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Dead Cells and the Story of Master Player Henpaku

Dead Cells has been making waves in the world of gaming, both for positive and negative reasons. While browsing the various speedruns, we came across Japanese player Henpaku to review, who has skill in spades and an interesting story to tell.

Games inspired by classics are becoming more prominent across just about every console, but while the style can add a lot of nostalgia flavor, the game must do something different or something exceptional to differentiate. Dead Cells is one of the standout titles in the retro-inspired genre; it is a game that went through an extensive process of early access that lasted a little over a year. The community feedback was invaluable for the developers who were able to add and further develop a large sum of content. While many players are enjoying the recent full launch of Dead Cells, this game surprisingly connected us to a player with a story to tell, Henpaku.

While searching for potential content, we browsed through some speedrun leaderboards and eventually hit up Dead Cells and discovered an exceptional time. While checking out the speedrun and the player who uploaded it, a notification showed that Henpaku was live on Twitch at the time. We popped into the channel to find him playing Factorio, a massive simulation game that emphasises the building and maintaining of factories, mines, and electrical grids. He shared with us the sheer amount of hours he’d spent in this simulation, while also sharing some stories. He was funny, personable, and seemed to know the ins and outs of his games like few could. By the end of the stream we were convinced that this player had something more, beyond being fun to watch and being exceptional at Dead Cells.

After a quick pitch to Henpaku about an interview, we exchanged Discord messages and Henpaku told us his tale.

Henpaku grew up in LA where he was raised by a single mother. He described his childhood as rough, but they were never homeless or anything too extreme. Yet, there were a lot of leisures that his family just couldn’t afford to have. “things like candy, juice, toys, fun gadgets were rare in the home.”

Despite his lack of toys and such as a youngster, Henpaku was fascinated by video games. “I lived in a area where lots of kids had the latest games,” he said over a message. That constant background interaction with games was enough for him to crave the plastic in his own hands. As a reward for good grades and behavior in middle school, Henpaku’s mother was able to purchase one of Henpaku’s most cherished items, a Game Boy Advance SP.

“I was like ‘THIS IS MY TREASURE FOR LIFE.’ I actually still have it in my old room back in America with all those damn scratch marks.”

Henpaku grew up with GBA titles such as Castlevania and Mega Man Zero.
Henpaku grew up with GBA titles such as Castlevania and Mega Man Zero.

Eventually, Henpaku was able to help his mother with her work and earn his own money so that he could buy and play more Game Boy games. “I would play the hell out of it,” he explained, “Back then I was like that typical asian kid who was great at games, but the truth was, there were a ton that I had never played before, because I couldn't get them, so I was always playing catch up.” Henpaku is Japanese and later in life moved to Japan, where he is now. He says that he is still playing through a backlog of games he missed out on through history.

As a resident of Japan, Henpaku spends his days playing his favorite games, doing a bit of Twitch streaming, and working at a bar as an apprentice of sorts in a historical town that’s just a short drive from Hiroshima. He is not a bartender though, instead doing some cooking and ensuring things go smoothly each night. He says that he may even inherit the bar one day.

While watching a friend stream on Twitch, he stumbled onto Dead Cells which instantly reminded him of his GBA favorites like Castlevania and Mega Man Zero. From there he knew he had to give it a shot and picked it up while the game was in Early Access.

Henpaku says that the recently released animated trailer for Dead Cells accurately captures how a new player handles the game. He tells us that this process ran parallel to his own.

Dead Cells just tosses you in, you get a weapon, you freak out, and die. Grab a new weapon, try it out, get wrecked because you don't know how to wield it, die. Try new stuff, proceed a bit, run into something new, die. I was terrible at the game and beating the very first boss at the black bridge was a huge achievement.”

“I actually hated Dead Cells at first, most of it was just absurd to me.”

Like many who players who get stuck, Henpaku turned to the aid of forums and guides, only to find most people responding with the typical “Git Gud.”

“This really got to me, like pissed me off,” he tells us, “So I tried again. It wasn't like I didn't know what to do. I could see very clearly how enemies acted and visualized what I should probably do to avoid dying.”

“It was like playing the piano, you get to know your chords and then know when to play those chords at will. Or in a fighting game where you practice a bunch of button inputs for different moves and then decide when it’s best to use those moves during a fight.”

Once he understood the mechanics of each item and the tools at his disposal, things started to click. “Before I knew it, I was beating the game over and over in all kinds of different ways. It was unbelievable that I sucked at first.”

Then a new update brought with it a special mechanic that really added to the game’s already brutal challenges. “If you beat certain bosses you get a boss cell and you can activate it to make the game harder. Up to 3 cells can be earned, with default being 0 cells. So i bumped it up to 1 cell and it was back to square one.”

Tenacity and his foundation with the game’s tools led to success and eventually mastery. “At some point I was at the highest difficulty and playing, not with ease, but with confidence.”

Dead Cells draws inspiration from Metroidvania hits with rogue-like flair. This style is what drew Henpaku in.
Dead Cells draws inspiration from Metroidvania hits with rogue-like flair. This style is what drew Henpaku in.

During this time, Henpaku was fairly new to streaming his gameplay. As he became more skilled at a tough game, more and more people began to take notice. Eventually, one of his viewers brought up other Dead Cell speedruns.

“A user named Ironhide asked if I had seen speedruns for this game and I was like ‘Yeah, but I can't do that, never in a million years.”

