Frame Walking, Extra Button Mapping and Why I Don’t Think We Should Ban Digital-Only Controllers in Speedrunning

I wrote this article to further the conversation started by Simply in his video, Framewalk: SM64’s Most Controversial Speedrunning Trick.

What is Frame Walking?

If you don’t already know, frame walking is the piece of tech used to allow Mario to walk up a slope too steep to run or kick jump up. Essentially you’re tapping Mario up the slope by pushing the analog stick up one frame then resetting the stick to its neutral position before tapping up for another single frame. For more info, Pannenkoek released a video back in 2016 explaining how this trick is performed and what the input leniency is like for a player wishing to incorporate frame walking.

A still from Pannenkeok’s video

Despite the attention it’s getting right now, frame walking has been known about for years. What’s different this time is whether the most useful method of performing the trick should be banned from speedrunning for its required departure from the original N64 controller.

What sparked the commotion?

During a 4-way race of SM64 120-star at PACE 2019, Siglemic removed his N64 controller and replaced it with a B0XX (B-zero-X-X) controller to take advantage of its digital mapping of the analog stick. Instead of hopping in the cannon to shoot towards the star or going for the cannonless route used by Cheese, noted for its extreme difficulty despite only saving 2 seconds from the cannon route, Siglemic hopped right into the water and swam towards one of the pillars sticking out of the water.

It’s here that Siglemic’s B0XX comes in handy. Utilizing frame walking, Siglemic slowly starts nudging Mario up the pillar until he passes through, slides down and makes a right angled leap into a ledge grab. Trivializing the work each of the other runners will be putting, he grabs the star, removes his B0XX from port one and returns to his run a faster man.

Congrats to puncayshun for still winning the race by a landslide.

Invented by Aziz Al-Yami, a top level Melee player who suffers from horrible arthritis

So, did Siglemic break some unspoken rule of speedrunning by using this thing? Let’s break down how the B0XX was designed first, before going into the rules of 120 star.

Does the B0XX give runners any advantages?

Unlike most N64 controller alternatives that focus on improving form factor, the B0XX uses fight stick style buttons to snap the player towards ergonomic and fast inputs. This is done by using digital signals that simulate (with limitation) the coordinates of an analog input of a traditional stick. It also wasn’t created to be the ‘cheater box’ many SSBM players refer to it as, rather a means for it’s arthritic inventor to compete in Melee again. The B0XX has been deemed legal at most tournaments because it only enables players to get the most out of what’s already possible within the game by moving beyond the limits of a traditional controller.

Naturally, the design lends itself well to players who seek a more frame perfect experience and are willing to go through the learning curve of using the new device. The advantage Siglemic sought from use of the B0XX was going from a frame one 0-Y coordinate to a frame two 127-Y coordinate on the stick without facing the lag met by passing through 126 different positions in real time; let alone the human muscle required to repeatedly mash a stick upwards as many as fifty times in a row without error.

Courtesy of raphnet-tech

However to abide by the ‘only 4 axis or two sticks’ rule that most Melee tournament organizers agree on, the B0XX disables use of digital analog stick inputs when a Wii Nun-chuck get plugged in. Also, to use this B0XX on Nintendo 64 hardware, Siglemic must use a Raphnet GC-to-N64 adapter (seen above), a piece of hardware deemed legal when speedrunning SM64.

At the start of the star, Siglemic uses the Nun-chuck to guide Mario resulting in a disablement of the intended digital input buttons on the B0XX. Despite this, however, he mashes what looks like the Y button of his B0XX (see reference pic below) to perform the frame walk. Clearly, Siglemic has used the Raphnet adapter mapping feature to remap a second Up-Analog press to his Y button.

Left: Siglemic performing a frame walk
Right: The official layout of the B0XX controller

Were any rules broken?

According to the speedrun.com ruleset for SM64, there are no illegal mapping combinations for the Raphnet adapter. In fact, the ‘no restrictions’ line doesn’t state any action is illegal for this running category despite the community abiding by certain guidelines like no macros or TAS input.

