii U Mario level editor’s creative scene and saw an opportunity to express them in a fangame. So in the Mario stage there are neatly intricate sequences where you have to bounce a shell over holes in an overhead platform so it reaches the end, where you can use it to shell-jump over an otherwise impassable void, or jump up processions of bullet bills to reach the top of the screen.
Mario Maker isn’t the only nod to fan-made Mario level design in I Wanna Run The Marathon. Romhacking also gets a look-in, principally the classic kaizo trap, as defined by the original 2007 Kaizo Mario World: an invisible coin block placed where the player will jump (usually over a chasm) causing them to rebound (usually to their death).
But while the references are sharp, I Wanna Run The Marathon is a fangame first. “I feel the Mario Maker and romhacking communities don’t really overlap at all,” says Pieceofcheese87. “The way the Mario Maker community designs difficult levels is a lot different from the way we do it. They generally have really long segments with these crazy tricks like shell-jumping and spring-jumps and things like that.”
Part of the reason is that fangames aren’t tied to the limitations of hacking original Mario ROMs, or to the specific mechanics Nintendo afforded Mario Maker. I Wanna Run The Marathon is made in GameMaker, so its creators could custom-design any aspect, down to individual objects and the way the character controls - in its VVVVVV section, jumping reverses gravity, just as in Terry Cavanagh’s original.
So, towards the end of the Mario stage, Traynor designed a section where you encounter various Thwomps. Some behave as you’d expect, dropping when you near them. Others, however, burst suddenly out of the ceiling, while some stay motionless.
“Thwomps are a troll feature in some IWBTG fangames, and in Mario Maker and romhacks, too,” Traynor says. “So I was playing off of that, but taking it to more of an extreme, with blocks hidden in the walls, something you couldn’t do in Mario Maker or romhacks as easily.”
Don’t forget, I Wanna Run The Marathon was designed to entertain an audience that was expecting fangame jokes, the typical one being the innocuous or invisible object which suddenly kills you. “They’re usually funny to play on people,” says Pieceofcheese87.
“If they’re done cleverly,” adds Traynor. “If it’s just a spike falling on your head, it gets old.”
Even though I Wanna Run The Marathon starts with a tree falling on you, it’s actually quite sparing with its sudden and unforeseeable deaths, quite aware of the importance of pacing when it comes to humour. “Like, ‘Oh, the Thwomp is going to come down if I go underneath it, and, guess what, it goes upwards instead,’” says Pieceofcheese87.
Or the Thwomp that bursts out of the ceiling. “There are a few reasons I find that funny,” says Traynor. “Previously there’s a trap with a Thwomp, so there’s a repetition that I find funny. Then there’s the absurd aspect, like why is a Thwomp in the ceiling? And there’s the funny visual spectacle of the Thwomp bursting out of the ceiling.”
Or there’s the Kaizu block which bounces you down towards the lava but then you’re saved by blocks which suddenly appear above its surface. Or the screen-sized bullet bill which appears just as you thought you’d cleared the lifts section and forces you back on to them.
“Some people just press R to retry and not find it funny at all,” Traynor concedes. “But there are nuances. Finding fangame jokes funny is a taste, to some degree, but I enjoy them.”
It’s also true that the jokes aren’t the only thing there is to admire about fangames. The routes they send the player around the screen are inscribed with intricate series of obstacles and traps.
“I think this is a really interesting aspect of fangame level design, actually, because I think everyone approaches building a room and segments in a different way,” says Pieceofcheese87. “I start by making some kind of a block layout, placing platforms and then maybe things in the ceiling, and then I start placing obstacles, morphing them to the layout I made, to see where I could fit in a challenge.”
“One thing I find charming about fangames is this patchwork effect, where you make a segment and the space you have left is sometimes a great inspiration for the obstacles you can put in there,” says Traynor. “It also gives this feeling of exploring a varied area, so rather than having a platformer where you’re always running from left to right, like Mario, you’re going through this patchwork jumble of things.”
And not only that, but as a group project, I Wanna Run The Marathon is the result of four makers passing GameMaker files around as they made segments. Thus, one person’s style runs into another’s, such as Kadykunde’s interest in intricate spike-based platforming next to Wonderful’s more atmospheric approach. It’s an adventure through constant change: puzzles and challenges, visual styles and settings, from fighting Pokémon bosses on Pokémon battle screens to a mini-golf stage.
An efficient way of experiencing that breadth is to watch BBF’s fantastic Games Done Quick 2018 speedrun, in which he somehow makes it look easy and profoundly difficult all at once.
Still, given the reason I Wanna Run The Marathon was made, it’s maybe a little surprising that it’s ended up as a good introduction to fangames. “We were mainly focusing on a good race experience, but that somehow came through into a game that turned out to be really good for beginners,” says Pieceofcheese87.
That’s because it’s not as exacting as many other fangames, and its obstacles aren’t densely packed together. There’s room to breathe, the threats are generally clear, the save points frequently spaced, and the difficulty level gradually rises.
“You don’t get stuck on a spike-jump,” says Pieceofcheese87. “You get stuck on how it works and then you figure it out and get past it.”
A little epilogue. Four years later, PieceofCheese87 and Traynor are still active in the fangame community. Though Traynor is also making a clever upcoming block puzzle game called Patrick’s Parabox, which won Excellence in Design at the IGF this year, he’s also leading I Wanna Maker, a free fangame design platform which is now in Steam Early Access, with Pieceofcheese87 supporting it.
“It was directly inspired by Mario Maker, but for fangames,” he says, so it features easy-to-use level editing tools (but more flexible, since it features a scripting system), a simple way of sharing levels with other players, and run replays.
In a way, I Wanna Maker is helping fangames to come full circle, allowing more fangame makers to riff on riffs of riffs: fiendish levels, tributes and curios, all in a place that brings together play, making and watching.