Savestates and the 1-Credit-Clear of Theseus

Theseus owned a ship and the ship was entirely made of wood. Every time a piece of the ship needed replacing it was replaced with a metal part. This went on for a few years until eventually it was entirely made of metal.

Is the metal ship of Theseus the same ship as the wooden ship of Theseus?

Source at The Philosophy Foundation.

Leveraging savestates is a time-honored tool for improving your shmup skills in a short amount of time. The practice itself was already a part of the shmup community, but in 2010 System11 user PROMETHEUS provided a touchstone for the practice when he advocated for heavy savestate usage in his document ‘The Full Extent of the Jam‘.

Practice is an inescapable facet of high-level shmup play. When your goal is to 1-credit-clear or — better still! — to post a high score, how else will you improve?

Credit-feeding is an option but it dulls the edge of difficulty. It’s also inaccurate in most cases. Starting a new credit typically grants full powerups, a reset in rank, and a reset in score. That second item — rank — can be nearly impossible to simulate but it cannot be ignored. Practicing at the “wrong rank” means you are practicing material that won’t match what you must overcome during a full run, so why bother practicing at all? You may as well just do 1-credit runs over and over until you complete the game.

Playing one credit at a time instead may appear more sensible. Doing a full run is my goal, so playing full runs is closest to “the real thing”, correct? Sadly, I end up practicing the first two or three stages ad nauseam.  Since the later stages need the most practice in any particular shmup, one credit runs will omit the most challenging parts. I have to sharpen my skills to such a degree that I can reach later stages without much effort. This is too time-consuming and inefficient.

A high-level run is a symphony, or bowling a perfect 300, or a perfectly-choreographed dance. Athletes and musicians have distinct modes of play: some time is set aside to practice, and some time is set aside to perform.

Using savestates, I can practice each measure of the song, each throw of the ball, each step of the dance. Instead of wastefully repeating sections of the game I have already mastered, why not focus all my time on the parts that are holding me back?

It gets better: I don’t have to figure this out alone. Numerous high-level superplays provide a model to follow. This is hardly different than reading sheet music. Other players in the shmup community offer strategies and advice. I am not forced to learn my route from scratch. In the same way that a musician can play music already composed, I can fashion my runs using an example of skill far beyond my own. With savestates, each slice of a game becomes a trivial task. Complex bullet patterns are suddenly manageable. Reckless maneuvers give way to cool-headed routing.

Plank by plank, I build my run. I hope to make my vessel seaworthy, able to carry me to those glorious distant shores of 1-Credit-Clear Paradise. Each piece of this ship is finely-tuned through countless repetitions.

I’m nearly ready for my run. All I need are few dozen repetitions of the Stage 2 boss’ final attack, a few dozen repetitions of the tricky bullet curtains at the beginning of Stage 4, and a few dozen more repetitions of the scoring tricks needed to post a high score. Voila! Now I can just plop in a coin, set sail, and 1-credit-clear the game, right?

Your Theoretical Best

Slicing the game into discreet pieces is a helpful way to practice. Yet it comes at the cost of endurance and flexibility.

When attempting a run, what if something goes off the rails?

Do I restart because of the tiny mistake in my run, or do I try to push forward? The more I practice in this way, it seems as though my destination stretches further into the distance. I find tinier and tinier flaws in my play. Before I know it, I’m restarting the first 15 seconds of Stage 1 over and over again.

I  am going backwards!

Savestate practice is useful. However, any full run centered on savestate practice is incomplete. The compliment of practicing discrete skills via savestates would be practicing for endurance and flexibility. Is your patchwork of savestates the same thing as completing a 1-credit-clear run?

How can I practice for these? You already know the answer: drop a credit and play until that Game Over screen.

Crude! Wasteful! Inefficient!

Yes, but necessary. Savestate practice should be supplementary to your full runs. Full runs should inform you which parts of the game still need savestate practice.

Your vessel — built of individual savestate planks — is not the same thing as a real run. Though the pieces may all fit together, the essence of a ship is in the seafaring and not in the constituent parts. Too much practice and not enough performance — too much building of the ship and not enough seafaring — will fail to reach the destination. Something will always go awry. Adjustments must be made on the fly. When this occurs, kaboom goes your cute shmup ship.

This isn’t to say that savestates are useless for practicing endurance. Rather, I can only gain so much skill from repeating small slices of a stage. Tackling larger slices when I’m still not ready to make full run attempts is a good middle ground. What I am trying to prevent is the loss of my cool, my chill, my wits-about-me, or whatever you’d call it. Every time I drop a chain or die I hear a sharp voice inside: time to restart! This wee voice is not always correct, however.

The solution here is pretty simple: split your practicing time into full runs, brief slices via savestates, and everything in between. Gauge your progress however you wish. I have not quite figured out the perfect balance of savestates and attempting runs. I imagine it varies from person to person, anyway.


The legend says that after Pheidippides barged into the Athenian assembly to deliver the message “νενικήκαμεν” (“We have won!”), he collapsed from utter exhaustion and died. From this we derived the Marathon race, a competition of physical endurance, not raw speed. Marathon is frequently used as slang for “drawn-out and exhausting”.

From this we must conclude Pheidippides was a shmup player: instead of sticking around after the battle to celebrate, he immediately ran to the shmup community at Athens to report his high-score!

Marathoning my shmup of choice often feels like work. My eyes will at some point become strained. My back may ache. I will have to fight through my frustration to keep practicing a difficult piece of 1-credit-clear.

Can this strain be avoided? Yes, but it entirely depends on your attitude. These are games, after all. If you can’t game-ify practice, it will be a slog. If your practice feels like a slog, you won’t build the patience nor endurance to meet your goal.

I think each shmup demands a minimum amount of time invested. This varies depending on the shmup and the player’s skill level, but the minimum will certainly be higher than the 30-minutes (or so) required to beat the shmup in one run. Practice is a part of the game. Study is part of the game. Engaging with the community is part of the game.

What is the ideal balance between savestates and runs?

Our discussion on memory and mental fortitude is relevant: my overarching goal when playing a shmup is to gain enough knowledge, gain enough muscle memory, and gain enough endurance to meet whatever clearing or score goals I might have. Whatever method and mix of techniques earn me the most knowledge, muscle-memory, and endurance is the correct way to practice, by definition.

It is irrelevant if I meet these goals through savestate practice or through repeated runs or watching superplays or meditating in a corner while listening to the Darius Gaiden soundtrack. Savestates alone are not enough. Full runs alone are not enough. If I have access to both tools, I should use both tools. Neglecting either means I am neglecting a valuable shortcut to my goal.

This requires self-awareness. Reflecting on the results of my practice is more important than using the (supposedly) “right” technique. Whether my 1-credit-clear was built by planks of savestates or planks of full runs, it is the sailing that matters.