The Destroyer of Final Fantasies getting a little help from her daughter, Celise. Could a BAS (Baby Assisted Run) be in the works?

SDA's sweetheart: Kari 'Essentia' Johnson

By Mike Uyama.

Hailing from Utah, Kari 'Essentia' Johnson stands out among the SDA community for her speedrun planning, dedication, endurance, and yes, for being being one of the few females in otherwise a male-dominated community. Although Kari 'Essentia' Johnson is well known for being the "Destroyer of Final Fantasies", her gaming talent is not limited to RPG's - her Donkey Kong Country 2 and Dr. Mario skills are also awe-inspiring. Kari graciously agreed to participate in (non-Quake) SDA's second runner interview, and possibly counterbalance Sattik 'Tiki' Ghosh's immature language.

Editor's note: Most of the interview took place before SDA's charity marathon, Classic Games Done Quick, but there are a couple of follow-up post-marathon questions.

Interviewer questions are in bold.

When and how did you first discover SDA? What interested you in speedrunning?

I first discovered and joined SDA in August 2006. I remember I'd been reading a 3-day Challenge guide for Majora's Mask on GameFAQs, and it mentioned that there were videos of the completed challenge, although it didn't provide any links. So I googled it and was led to Dragorn's (now obsoleted) run on SDA. What most interested me about speedrunning was how fast each game could actually be completed. I'm always looking for new challenges in video games, especially for games that I've played a lot.

What speedruns do you currently have on SDA? Which run do you think is your best?

I currently have runs for Final Fantasy VI (single-segment), Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy X, as well as three runs for Dr. Mario 64 (although one of them is about to obsoleted). I'm most proud of my FFVI run, because it took the most work to complete by far.

Are you working on any speedruns right now?

I've been working on an any% run of Donkey Kong Country 2 for over two years; hopefully someday I'll get a run that I'm satisfied with. I was also working on Final Fantasy XII, but I'm taking a break from it. Right now, I've mostly been focusing on a single-segment route for Final Fantasy X that I'll be performing in a FF marathon that some of The Speed Gamers community will be doing later in November, and if it turns out well, I'll submit it to SDA.

What games do you like to play when you're not speedrunning?

Lately, when I actually have free time to play, I use it to speedrun. If I ever get time to play games casually, though, I still usually play Dr. Mario or Final Fantasies, with maybe a little Mega Man X thrown in.

So you enjoy playing Mega Man X games? Do you have any interest in running the games? It would be nice if Tiki's comments were cleaned up by someone less..."adolescent".

I've considered running some MMX games, but one thing that deters me is that I know there are much faster button mashers out there than me. Right now there are a bunch of other games I'd rather run, anyway.

Do you have any interests outside of speedrunning?

I like to play piano, read books, and put together jigsaw puzzles; the largest jigsaw I've done was 4000 pieces, but I'd like to do even bigger ones someday.

Since one of your hobbies is jigsaw puzzles, do you think it is related to your interest in games like Dr. Mario and Puzznic?

Yes, definitely. I love to do just about any kind of puzzle, whether it be jigsaw, logic, or gaming. I think it also relates to my interest in running RPGs, since they involve a lot of problem solving to plan out, which is another kind of puzzle.

How did you get into gaming in the first place?

The first games I remember playing were on my dad's Atari. Then my brother got a NES for Christmas one year, and that's when I really got into gaming. I had an older gamer cousin that I idolized when I was young, and whenever I saw him playing a game, I had to get the same game and play it also. I was never really into girly things - all my sisters would go off and play house or ponies with the girl cousins while I would hang out with the guys and watch them play games like Earthworm Jim.

I remember you mentioned that you were the one who got your husband into video games. How did you get him into games? Do you ever play games together?

My husband didn't have any gaming consoles while growing up. Just after we started dating, I asked him if he'd like to play through Final Fantasy IX together - it's one of the few FFs that has a 2-player option. I think he agreed more because he liked me than because he actually wanted to do it, but we found that he actually liked those kinds of games. We like to play games together, although we don't have very many that are 2-player. He's one of the few people who will still play Dr. Mario against me.

What motivates you to speedrun?

