Mystery Tournaments are the best tournaments (and SpeedRunsLive MT6 was especially great)

If you’ve been to a nerdy convention with a game room, you have doubtless encountered some manner of gaming tournament – usually for stuff like fighting games or FPS titles, maybe some RTS or MOBA sessions if someone arranged a LAN setup for PCs. Every so often, however, you’ll encounter the fabled “mystery tournament.” The idea behind these is that you get a bunch of people to play through a gauntlet of different games with varied short goals, eliminating players along the way until you wind up a champion. Pretty typical, save for the multi-game part – the catch is that none of the players know in advance what is going to be played, and typically the game choices are obscure or off-the-wall so that players, in all likelihood, have never played them before.

Mystery tournaments are tons of fun for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, they present a playing field that’s a bit more level – everyone’s going into these games at least semi-blind, so you don’t have the “oh, I’m out of practice” reluctance that would come when considering entering specific titles you may not have had time to play. Another factor is that they test a completely different set of skills than a typical game tournament: whereas a fighting game tournament might test your ability to compete against several different characters and individual playstyles in a single game you’re intricately familiar with, a mystery game tournament challenges your ability to quickly learn rules and figure out effective means of play coming from no familiarity at all across multiple titles. Sure, having a good knowledge of action games might be helpful when you’re given a random platform title to play, but what happens when you get something totally new like an unreleased indie game with completely bizarre mechanics that the dev gave to the tourney organizers? You’d better be able to learn, and quickly.

The absolute best thing about mystery tournaments, however, is the games themselves. You’re given an opportunity to discover interesting titles – some of which you’d never consider playing or overlook amongst your already-massive backlog – within a fast-paced and competitive environment. Now, this certainly isn’t the best way to first experience some games, but getting (or even just seeing) that taste of a game from a mystery tournament can be enough to get people interested in exploring it further. For example, when competitive indie darling Nidhogg showed up at the finals of a Northwest Majors mystery tournament, it got a whole heaping of hype and attention1:

Or check out the finals for Lethal League, from UFGT9:

Of course, the games don’t necessarily have to be obscure – you can take old favorites and put new and unexpected twists on them. UFGT was very well known for this, their mystery tournaments included stuff like Spinjustice (playing Injustice while people spin the chair you’re sitting in slowly), Marvel vs. Capcom 2 all-Thanos teams, Soul Calibur 2 on DDR pads (see the first part of the video above), and last year’s surprise ender Don’t Break The Ice:

It’s great on many levels: organizers can showcase games that they want to give more attention and think players would enjoy, participants get to explore a bunch of old and new games they may have otherwise overlooked, and developers can showcase, build hype, and get feedback from players in an exciting environment.

I’d like to encourage people to organize and participate in in-person mystery tournaments, which is why I’m writing this – to help bring more awareness to the format. But it can be difficult: having a bunch of different games usually means having a bunch of different consoles and controllers to manage, which can be a tech nightmare, especially when running on a tight convention schedule. It’s also a fair bit harder to promote a mystery tournament given that you can’t attach the name of a popular game to it (even if you’re playing some bizarre variant of said popular game).

Fortunately, it’s also possible to organize mystery tournaments through the internet. SpeedRunsLive, who you may know as part of the folks who put on the Games Done Quick marathon, holds their own online mystery tournaments twice a year. While I’m not a speedrunner, I’m (obviously) a huge fan of the format, and the SRL Mystery Tournaments have a few interesting twists that make them particularly appealing. Read on for an account of how my Mystery Tournament 6 experience went down.

I’m not sure where I first heard about SRL’s Mystery Tournament series, but I know that when I did, my first thought was “I need to participate in this.” I’m not much of a speedrunner – and all of the challenges in SRL’s tournaments are speedrun-based – but I love the format and I knew the people involved in organizing and playing would be pretty cool. On top of that, one of the prerequisites for participation is that you must submit at least three games with goals to be drawn at random during the course of the tournament. A chance to make mystery tournament participants have to play whatever I submit? Hell yes, that sounds great!

As you probably suspected, I immediately went and submitted some hilarious kusoge. Maybe I shouldn’t have, given that you’re highly discouraged from submitting games you think are bad, but… hear me out: I sincerely believe that kusoge are a lot of fun when played in a format like this with a short goal. You play the game, you figure out what makes it “special,” you have a good laugh, and then when you’re done you never have to bother with it again. That’s why I had audience participation at my panel, after all. Sure, some kusoge are like horrible mutant butterflies that morph into even more terrible abominations as you play further into them, but for a good chunk of them you more or less “get it” after a short while. Give a short goal, and you get all the incredulity and bemusement as players compete to figure out what the hell is going on without reaching the part where these games get tedious and depressing.

Alas, my kusoge subs didn’t make it in. The only game where I know why it didn’t make it in was Jurassic Boy 2, due to a softlock I had missed when I was testing it out. I’m assuming Super Mario Bros. Special’s convoluted PC-88 emulator setup (and eye-searing color scheme) was probably a factor there, but it’s still a mystery as to why Lost Word of Jenny didn’t make the cut. I even provided a randomness-eliminating savestate. Sigh!

That’s not to say none of my submissions made it in, though: I also submitted Raimais (one of only two arcade submissions for the tournament, the other being Liquid Kids) and the Super Mario Advance 4 e-Reader levels. An important thing to know about the races in SRL Mystery Tournaments is that anyone can join in on them casually, but only the two assigned competitors’ times will be used when figuring out who progresses on. Several folks participated in both of these, and the results were interesting to observe.

