Meet TASBot, a Linux-Powered Robot Playing Video Games for Charity

TASBot with micro500's TASLink Board Held by dwangoAC

Can a Linux-powered robot play video games faster than you? Only if he takes a hint from piano rolls...and doesn't desync.

Let me begin with a brief history of tool-assisted speedruns. It was 2003. Less than half the developed world had internet access of any kind, and YouTube hadn't been created yet. Smartphones were rare and nascent. Pentium III processors still were commonplace, and memory was measured in megabytes. It was out of this primordial ooze that an interesting video file circulated around the web—an 18MB .wmv labeled only as a "super mario bross3 time attack video" [sic]. What followed was an absolutely insane 11-minute completion of the game by someone named Morimoto replete with close calls, no deaths and Mario destroying Bowser after apparently effortlessly obtaining 99 lives. The only other context was a link to a page written in Japanese, and the rough encoding that Windows Media Video format was known for in that era made it difficult for casual viewers to observe that it was an emulator recording rather than the output of a real Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console.

Figure 1. Morimoto's 2003 Super Mario Bros. 3 (SMB3) Time Attack Video

The video encode had in fact been made with the Famtasia NES emulator using Tool-Assisted Speedrun (TAS) re-recording tools consisting of a "movie file" of the sequence of all buttons pressed along with the use of savestates, or CPU and memory snapshots allowing returning to a previous state. Morimoto had in essence augmented his own human skill by using tools that allowed him to return to a previous save point any time he was dissatisfied with the quality of his play. By iteratively backing up and keeping only the best results, he had created what he considered at the time to be a perfect play-through of the game. I didn't know anything about how it was made the first time I saw the run, but it blew my mind and had me asking questions to which I couldn't find answers.

The human speedrunning community members were naturally highly offended by what they saw as an unlabeled abomination akin to a doped athlete being allowed to compete in the Olympics. Their view was that anything that augmented raw human ability in any way (even as rudimentary as keyboard macros in PC games) was considered cheating, and Morimoto's run was nothing more than a fraud best left ignored. There was fascination, intrigue and division. It was, in retrospect, the perfect recipe for a new website.