I really like the planning part of speedrunning, which is probably why I'm drawn to running FF games. Since I've finished college and am a stay-at-home mom now, speedrunning gives me a chance to use my brain and solve problems.

Which game was the most challenging to run? The easiest?

The hardest was FFVI (although if I ever finish DKC2, it will have been the hardest by far); the easiest were my Dr. Mario runs, because I'd played the game so much that didn't really have to practice before doing the runs.

What about DKC 2 makes it so hard to run?

I'm used to using a certain character on each level, but anytime I get hurt, I'm forced to use the other one that I haven't really practiced with. When this happens, I'm even more likely to make mistakes. Then there's the fact that DKC2 is in a different genre from the other games that I've run; RPG runs are mainly about planning, whereas DKC2 is more about execution. I'm determined to get a deathless run, which will hopefully happen someday.

What was difficult about Final Fantasy VI? Was it the length of the game? Or was it something else, like a particular boss?

The length was definitely the biggest issue. Since it was done all in one go, I had to either memorize or write down the route for the entire game beforehand. Also, in a game as random as this, it's hard to get everything to go right, although I tried to plan for anything that could happen. There was one section of the game, though, where about 80% of my run attempts ended. It was the part where you fight the IAF right before landing on the Floating Continent. That part has 6 forced encounters, and I had to pull off a Joker Doom in each one; if I messed up just once, I was pretty much dead. This happened so much that I'd get nervous every time I got to the IAF, which made me even more likely to mess up. Finally, someone on the SDA forums (I can't remember who, sorry!) suggested that I summon Siren whenever I failed with Joker Doom, which nullifies most of the enemies' attacks. I had to change a lot of my earlier strategy to be able to have Siren equipped in those battles, but it turned out to be the perfect strategy.

I know your Final Fantasy VI run took many attempts to complete, was there ever a time you were disheartened and did not feel like running the game?

Not really that I can think of. I was pretty certain that it could be done, and since FFVI is my favorite game of all-time, I really wanted to complete a run.

More importantly, was it hard finding the time to run Final Fantasy VI? I would imagine it was hard to set aside time for a five hour run!

Actually, at that point in my life it seemed like I had nothing but time. It was during the summer, so I didn't have college classes, and I didn't have a job. I was living in my husband's parents' basement in an unfamiliar town, and I didn't have any good friends close by. My husband would go to work every day, and I was left to try to find things to do on my own. I think I might have been suffering from depression then, and speedrunning got my mind off that and gave me something to focus on.

Have you ever felt burn out or frustration from running a game too much?

Yes, although it's only temporary - sometimes I just need to take a week or two off from running the same game over and over.

Have you ever had a run rejected by SDA?

No. I think I'm a lot more critical of my runs than the SDA verifiers ever would be.

You are popular for running Final Fantasy games. What drew you into the series?

I love Final Fantasies mostly for their storylines, which is kind of ironic given that I have to skip most of the story when I speedrun. The first FF I ever played was FFVI, and I immediately loved how all the characters had deep (usually tragic) backgrounds.

Speaking of skipping lots of story, do you ever find it tedious or annoying to wade through lots of text and unskippable cutscenes?

Oh yes. Even though I may love the story, it gets really old the hundredth time you see it. It gets to the point where I don't even need to read the text because I have it all memorized.

You are known as the "Destroyer of Final Fantasies", but you have also have some Dr. Mario 64 runs. Do you ever feel like your Dr. Mario runs are underappreciated? And would you rather be called the "Healer of the Mushroom Kingdom"?

I always knew that my Dr. Mario runs wouldn't be as popular; I was actually really surprised to find people on the forums who were interested in them. The main reason I ran Dr. Mario was because it's a game I'm really good at, and I knew it wouldn't take much work for me to produce a run. I wouldn't mind if more people appreciated them, but I know that realistically they'll never be really popular. I won't ever object to being called the "Healer of the Mushroom Kingdom", though.

On the topic of Dr. Mario 64, do you have any desire to run other puzzle games?

I've thought about it. Actually, my very first post on the SDA forums was about running a NES puzzle game called Puzznic. I quickly realized, though, that it would require a lot of work but end up being boring. I wouldn't mind doing some individual levels of Lemmings, if other people were willing to work on it as well, and if we could ever agree on which version of the game to use.

