The Smash 64 Combo Contest Taught Me More About Art Than My MFA

For those unfamiliar with the Smash 64 combo contest, an introduction: Each year, an elite group of attendees at Super Smash Con in Chantilly, VA compete to demonstrate the most eye-poppingly complex combos possible in Super Smash Bros. 64, the original entry in a now iconic series of fighting games. Super Smash Bros. 64 was released on January 21, 1999. The first recorded Combo Contest took place in 2016, seventeen years later.

The Combo Contest is presented like a fighting game tournament — that is, it’s presented like an amateur sporting event broadcast live from an echoey convention center auditorium. And for the first year, that’s exactly what it was.

Then, in year two of the combo contest, a player named Tacos discovered that it was possible to open the settings menu mid-combo and switch the game to slow-mo right before his final hit connected, and everyone went apeshit. Since then, each year has brought new innovations, from ping-ponging enemies between items, to playing blindfolded, to controlling a second character with a bare foot

Tacos’ groundbreaking slowmo donk combo

None of these things are necessarily more technically difficult than the complex button inputs that inaugurated the combo contest. In fact, putting the game in slow-mo is dramatically easier than executing taunt-cancels, ledge-cancels, z-cancels, and all the other kinds of cancels I found when I looked up “difficult things to do in Smash 64” online. But technically impressive feats are only impressive to other technicians. Mechanically proficient combos tend to score more points with judges familiar with the game, but for everybody else the slow-mo slam dunk combo just feels better. They can’t justify that feeling on a checklist, but it’s a real feeling nonetheless. In fact, one possible definition of art might be, “a thing that is much easier to like than it is to explain why you like it.”

But the player who proved to me the artistic merit of the Smash 64 Combo Contest was not Tacos. It was a perpetually-masked Japanese player by the name of Prince.

It’s not spoiling anything to tell you that Prince has won five of the seven recorded combo contests. He is the shonen protagonist of the Combo Contest, destined to win by some accident of birth or godlike persistence. Each Prince combo is a precisely cut gem, reflecting the programmer’s original intentions through a maze of dazzling facets until it becomes something else entirely. Before watching Prince play, Smash 64 was just a game my friends used to use to assert their dominance over me in college. After seeing what that masked man could do, I saw the game for what it truly is: an artistic medium as expressive as charcoal or watercolor.

Every combo contest highlights video is pretty much just a Prince combo compilation

But there’s another important element to Prince’s success: his reputation. From the moment Prince walks up to the stage, everyone in the audience is ready to be impressed. This puts a lot of pressure on Prince, obviously (and in fact, his one recorded loss occurred when his reach finally exceeded his grasp), but as long as he continues to execute at the level for which he’s renowned, that renown in itself acts as a multiplier on the impressiveness of his combos.

When I described prince as the shonen protagonist of the combo contest, I meant it. Every time he picks up the controller, it feels like watching Goku take on his latest invincible opponent. You know Goku’s going to find a way to win, because he’s fucking Goku, but everyone else is so powerful, how’s he going to manage to actually pull it off this time? That anticipation, that expectation of success, plays a huge role in how it feels to watch Prince compete.

But even after being blown away by Prince’s combos for years, the realization that the combo contest is art didn’t truly sink in for me until 2022. After the contest was over, I sat listening to the commentators trying to explain what they’d just seen Prince do.

“The ending, the mid– some part of it is just… out of nowhere,” a commentator named Darkhorse stammered, reaching out with his hands as if trying to physically hold onto the feeling he was experiencing. “You don’t know what’s coming. This is just… where the combo contest is going. You know, we were like ‘everything’s about items. Everything’s gotta use custom spawns.’ [But] it’s still all about the showmanship. Like, what can you do to wow the audience. How can you surprise them.”

The other commentator laughed, plainly sharing his partner’s befuddlement. “Yeah, [show them] what they didn’t expect in a … 23 year old game.”

This year I was on the lookout for similar sentiments, and I found them. After the last combo of the night, commentator Kerokeroppi, struggling to find the right words, said,

“That… I don’t even know what to call it. He tricked us.” I felt, um… I don’t even know how to identify that element that he introduced.”

These are men who still think they’re showing up to a sporting event, attempting to reckon with the fact that they’ve been shown art instead. They can’t quite describe what separates the transcendent combos from the merely technically competent. It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the difficulty of the execution, or the number of hits. It’s not quantifiable. They showed up to try to evaluate which player did best, not realizing that doing so would require them to become art critics.

It’s tempting to compare the Combo Contest to a figure skating competition. After all, the points are subjective, and awarded by a panel of judges who hold up scores on printed cards. There are a number of sports like this in the Olympics, where a bunch of people from different countries attempt to assign numerical values to beauty. But there’s something more to the Smash 64 Combo Contest that elevates it above mere figure skating.

Competitive figure skating has many generations of scoring convention which constrain how many points a skater can be awarded. Figure skating also doesn’t allow you to drop a magic wand out of a dinosaur’s ass while controlling a second figure skater with your feet. There are six figure skating tricks which can earn points in competition. There are 50 unique items in Super Smash Brothers 64, twelve characters, nine stages, and hundreds of moves. And that’s leaving aside the player’s reputations, the way they interact with the crowd, how quickly they manage to pull off their combo, and probably a slew of other factors that haven’t even been discovered yet. The thing that makes the combo contest unique is that nobody has any idea what’s possible. All they know is what they’ve seen, and how it makes them feel.

There’s this belief out there that art should “say something,” that it should reveal some truth about the world, communicate some holy message. But some of the most enduring works of art I’ve experienced stick with me because of the pure emotions they evoked. Books have made me cry, made me cackle uncontrollably, made me feel so full of crackling energy that I had to put them down and just breathe for a minute. A book doesn’t have to mean something to mean something to me. The emotion is enough. And in the case of the Smash 64 Combo Contest, that emotion is HYPE.

This, finally, is what the Combo Contest has taught me about art: That something does not need to be Important to be Good. That the mission of art can be, in fact, to reach past the part of the brain that determines meaning, straight for the brain stem, and light us up from within. I will watch the Smash 64 Combo Contest religiously, every year until it dies or I do. And in the months between, I will strive to write just one sentence that slaps as hard as Prince’s double red-shell Samus SD blaster combo from 2022.

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