It’s early Friday morning of last week. We're talking well after midnight. Aaron, more widely known to the Internet as the record-breaking streamer Bananasaurus Rex, is tired. Very tired. The 22-year-old has been streaming Spelunky for more than three hours, and it’s been nothing but a series of false starts.
But it only takes one false start to lead you to the promised land. For Aaron, the promised land is achieving world records in Spelunky.
(Aaron asked to have his last name kept private.)
Spelunky, more puzzle game than action game, is incredibly punishing. It trades on death, and most never see most of what it has to offer. The original Spelunky, designed by Derek Yu, was released on PC in September 2009. An updated version arrived on Xbox Live Arcade on July 2012, and has continued to grow in popularity alongside ports to the PC, PlayStation 3, and Vita.
Aaron was ready for bed. His streams start late, and a good run can take hours. He was ready to throw in the towel. Then, an alien plasma cannon appeared in a crate on the game’s first stage, 1-1. (Crates hold random items.) The mines are deeply familiar to any Spelunky player, but an uncommon place to find the game’s most powerful weapon, one that uncomfortably pushes the player back upon firing.
“Guys, I think I found something. Is this a good item? Should I keep it?”
Aaron is, of course, being sarcastic. And this sarcasm comes from a desperate place, as much of Aaron’s time playing Spelunky is not about breaking world records. It’s about restarting Spelunky over and over again, in the hopes the game’s mostly randomized structure will align in the precise way Aaron is hoping for.
“Guys, I don’t know if I can do this tonight. I don’t know, man.”
At this point in the stream, his enthusiasm long faded, Aaron doesn’t know that he’s about to embark on a nearly eight-hour overnight adventure that concludes with him breaking the world record for “scorelunky.” In Spelunky, “scorelunky” means a player is after the highest amount of treasure.
“How long until I throw it? Any bets?”
There are several sighs, as Aaron fires the plasma cannon over and over. Rocks explode, and pieces of gold fly back and forth. Aaron has been in this situation before, and there’s reason to be pessimistic. He’s been in the mines with the plasma cannon twice before ever, and both times he died. Since it’s so early in the game, he has very few items. That means avoiding the ghost--a heat-seeking, one-hit-kill enemy that can pass through every object--is extremely difficult.
But the ghost is required for an advanced technique called “ghost mining,” in which the game’s colored gems can be touched by the ghost and turned into valuable diamonds.
It's clear he isn't taking the run very seriously, as he makes erroneous jumps, losing valuable health in the process. He almost sounds disappointed the plasma cannon has shown up, knowing he has no choice but to see where this goes.
“I wasn't feeling a score run this late. But I’ll wait and see what’s on the next level for sure. I’ll wait and see. That I can promise you.”
The next 10 minutes are spent slowly but surely collecting whatever is safest. Aaron leaves 1-1 with $65,700, and proceeds to the second stage of the mines, 1-2. There are 16 stages in the main game. (That doesn't count Hell, but let's keep it simple.) The math driving Spelunky isn’t precisely known, but it’s suspected there is more than a 90 percent chance of a shop showing up on 1-2. Any shop won’t do, though. If Aaron is going to make a run at the world record, he needs a jetpack to show up at the shop. There is no guarantee of that. There are precious few guarantees in Spelunky.
“What, you guys don’t want to sit here for another seven hours and watch me do this score run? Trust me, I’ll throw it far sooner than that.”
There is an inevitability to the way Aaron talks about this run, as this will likely end like so many others.
“Oh, there’s a shop.”
Then, Aaron utters a long, profound gasp, followed by silence. The moment of truth occurs here at 03:41:16. (It's titled "Ignoring All Score Seeds Because I Am a Piece of Scum" because a moderator in Aaron's channel was mocking how little interest Aaron had in a scoring run.) But there it is: a jetpack. It’s on.
“Man, I’m gonna feel really bad when I throw this run. [laughs] Oh, god. [laughs] Okay, let’s get to work.”
Over the next seven hours or so, Aaron would go on to rack up $3,105,850. Spelunky designer Derek Yu was flabbergasted when he saw the new record.
“He achieved the impossible!" said Yu to Polygon last week. "As in, we were so confident that an over 3 million score was impossible that pre-patch, the game actually thought you were cheating if you submitted a score that high. I'm going to have to watch the video to see how he did it."
It’s not impossible for someone to best Aaron’s newly acquired record, but it would take another set of extremely lucky, extremely rare circumstances. The last record was held by another high-level Spelunky player, Latedog, at $2.681 million. But it’s not impossible, and it’s part of what keeps Aaron on his toes.
