When you enter a gaming tournament, you usually know what you’re in for. Unless you’re entering a mystery game tournament. Do that, as dozens of people did at the Combo Breaker event in St Charles, Illinois last weekend, and you’re playing the notorious Dong Dong Never Die. That’s just for starters. Weird picks followed in bracket after bracket throughout in one of the weekend’s most entertaining events.
Mystery game tournaments are exactly what they sound like: Players make their way through the bracket having no idea what games they will be playing. Sometimes the competitors will be lucky enough to get a legitimate title they have played before, but more often than not they will find themselves playing Soulcalibur 2 on Dance Dance Revolution dance pads, or even stepping away from the digital world for a few games of Don’t Break the Ice.
First popularised by the Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament (or UFGT) in Chicago, mystery game tournaments have continued at spiritual successor Combo Breaker. This year’s Combo Breaker instalment started off with a bang. While other players competed in games like Street Fighter 5, Killer Instinct, and Capcom vs. SNK 2, some of the mystery game tournament’s 135 participants experienced one of the most notorious “so bad it’s good” fighting games in existence, Dong Dong Never Die. An independent Chinese release that utilises digitised graphics akin to early Mortal Kombat instalments, Dong Dong sports a cast of classic characters such as Albino Anime Guy, Female Iori Yagami and, of course, Mario.
While it may not look like much on the surface, there are a number of strategies players can employ when competing in a mystery game tournament, the most important of which amounts to: “Find and abuse the cheap shit.” This tactic became vital to veteran competitor Ari “Floe” Weintraub’s success when he came face to face with Way of the Warrior later in the bracket.
Another digitised fighting game, Way of the Warrior was one of the earliest titles developed by Naughty Dog before they found success with the Crash Bandicoot series. It’s complete crap, but this crappiness helped Floe secure victory after he discovered that a character named The Dragon is capable of completely locking down the opponent with his lightning legs attack. At one point, he even held up the controller to show the crowd how easy it is to execute.
But don’t let this fool you into thinking only fighting games are included in the mystery pool. As the tournament marched towards its dramatic conclusion, players competed in mini-game collections Muppets Party Cruise and Move or Die as well as Windjammers, the greatest sports game of all time. The grand finals came down to who could perform best in Twinkle Star Sprites, a puzzle-shmup with a competitive mode that allows players to send additional bullets and enemies toward their opponents.
As you can see in the clip below, eventual champion KAZMER took his victory over Floe seriously, much to the chagrin of community members online. “Rick, give me my shit!” he screamed at Combo Breaker tournament organiser Rick Thiher, his shit being the same style of trophy given to the weekend’s other champions and 50 per cent of the prize pool. While he didn’t get far elsewhere, KAZMER succeeded where it counts: A randomised bracket full of the weirdest games imaginable.
While the format has been adopted across the globe, mystery events remain a vital part of Midwestern tournaments and their unique charm. The experiences they offer — from brackets where you never know what game you’re going to play to auction tournaments where competitors sometimes pay hundreds of dollars to play their favourite character — are always just a little bit different than tournaments on the US coasts, making them must-visit affairs every year.
Combo Breaker works hard to maintain the aspects of the fighting game community most likely to disappear should formal esports events become the law of the land. The event sports open brackets and huge lineups featuring popular and obscure games alike. The mystery game tournaments are always the simplest representation of the scene’s grassroots appeal, and this year’s competition was no different.