"You are a boss at this game, try it once,” Ironhide persisted.

Henpaku caved and loaded up a video of the player at the top of the leaderboard at the time. He followed those strategies and emulated what he was witnessing. He hadn’t really set up a good timer, but he started to notice that he was playing faster than the video.

“Maybe I can speedrun this. . .”

Dead Cells has a ton of random generation in each run; it is a game with rogue-like elements. While this would seem counterintuitive to a speedrun, these games often take a deeper understanding that can result in very fast times.

Much like Dead Cells players have to collect various items, Henpaku had to build his knowledge about the game.
Much like Dead Cells players have to collect various items, Henpaku had to build his knowledge about the game.

Henpaku had to know everything about Dead Cells. “I was looking for exploits, flaws in AI, understanding how map generation works, thinking about how I could manipulate RNG to get an advantage, and my time was getting shorter and shorter even after I got first place. It just hasn't stopped since.”

If Ironhide hadn’t suggested it, Henpaku may have never attempted a speedrun of Dead Cells.

As patches would be developed for the game as it moved through the Early Access process, leaderboards would be wiped each time. Henpaku was able to consistently make it to the top, even when many runners gave up as they waited for a full release.

During that time though, Henpaku truly became an expert in Dead Cells. “Compared to when I first started, I’m like a human Wikipedia for this game now. Instead of me asking questions, people ask me questions.” Although the leaderboards started to get lonely as interest in speedrunning this particular game faded into almost nothing. Henpaku wanted more people to compete against.

Luckily, as the game neared release interest started to pick up again. He noticed more views on his uploads, more people coming to his streams, and people asking him for speedrun tips. As he continues to push the time down, which as of this writing has gotten just below 15 minutes, a huge milestone for the game. Henpaku has solidified a hope to one day show the game at a Games Done Quick event. Although, he already feels that it is unlikely due to the travel expense of flying from his home in Japan to America. He tells us that he dreams of sitting on the couch alongside some of his favorite speedrunners.

The developers of Owlboy have worked with the speedrun community to keep runs interesting.
The developers of Owlboy have worked with the speedrun community to keep runs interesting.

Being that several development studios are paying more attention to speedrunners to further enhance their games with some even keeping in bugs that are used by speedrunners, we asked Henpaku if Motion Twin (Dead Cells developers) had asked for his thoughts. He told us that he hasn’t been in much contact with Motion Twin, although some devs did show up to a few streams.

“A dev was on and people were asking about potential updates or future content, trying to get any kind if information, but I was curious about something else and asked ‘Hey is the Dead Cells guy a coffee kind of guy? Or a tea kind of guy? I'm just asking because I'm a little curious about his personality."

“Dev guy wasn't really answering questions, so I didn't expect to get an answer, and he was like ‘Sorry Paku, I can't answer that as it would spoil content for the upcoming lore update’ and everyone in chat was like LORE UPDATE!??!?!?”

We then asked Henpaku about his overall opinion of developers seeking out the insight that speedrunners offer.

“Maybe. It’s not like I’ve been speedrunning for years or anything, I’ve recently come into this, but I do know that I found a ton of bugs the moment I started speedrunning.” Henpaku also pointed out that speedrunning is usually not the result of a single person’s efforts. “Speedrunning is a community effort. The more runners there are, the more likely someone is going to find something that no one else found. When I joined the speedrunning Discord group,
I learned a ton of things that the other runners discovered, so I pooled in all the information gathered by all the different runners there, and put it into practice.”

He says that while speedrunners may not be considered when making changes to the game, he did admit that speedrunners are really skilled at finding bugs that others can overlook. “Speedrunners are like the ultimate video game quality assurance testers. Some bugs in games are just so game breaking and so outside the box that it’s a miracle anyone ever found them. Except for someone who is trying to beat the game fast as hell, but among the sea of abusable mechanics and glitches there are a ton of useless ones too that are not useful to a speedrun. You sort of just discover it on accident while looking for something else.”

“That must be very valuable to developers.”

Speedrunners offer a lot of value for developers as a point of insight.
Speedrunners offer a lot of value for developers as a point of insight.

Henpaku is convinced that his latest time will be tough to beat, leaving him to consider picking up another speedrun entirely. We asked him what game he would consider trying next. “That’s like the million dollar question for me right now. Now that I am sure that I am really good at Dead Cells, I’m looking for another game to speedrun. I thought it might be Celeste because platforming, but that game is hideously hostile. It’s so cool and elegant, but damn difficult.”

“Right now it feels like Dead Cells chose me, so I hope the next game to choose me is great too.”

With Henpaku’s streams becoming a little bit more popular with this speedrun, he hopes to keep up the momentum and continue that path. “I’m no Ninja, but I would like to do Twitch streaming more often. It took me almost 2 years, but I went from nothing to 8 subscribers and not one bit of it was too much for me.”

“I want to keep it up.”

Find Henpaku streaming on Twitch. For more speedrun stories, check out our interview with RiskyCB who is excellent at both Iconoclasts and Hollow Knight. These are two excellent Metroidvania indies that fans of Dead Cells will want to check out. Also RiskyCB is an exceptional broadcaster. We also chatted with the surgical JRP, who has helped estabilsh Metroid Fusion as a viable speedrun, complete with recently discovered sequence breaks. 

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