There is someone who goes by the name of "Zero", who supposedly has a Final Fantasy XII time of sub-7 hours, but his strategies are currently unknown. Are times without any video or strategies like Zero's demoralizing, or do you feel compelled to beat them?

At first it was demoralizing, because my test run time of 8:04 was nowhere near his time. I don't know if I'll ever beat it, but I'd like to try to get as close as I can. If I can at least get a video of a run out there, then it'll be easier to figure out better strategies.

Now you named your daughter, Celise, after the character Celes in Final Fantasy VI. Is Celes your favorite Final Fantasy character, or is there another reason why you gave your daughter that name?

Yes, Celes is one of my favorite FF characters, but that's not really why I named my daughter after her. I'd always wanted to name one of my children after a Final Fantasy character, since I love the series so much, but the problem is that most of those names are pretty weird. I wanted to use a name that wasn't too weird and also wouldn't be immediately recognizable from a video game.

Are you planning on giving your next child another Final Fantasy-influenced name, or do you want him/her to go through school without being teased by other kids?

I don't think my little girl will be teased about her name! I actually have a neighbor who had a classmate named Celise, so it's really not that weird of a name. Anyway, I have another girl due in March, but so far I haven't found any other FF names that I like. We'll see what happens...

Maybe you can name your next child after a character in another series you like. Dixie Kong, Zero, the possibilities are endless!

I suppose there are lots of possibilities. I just haven't found one I could imagine calling my daughter for the rest of my life.

Since you're a mother, have you ever had your speedrunning interrupted by your daughter? Any funny stories?

It's easiest to speedrun while she's sleeping, so if I get interrupted, it's usually when she wakes up from her nap. The funniest story I can think of actually happened before she was born. While I was pregnant with her, I remember I was running DKC2, and she kicked me pretty hard; I lost my concentration and ended up falling in a pit and dying.

You are a member of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints, better known as Mormons. Do you feel like your faith helps you when you run?

My faith affects pretty much every aspect of my life, so I suppose it affects my speedrunning as well. My religion has taught me to be patient, which is definitely a helpful quality for a speedrunner to have.

Prayer must be an important part of your life, do you ever pray before speedrunning?

I usually pray every morning when I first get up and every night before I go to bed, and there were a few times (mainly when working on FFVI) that I would ask for help. I would say things like, "Help me to do my best and not to get frustrated if things don't work out," because I try to leave things that are out of my control up to God.

You are attending MAGFest 8 in January for SDA's charity marathon, Classic Games Done Quick. What are you looking forward to the most?

I'm really excited to participate in the charity marathon. I love to speedrun, but a lot of times I feel guilty about how much time I spend doing it. Now I think it's great that I get a chance to do some running for a good cause.

When you were practicing for MAGFest, you said you didn't like the NES version of Dr. Mario compared to the N64 version, why?

Until the day before the marathon started, I hadn't actually played the NES version in years. Unfortunately, I realized one little difference between the two versions at that time: On the N64 version, if you're holding left/right as soon as the pill drops, it moves immediately. However, on the NES version, there's just a little bit of a delay before the pill starts moving. It's just a little thing that probably only a speedrunner would notice, but it makes it almost impossible to get the pills all the way to the edge on the highest levels when on high speed.

How did you feel about your performance at MAGFest?

Overall, I was a lot less nervous than I thought I'd be. I was really happy with how DKC2 went, even though it had four deaths; it was probably the third best run I've ever had of that game, and was only 2 minutes slower than my fastest run. Dr. Mario went fine up until level 19, when I lost right near the end. I wish I could have completed the game on high speed, but it's much harder to do on the NES than on the N64 version. FFVI ended up being much slower than my SDA run, but a lot of that was because I was taking requests for character names and other things (such as suplexing the train and letting Cid die). The run itself went pretty well until the final battle, when I made a huge mistake (forgot to cast float on Tier 1) and died. However, considering it was about 4am at that time, I'll cut myself some slack.

Anything you would like to say that we haven't covered?

I know I'm not even close to being the typical gamer/speedrunner. I used to be ashamed to admit that I'm a girl who likes video games, but now I'm getting over it. I'm one of the few active girl speedrunners at SDA, but I'd like to encourage other girl gamers to give it a try.