For Raimais, I had the players always use the right exit so they’d mostly wind up on the same routes and had the win condition be reaching level 21. It mostly played out as I expected: a couple of players got the stage 4 warp, but the player with the best time (And4h, who eventually was the tournament’s runner-up) actually didn’t get the warp – though he still ended up with the best time because he played carefully with the fewest deaths. It’s tempting to try and blow through a game like this when you’ve got unlimited credits and continues, but all those deaths add up to a lot of time in the end. I probably should have re-thought my goal with Mario Advance 4 e-reader stages 1-10 – ending on an autoscroller is bad form for a speedrun tournament – but it seemed to take a lot of people by surprise with the way it adds a bunch of weird new stuff into Mario 3. That’s exactly how I wanted the people playing it to feel: we all know the Mario 3 mechanics, but the moment Bullet Bills are flying at you in an X-pattern you know it’s not going to be an easy ride.

As for me, well, I went 2-2, which I’m fairly satisfied with. My first game pull was Aladdin for the Gameboy Color, which is a port of the Genesis Aladdin. I lost this one, though it was only two minutes’ difference, which isn’t bad for a blind race. Debates over whether the SNES or Genesis version is superior aside, I think we can all agree that a GBC port that ended up looking like this probably wasn’t the best idea:

Half the people playing commented that they got lost (as did I), and I think it’s pretty easy to see why. Still, if you’re playing in an event like this, you have to be prepared to play some crap, and this definitely fit the bill.

My next game was Run Saber, one of the surprisingly small action-game subgenre of Strider-likes. I’d heard of it before but hadn’t tried it before, and now that I have I really like it: the aesthetics are great, it’s got some really cool stage setpieces, and it overall feels extremely solid, some minor quibbles about the control aside. It’s also spurred me to do some research on the developer, Horisoft, who appears who have been an attempt by peripheral manufacturer Hori to break into game developer. Weirdly, the game was never released in Japan… though a controller based on it was. I’m super glad I played this, not only because I discovered a cool game, but because it’s spurred me to investigate developer that seems largely overlooked – and there’s nothing I love more than researching and recording gaming industry history. I won this match, but only on a technicality – both me and the other player ran into issues while streaming the game.

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The third game I played was a Japanese GBC title called Samurai Kid. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect from this one, but I wound up really liking it. It’s a Koei-published puzzle/platformer by developer Biox, who sadly doesn’t seem to exist anymore. You play as the titular be-spectacled samurai kid, using three different weapons to manipulate enemies and objects and make your way through various stages. The puzzle/platformers I enjoy most are games like this and Klonoa Empire of Dreams: the puzzles can get a little tricky but are never so obtuse that you get completely frustrated with them. I struggled a bit with the bosses due to being overzealous (there are some easy tricks to beat them that I totally overlooked), but I managed to win this one. It’s a really neat and overlooked little game that’s definitely worth playing.

Then I wound up completely crushed by Intelligent Qube afterwards. 2-2, oh well. At least the music was good.

But I certainly wasn’t done participating. Since you can join in any SRL race, I played a lot of submissions casually, including neat stuff like Panic Restaurant and the Game Boy port of Avenging Spirit. (I’ve been writing up something about the arcade game, but now that I’ve played the GB version, I feel like I need to discuss that one alongside it.)

Seeing other folks play is great, too. In particular, the Top 8 of these Mystery Tournaments are always a fantastic watch, and this batch was no exception. The games in Top 8 are a mix of random draws and special titles “reserved” by the tournament organizers, which meant that we got a mix of indie freeware platformers, Puzznic, Popeye 2, fascinatingly weird Game Boy puzzle game Lucle, Jumping Flash, Beyblade, and amazing kusoge Monster Rancher Hop-a-Bout, among many others. (I also got to see someone else struggle with Intelligent Qube, since it’d been submitted twice – made me feel like considerably less of a chump to see another player wrestling with the same things I had before.)

As it turned out, though, the game of the tournament would be saved for the grand finals. One of the surprise hits of a previous SRL Mystery Tournament was a homebrew NES game called Lawn Mower, a game that’s basically what it says on the box. You may have seen it raced at AGDQ this year, where it got in (much to the surprise of the people who submitted it):

So how do you follow up Lawn Mower? Why, with a Lawn Mower fangame, made and submitted by participant Knighty especially for the tournament. I don’t want to spoil anything, but The Return of Lawn Mower takes the franchise in… very interesting new directions. Seriously, just click that link and watch what happens, it’s a thing of beauty.

Overall, I’m extremely happy that I participated in MT6, so much so that I’m already in the process of planning out my MT7 game submissions (and even have something of a theme around them). I enjoyed playing a bunch of games I hadn’t played before, I liked coming up with ideas and goals for submissions and watching others play through them, and everybody involved – the folks running everything and the participants hanging around IRC – were a fantastic, friendly bunch of people. I’ll definitely enter again, and I encourage my readers to join in, too. Though you might be daunted when it comes to submitting games, it’s not as hard as it seems – just think outside the box a bit. (Hell, you can even submit a “popular” game with a weird twist – one of my favorite submissions was Mario 3 with permanent Frog Suit powerup.) Who knows – you might just inspire the next great AGDQ speedrun (or a mindblowingly amazing fan game) as a result.

  1. And thus Lord BBH’s shame lives on. I’M SORRY ;_;