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Tetris 99 Review: share joy with 98 other human beings

Tetris 99 was launched this week on the Nintendo Switch. If you’re wondering about how the game runs, please enjoy this review from Michael. 

There’s a lyric in the stunning Tetris Effect that goes “Don’t you forget it/We’re all connected in this“. While that crescendo likely speaks more to the interconnectedness of being, and what it means to be human, to me, it speaks to those jerks who just bankrupted my otherwise clean run with a total of 17 junk lines. That, it turns out, is a transgression that is indeed difficult to forget. Later, I’d go on to spend the next two hours trying to piece together my wounded pride.

Announced and launched, basically at the same time

Announced was out of the blue during the most recent Nintendo Direct. Tetris 99 is a game that we didn’t know we wanted. There’s a rather worn out meme that gets thrown about of “X, but Battle Royale“. While it’s true that developers currently seem to think that the way to a gamer’s heart is through the party bus, the biggest takeaway one could draw from the announcement is that a stunning 35 years after its original release, there are not one, not two, but three Tetris games to play. And, they’re all really, really good. Between the aforementioned two and the incredible Puyo Puyo Tetris, there’s never been a better time to be a Tetris fan.

UI and UX

The game menu is extremely spartan. It contains little more than a barebones options menu, a stats screen, and a button simply titled “Tetris 99”. That button shoots you off to the game lobby. Connecting to matches is mercifully quick, with 98 other game fields almost immediately filling your screen. A few seconds later, and you’re off.

Gameplay

For anyone that’s played Tetrinet, Puyo Puyo Tetris, or the myriad other forms of “Battle Tetris” that have come and gone, it’s a familiar proposition. Clearing lines sends “junk” to opponents that fill the bottom of their playfield. Larger clears (up to and including the vaunted 4-line Tetris), back-to-back clears or special clears like T-Spins yield a bigger delivery of junk.

Of course, it isn’t quite that simple, as your opponents are just as capable of doing the same to you. Worse still, the junk lines are just one block away from being cleared at any given moment. So, one person’s trash becomes another’s treasure — so sending junk is as much an opportunity as it is a punishment.

Game like Fortnite or Apex Legends can see you play for lengthy stretches without contact with an opponent. Meanwhile, Tetris 99 is an intensely confrontational experience. Everyone’s field updates periodically, and so if you felt so inclined, you could effectively watch 98 other games of Tetris being played out alongside your own, each with the express intent of taking you out. As someone who grew up with Tetrinet over LAN in high school, there’s something oddly comforting about that.

More about the mechanics

Exactly where these junk lines go, and in what quantity, is somewhat of a mystery from the outset. The game really doesn’t explain its inner workings well — or at all, really. The targeting system, controlled by the right stick, gives a brief description of what it entails. Then, the lines that dart around the screen indicates who you’re targeting — and who is targeting you. However, in the heat of the moment, it’s difficult to parse exactly how it all works.

In short, the game defaults to a random assignment. But, the better options are the other three:

  1. KO, which prioritises opponents who are close to losing
  2. Attackers, which targets opponents who are targeting you, and
  3. Badges, which prioritises opponents who were the last to send lines before an opponent was KO’d

These three targeting modes mean that it’s possible to angle your attack in very specific ways. For instance, I set my targeting to Attackers to bunker down and survive through the early-game madness, then flitter between KO and Badges to take out my opponents as things draw towards the pointy end.

Strategy

The badges themselves aren’t simply for show, either. The more badges you accrue, the more pain you can inflict on your opponents. Each complete badge increases the amount of junk you can send by 25%: and badges are “dropped” on KO, going to the player who took them out.

As such, it really does pay to keep one eye on other playfields. You can effectively laser-focus your efforts to narrow the player count quickly. Then, you can become the player sporting more badges than a PAX attendee. Along with the Tetris staples of the held piece, the upcoming drops, and the lay of your own land, that’s a lot of mental bandwidth you’re going to have to allocate. Thankfully, there is the option to set and forget in case things get too hairy.

My own Tetris history

It’s probably worth noting at this point that my pedigree in Tetris is pretty sound. I’ve routinely placed in the top 8 of local Puyo Puyo Tetris competitions, and the biggest prize I’ve ever won playing video games was through Tetris. As of writing this, my current win rate in Tetris 99 is just over 25%.

I’d imagine it’s not much fun to play against me (and I can categorically state that while I’m good, I’m not that good). So, with each release of Tetris being iterative, you’re going to run face first into a brick wall if Tetris 99 is your first real foray into stacking blocks. Specifically, because there are people like me — or even better than me — vying for the same crown.

I gave Tetris 99 to a friend who considers themselves, in their words, “s**thouse” at Tetris, and they were routinely obliterated. They placed in the low 70s at best across maybe 6 or 7 games. With a dismissive “yeah, nah”, they handed the Switch back to me.

Like other Battle Royales?

It’s not as if this is any different in any other battle royale game. At least in those instances, it’s possible to luck out and drop next to someone who is equally skilled. Which means that anyone can make an impact, even if they aren’t going to win any time soon.

Tetris 99 doesn’t really have the means to provide that kind of experience. While the targeting system goes some way to serve as an equaliser, the game still demands that you clear lines quickly, consistently, and with pinpoint precision. That is if you’re to ever see the top 50 and beyond.

With nowhere to hide, there’s no coward’s way out in Tetris 99, and so the only way forward is through. For someone like me, that’s basically the Bat Signal. For people less inclined to put in the time to learn how to stack with the best of them, it could definitely prove to be a turn-off.

Final thoughts

Of course, it’s a free game so long as you have a Nintendo Switch Online subscription. So, hey, give it a go. Other than being the meat in a turbo-nerd sandwich, what’s the worst that could happen?

To me, Tetris is the quintessential video game. There are many games out there that are more technically impressive, better sounding, more exhilarating, and so on… But, you would be hard pressed to find a game that executes what it sets out to do any better than Tetris. It’s a video game so sublime that Alexey Pajitnov was considered one of the top 5 most influential developers of all time. Despite the fact that he is simultaneously referred to as the father of video games’ most notable one hit wonder.

Really, that isn’t down to the fact that games like Faces or Hexic (yes, he made that one game on MSN Messenger) were bad games. It’s simply that Tetris is so utterly monolithic. Over 60 releases later on home consoles, computers, phones, graphing calculators and more, we’re still finding new ways to find that so-called ecstasy in order.

Tetris 99 simply lets you share that joy with 98 other human beings, and that, to me, is pretty special.

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