Watson ‘Starrodkirby86’ Tungjunyatham’s love of rhythm games goes way back to his childhood, with one of his earliest memories stemming from his elementary school years during a visit to a boardwalk arcade.
“I just see these ripped California dudes — surfer dudes or whatever. They’re playing on the Dance Dance Revolution machine and rocking it. I’m just like, ‘Whoa.’ I was that kid. You know what I mean? The kid that gets impressed by the dance games and stuff.”
He eventually coaxed his parents to get him DDR games on the PS2, and the soft dance mat to go with it. He played incessantly. Tungjunyatham went from being the kid who was impressed by dance games to being that one kid everyone knows who was really good at them.
“You know how there’s those talent shows where it’s like, ‘I’m going to play the flute’ or ‘I’ll play the piano’? I’m going to break out this laptop and play StepMania and play the arrows.”
Tungjunyatham’s love of rhythm games has stuck with him his entire life, and just a few weeks ago led him to Games Done Quick — a speedrunning charity marathon series that, among many other events, is well known for its twice-a-year, weeklong speedrunning showcases.
At its premier summer event, Summer Games Done Quick (SGDQ), Tungjunyatham performed the SEGA arcade game maimai FINALE, and raised a total of $103,417 during his showcase. It was the third-highest raising event at the show, only trailing a Pokemon Black and White race and the grand finale game of the entire week, Kingdom Hearts 2 Final Mix. In total, SGDQ raised over $2.9 million for Doctors Without Borders in a new record for the event.
It’s an impressive total, but made even more impressive when you watch even a minute or two of Tungjunyatham’s performance itself. It helps that the maimai arcade cabinet is immediately eye-catching: they look like giant washing machines, with a round screen at the center surrounded by a rim of large buttons. Playing maimai involves a combination of timed button taps and holds, as well as sliding their hands in certain patterns across the screen.
It has to be seen to truly appreciate the complexity of it all, but you can get a good idea of how impressive it all looks by watching Tungjunyatham’s incredible SGDQ showcase. His opening numbers are applause-worthy on their own as he taps buttons and swipes across the screen faster than most people can even track what the hell the notes are doing on the screen. Donors were so impressed, they gave more just to see Tungjunyatham play even faster, more ridiculous songs. Towards the end Tungjunyatham was tracking four notes simultaneously at points, all passing by in less than a second as he tapped, swiped, and spun his hands around the cabinet. Seriously, just watch it.
Speaking to IGN in front of the brightly-lit maimai FINALE cabinet in his garage that he played on for SGDQ, Tungjunyatham calls his introduction to maimai a “meeting of fates.” You see, the maimai series is a rhythm arcade game originally released in 2012 in Japan, though some versions since have made their way West in a limited capacity.
“I first came across a…it was their second edition of the game, called maimai GreeN, while I was studying abroad in Japan,” Tungjunyatham says. “They had Sega-licensed songs in there. For example, Rhythm Thief and Sonic and Feel the Magic: XX/XY. I was in love with the fact that they had such unconventional picks, and I just immediately was drawn to it.”
Tungjunyatham played maimai every chance he got, including on subsequent visits to Japan. For years he was limited by both distance and the need to visit an arcade even when he was in Japan to get a few hours with the cabinet. But then, in 2019, a chance encounter changed everything.
Tungjunyatham was at Fanime in San Jose where he met up with an internet friend of his in person for the first time. This friend happened to have a private collection of arcade cabinets, including a maimai FINALE cabinet he brought to the show with him. Tungjunyatham was able to play maimai again, and what’s more, he learned that his friend only lived a few minutes away from him. So Tungjunyatham started coming over to play. A lot.
And he wasn’t alone — he and a few others began to develop friendships and a small community around getting together and playing arcade rhythm games. So when his friend with the maimai cabinet eventually moved to Seattle, Tungjunyatham wasn’t left maimai-less. He and some of these friends went in on a house together with a large garage for the explicit purpose of having their own private collection of cabinets to play whenever they wanted. And, of course, maimai FINALE was among the ones they purchased.
“I think it’s that point where, especially after the pandemic, you get this reflection about what you want to do,” he says. “Particularly for me, just being in my own little apartment by myself for a few years already at this point, and I’m like, ‘Nothing is going to change if I don’t [decide to change myself].'”
A global pandemic soon ensured that no one could visit public arcades anytime soon. But Tungjunyatham was able to play and practice regularly, and he got better and better. He competed in maimai at music game convention Raj of the Garage 2019, getting second place after only a few months of playing. And he was able to showcase maimai and other similar rhythm games at California Extreme 2020 and MAGWest 2020’s virtual events, helping boost its notoriety in the States where the cabinets were less prevalent in public arcades.