"Some people assume that means you don’t need skill. You obviously need skill to take advantage of that luck."
Aaron has been playing Spelunky since May 2013, and estimates he’s played nearly 1,000 hours of the game across its Xbox Live Arcade and PC incarnations. He’s not new to the speedrunning community, either, having once spent countless hours perfecting the 51 challenge levels in Portal 2. For a time, Aaron held the records for 48 of the 51 stages. But people kept catching up to him.
“When I had everybody else taking one level here and one level there daily, it felt like a job. [laughs]” he said. “I would wake up in the morning and I’d try to get the record on a new level, but I’d also have to retake the record on one-to-three levels, depending on how many people had beaten me on another level overnight. […] I’d be spending hours to get 0.005 second improvement on the same level, right? That eventually got old.”
For a time, he was playing Dustforce, and chalked up two world records there. But it didn’t last. Neither did Paranautical Activity, which he also, at one point, held a world record in. Just recently, he managed to set a world record for Risk of Rain, though he’s already thinking about the next try. There was at least a full minute wasted during that run, so there's improvement to be made.
But nothing has held Aaron’s attention like Spelunky.
“The progression is based on the player getting better,” he said. “I don’t, generally, enjoy games that reward you just for spending a lot of time. Take World of Warcraft or something. The best players have the best gear because they've spent the most time playing and getting that gear and stuff. Whereas a game like Spelunky, everybody goes in with the exact same things on every single run, other than the RNG [random number generator or “luck”] for the items that you get on the run. It’s just a huge window of skill, a huge range between somebody who’s just starting out and somebody that’s got a lot of experience.”
Part of the reason Aaron hasn’t been able to give up Spelunky, an attraction that has kept others coming back for hundreds of hours, is that anything can go wrong at any time. In Portal 2, every element of every level remains the same--always. That’s not the case in Spelunky, and it means there’s a certain element of luck that goes alongside playing the game. You can't be complacent.
“Some people assume that means you don’t need skill,” he said. “You obviously need skill to take advantage of that luck."
That skill is on display on a daily basis on his Twitch channel, which has become an unexpected source of revenue. He's uncomfortable with becoming an entertainer, even as his fans praise his talents. But talents they are. Aaron has leveraged his incredible skills into a profitable, budding career path. Aaron’s day job is a retail clerk at a family-owned corner store, but an influx of subscribers to his Twitch channel (at $4.99-per-subscription) has meant that he’s been able to cut his hours in half. And the channel keeps growing.
Aaron’s situation is helped by where he lives, though. Living in Newfoundland, Canada, he only pays $475-per-month for a one-bedroom apartment. Two-bedroom apartments in his building are only $550. Describing himself as a budget-conscious individual, Aaron doesn’t need a whole ton of money to transform his life, and make playing video games his full-time job. In fact, that's precisely his goal over the next six months.
Getting paid to play video games all day long? And people will pay for it? (I get this all the time.) It wouldn’t be a shock if Aaron’s family was slightly hesitant about a job that wouldn’t exactly fit on a traditional resume.
“They know all about it, and they all are genuinely really interested in it and think it's super cool,” he said. “My brother is constantly asking me how many followers I have on my channel, what new things I've achieved, and so on. My girlfriend, parents, and other close family and friends are always eager to hear what I have to say about it.”
Maybe there’s something in the water up in Canada. We could use some of it down here.
When Aaron started streaming, he didn’t even have a microphone. But fans asked him to start commentating, and he obliged. He even has a custom Xbox 360 controller for Spelunky, one that has individual buttons for the d-pad, so that he can’t blame errors on the standard controller’s notoriously subpar one. (This is especially important for runs involving the teleporter item, which has very specific directional uses.)
Though the plan is to become a full-time streamer, it’s clear Aaron is taking this newfound success day-by-day. Eventually, he’ll have to move on from Spelunky. People won’t want to watch him ghost mine forever. But it works for now, and if people have trouble hitting his records, he might consider moving on. For the moment, he’s interested in more obscure, difficult challenges, such as crushing the head of Yama, the game’s secret second boss, with the shield item. It’s never been done, but Aaron thinks it’d be fun to try and pull off.
(For the record, that's crazy talk.)
“In typical mom fashion, mine likes to brag about my achievements to her friends whenever she gets the chance,” he said. “They all think it's amazing that I'm actually making a living from basically playing video games and hanging out with a bunch of like-minded people. I'd have to say that I'm pretty lucky to have friends and family that are open-minded and genuinely supportive of the whole thing. I couldn't ask for more.”