At the time of writing this, four of the five top run all incorporate the extra button mapping and frame walk technique to grab Jolly Roger Bay’s fifth star. During the switching of controllers between stars in his current WR run of 1:38:51, Cheese expresses his insight towards this method, ‘Time to whip out these big guns… and by big guns I mean a worse controller.’

So what are we debating?

This brings me back to Simply’s video where he proposes the community vote on whether or not we should ban players from using digital input methods in lieu of the original analog stick.

120-star on N64 WR list, Courtesy of speedrun.com/sm64

Let me start by saying that I don’t think digital input is what’s going to end speedrunning Super Mario 64 or any other game for that matter (you heard me, OoT community.) In fact, I’d argue that the top level runners are the only competitors whose speedrunning career could be affected by this newly implemented technique as they’re the ones getting sponsored, flown out and garnering significant stream audiences. Adaptation to challenges like this will forever be necessary if they want to stay on top despite it being a real world obstacle not an in-game one. Speed running has always been about finding the quickest way of accomplishing your goal and now, being the best in the world means you might have to buy a $30 piece of hardware if you want to beat Cheese… and of course, grind for thousands of hours. Can’t forget that one.

In fact, frame walking in Jolly Roger Bay boast’s only a three-second time save over the previous definitive technique. For context, the difference between Cheese’s 1st place run and puncayshun’s 2nd place run have sixteen seconds in between them. Both runners utilize this method of frame walking but if Cheese chose not to, he still would be ahead of puncayshun by thirteen seconds. batora’s 4th place run was recorded over a year ago and doesn’t incorporate frame walking yet was still faster than Paracusia’s 5th place run that also did use the frame walk.

Landing on the cliff from a cannon shot

As it stands, the immediate effect from mapping a second, analog stick input to a digital button on your controller hasn’t given anyone a ‘free run’ nor has it diminished the quality of the runs that came before it. In fact, this is the first known advantage of utilizing this method that’s been incorporated in high level running.

I understand the importance of wanting to create a fair playing field for runners all over but please keep in mind that running isn’t inherently competitive unless you want it to be. If that’s the life you choose, then you already have to invest in a capture card, a computer with video editing software and pretty decent internet to upload your runs; not to mention the vast amount of time sunk into the game. With all this in mind, lets address the elephant in the room:

Is exceeding the original hardware limitation just to use this tech within the spirit of Super Mario 64 speedrunning?

Bottom line — absolutely. SM64 is nothing but an artistic expression of rules and finding new ways to manipulate them has always been at the core of speedrunning. What IS new in this instance is that players are being challenged with a hardware limitations.

Ocarina of Time main page, Courtesy of speedrun.com/oot

Not to mention how if you’re a runner and you don’t think this tech should be used but Cheese does — congratulations, you just invented a new category for yourself. There is no shame in forking from the established categories; all it takes is one other runners who agree with you and suddenly you’ve got fair competition. However if enough top runners of a game all agree that a trick satisfies their expectation of excellence, they too can create a category that uses their rule set and still nobody is claiming superiority in one category over the other. Ocarina of Time seems like it has a hundred different categories but runners still try to optimize their favorite.

Personally, I believe that the more we exploit a game using hardware, the more fun it will be to play. SM64 intrigued me back in 2016 only because of its mechanical excellence and vibrant community (shoutout to Kaze Emanuarflips). Tricks and their frame/input data were so well documented that studying the game was more rewarding than playing it. As our understanding of the games mechanics continue to grow, I wouldn’t be surprised if new players choose to jump right in using exclusively the B0XX and B0XX-like controllers just for the sake of pushing excellent SM64.

In Conclusion

In my opinion, until cash prizes become the reward for excellent play, we shouldn’t micromanage runners who are pushing the meta. Wanting to ban hardware simply because it seems convoluted presents itself as more of a power grab for the voters in favor than anything else to me. Let people play how they want and if that bothers you, start a category that bans digital inputs in lieu of natively analog controls or ban mapping buttons more than once — but please let good SM64 be good SM64 and lets not worry about 3 second saves until we really need to.

If you’ve got any responses or points to add to this, @ me on Twitter. @SheeshFr