But even with all this, Tungjunyatham hadn’t really considered GDQ as an option. He’d been a fan of the events for years, but what he was doing wasn’t exactly speedrunning. It wasn’t until he saw Happyf33tz’s showcase of Pump It Up! At SGDQ 2020 that he began to consider the possibility. That led to him thinking of other showcases he’d seen at GDQs before, of games like Tetris: The Grand Master, Clone Hero, and StepMania. A showcase of Beat Saber at AGDQ 2021 by Kungfufruitcup further cemented his ambitions.
“Before SGDQ 2020, that always seemed like it was something that was far-reaching. These guys, oh my God, they seem like the world’s best. They’re some of the most talented people. Even in Pump It Up, HappyF33tz is one of the best players in the world, so I was like, ‘Oh my God. I can’t compare to that.’
“You ask, ‘Hey, are you good at rhythm games?’ And, yeah, sure, I am good at rhythm games, right? But to consider yourself, I don’t know, a world-class athlete kind of thing, there’s such a feeling of…you get very shook and intimidated…and the ceiling feels so ultimately high.
“But [SGDQ 2020] made me think: oh, wait, they’re doing a lot more. They’re a lot more receptive to doing these kinds of showcases because the whole event has moved over to an online format, and now in their explicit criteria rules, they were like, ‘Showcases are more accepted.’
With vaccines rolling out and a slow return to physical events, Tungjunyatham felt this was his best shot at getting into SGDQ. If the next GDQ returned to an all-physical format, he thought, he might not be able to submit ever again. “You know, this is my now-or-never shot. I’m going to expect low, but I’m going to try my best in making this submission have the highest chances of getting accepted as well.”
And the more Tungjunyatham thought about it, the more he thought maimai would have a shot. It’s a very “[theatrical]” game, he says, very “flashy” and especially impressive to watch on higher difficulties. He also knew that at previous, physical GDQ events, there had been a free-to-play arcade where maimai was one of the more popular games, with popular GDQ commentator and speedrunner Keizaron known for spending hours at the maimai cabinet. So the people making the decisions were at least familiar with what he wanted to do.
Before submitting, he reached out to multiple friends who had submitted runs to GDQ in the past for advice, and learned that it was critical to impress the committee in the first few minutes. So he made a set list that began with harder performances, then packed the middle with songs that both looked cool and that he could consistently play well, even if they weren’t quite as challenging. The video he submitted ended up much shorter than his actual showcase, as he hadn’t planned any time for water breaks or for donations to be read.
When the results came in, Tungjunyatham expected rejection. What he got was beyond what he could have imagined. Not only was maimai FINALE accepted, it was slotted on Friday night — a primetime spot — as a bonus incentive game, meaning it wouldn’t be played if it didn’t receive a certain amount of donations in time.
Of course, the committee doesn’t put games in bonus incentive slots if they think they won’t get those donations. Put simply: GDQ saw his performance, and believed it would be a big deal.
“I’m opening my profile. I see my submission. I’m like, ‘Bonus, wait, what? Bonus.’ I just started basically popping off right there….Oh my God. The pressure was immense. Yeah, I’m utterly stupefied that they would not only accept the run but then put it on that degree where they…had a lot of faith going into it that this is going to be a huge thing.”
Tungjunyatham had to get planning. Because his showcase was not a speedrun, he was able to be a bit flexible with its timing. He was encouraged by GDQ staff to plan for water breaks throughout, and he had to revise his initial setlist to avoid any licensed music that might get taken down by YouTube or Twitch. Tungjunyatham says GDQ behind the scenes was well-organized, with appointment scheduling for tech checks and stream layouts, both particularly tricky for maimai FINALE given the complex cabinet setup and unusual screen.
With his setlist planned, Tungjunyatham also needed to practice. He tells me that practicing for him essentially has two parts. The first is execution — many songs have common patterns he can practice that will improve his play in all of them, similar to how a pianist might practice an arpeggio or a chord set. But other songs have unique patterns he needed to specifically study, something he could do by watching videos of perfect performances of them on YouTube and taking notes on how the players were executing the pattern, then memorizing it.
“The other aspect is that this is also straining as a physical-based game, so I couldn’t always practice every day, or else I see huge diminishing returns on my actual performance because muscles get sore,” he continues. “I actually hurt myself quite a bit playing the game, especially getting really impassioned during the song. The actual main injuries that I worry about are interestingly not shoulder-based, necessarily, but finger-based.”
Tungjunyatham shows me on his machine how, if he gets too excited during a song, he can smash his fingers accidentally against the sides of the buttons on the rim. Doing this, he says, can cause injuries that might make it impossible to play for days or weeks — something he absolutely had to avoid in the lead-up to GDQ.
On the day of his run, Tungjunyatham wanted to give himself the easiest day possible, he says. He put the finishing touches on his set-up in the garage, including a little audience of plushes to cheer him on. He took the day off work and rested his arms. Then, during the run right before his, he did an early tech check and warmed up.
“I actually was relatively warmed up to be able to actually play,” he says. “The first song, ‘Role-playing game,’ we picked mainly because I had a high chance of being able to ‘All Perfect’ [Meaning a perfect score] it, and it’s also a very popular song in both Asia and the US.”
As he played, he says, he noticed himself passing portions of the song where, on an average playthrough, he would score a “Great,” and found himself scoring “Perfect” instead. Then, upon finishing the song, the words “All Perfect” exploded onto the screen. The SGDQ chat exploded. Tungjunyatham reacted so enormously that his webcam shook. “Oh, my God. We got it.”
It was then that Tungjunyatham’s worries melted away. Going into the run, he says, he had been hyper-aware that his own skill level didn’t quite match up to some of the best players in Japan who had spent a decade mastering maimai. But he realized then that the audience wasn’t going to hold him to the same standards he had been holding himself.
“It’s like if someone watches competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee, and they just see Fox and Marth duke it out really fast, but they don’t really know the specifics of it. They just see it’s super entertaining…and I’m really good at putting on a show, and just being exuberant and just having fun. So for the whole first half, I was tearing it up. I was very happy with how things went. I got some personal bests. I was doing way better than I anticipated.”
Tungjunyatham’s performance at SGDQ did end up taking a physical toll on him, especially towards the end. “My shoulder was killing me because there was a moment where I did…sometimes when you do a muscle spasm where it’s a sudden jolt or pivot or whatever, the muscle is just like, ‘Hey, I didn’t like that, okay?’ It feels like you sprained it or dislocated it. You get a cramp. I had a huge cramp that was killing me.”
At this point, Tungjunyatham still had the set of super-difficult “Utage” bonus songs to do. But he wasn’t deterred. He says that he was still able to score well on everything he played, and that the Utage songs actually helped keep him limber and focused so that his shoulder was well enough for the spectacle of a grand finale song: PANDORA PARADOXXX.
Fortunately, Tungjunyatham says he’s fine now — there was no sprain or dislocation, he was just sore for a few days afterward. He compares it to how someone might feel after taking a long hike. Sore for a few days, but once recovered, ready to do it again.
Now, with his performance an incredible success both in donations and in response, Tungjunyatham has time to reflect. He says he keeps “goofishly” re-watching his own stream, as well as the re-streams in other regions like Japan. His biggest anxiety going in, he says, was a fear that talented Japanese maimai players might think he wasn’t actually that good. But even the Japanese audience was cheering him on.
Tungjunyatham is delighted to see that in the wake of his performance, many people have asked him how to get into maimai or rhythm games more generally and he’s currently pondering ways to make more resources available for those who want to start and learn. He has nothing but praise for the rhythm game community in general, too, saying that he hopes his run will inspire others to give games like maimai a try and support one another as they all grow together.
“The thing about the community is that the friends we make also are playing. I’m going to local Round One. I’m playing Dance Dance Revolution, and we’re getting better. We’re all just trying to get better and just keep positively supporting ourselves. I see someone passing a song for the first time, it’s not like I’m going, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s a lame score,’ or, ‘You suck,’ or something like that.
“No, it’s more like, ‘Yo, congrats, dude, yeah, rock it. You’re going to rock all these other songs now.’ So we all keep positively supporting each other…especially if it’s a physical rhythm game like maimai or DDR, we know [they have] benefits health-wise — well, maybe. I don’t know what my knees are going to be like when I’m 40 or my hands,” Tungjunyatham jokes.
Following GDQ, Tungjunyatham did an “after-party” stream of maimai FINALE for his Twitch audience, which he says has grown tenfold since the event. He says he saw an “outpouring of support” with people doing raids, sending gift subscriptions to his channel, and more. He says it was a bit overwhelming, especially as his relationship with streaming in the past has been fairly casual.
“I just want to tap buttons and do my laundry or something,” he says with a laugh. “I’m really honored.”
Tungjunyatham isn’t sure he’d necessarily take another game to GDQ, or if he’ll try to turn the sudden spotlight cast on him into anything in particular. He just loves maimai, and wants to keep bettering himself, whatever that ends up looking like for him.
“This is my hobby,” he says. “This is my passion. This is something that I just love to just do, and I will keep going at it. I know I have a lot of things I could still improve on. And this is how I can get better. I just never stop hustling in that regard. I’m not just content and satisfied yet. It’s just the beginning. This is just the beginning of a new chapter.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.