Tetris Finds a Way to Surprise Once More in Tetris 99

It would appear interesting Tetris iterations are akin to buses: you wait for one to appear, then two come along at practically the same time. And while it may still be early days, here comes a declaration that’s sure to grab your attention at the very least: Tetris might be one of the forerunners for biggest/best surprise of the year, for a second time. No doubt it was one of the more left-field announcements to emerge from last Wednesday’s Nintendo Direct. All joking aside, it’s easy — and thus understandable — to throw shade at Nintendo. To accuse them (like many) of hopping on the Battle Royale bandwagon, even if the IP with which the concept is incorporated into could be considered one of the least likely candidates for a mode often associated with first/third-person shooters. And in a month that has seen Respawn drop their own take on the craze via Titanfall spin-off Apex Legends — which looks to have caught many people’s attention, despite the absence of what has given Titanfall (its sequel more notably) its richly-deserved acclaim — surely Tetris’ attempts would look paltry by comparison, right?

How far from the truth this ends up being. Put it this way: if you find yourself coming into Tetris 99 (notably, having never indulged in Nintendo’s laughable online component) with the intent of playing but a handful of games at the day’s end…only to find yourself still playing way past three in the morning, something must clearly be working here. Laugh all you want about the notion of “Tetris BR” — yes, on paper, the idea is absurd. But somewhere, somehow, Tetris 99 finds a way to not only find synergy with the puzzle-based formula, better still, the free-to-play entrant creates a slew of interesting, emergent moments that make sense both in the context of Battle Royale and of competitive Tetris alone. Turning what appears (and indeed remains) an aesthetically simplified and admittedly unappealing rendition of Tetris in this iteration into something with far more strategy and deliberated thought on knowing when and when not to act.

Interestingly, despite the presentation and fellow 98 players confined to thumbnail-sized equivalents of other boards getting dished the exact same Tetrimino pieces, Tetris 99 still manages to evoke that evolving friction between yourself and other players. The rampant chaos of its early stages progressing towards its “Final 10” climax, whereupon Tetrimino drops are faster, the music is stripped of its once-carefree casual antics, and unfortunately, the game offers a few momentary hiccups so far as occasional lag messing up an otherwise satisfyingly delicate run. Even if the gameplay remains the same — even if the primary goal is to continuously clear lines of blocks and avoid having your board cluttered with greyed-out rows of junk — Tetris 99 still manages to make each and every one of its sessions feel uncannily personal, providing you last that long. When play-style can become a dilemma between attack and defense — desperately clearing single rows, as opposed to playing the risky long-game of setting up a four-line clear — rather than focusing squarely on how best to screw over your opponent, it’s proof that even with something like Tetris, the Battle Royale can function without a single virtual bullet being fired.

Tetris 99’s faithful recreation of the Battle Royale experience — of going from simply surviving the chaos, to actively engaging in this now-personal confrontation between you and the final few survivors — is just the tip of the iceberg. What really gives Tetris 99 its edge, and the reason why its incorporation is perplexingly but undeniably addictive, is in the nuanced little moments of strategy that prevent one’s run from truly feeling like a case of dumb luck, whether that be good or an otherwise bad equivalent. Let’s be clear though, there’s a blatant and obvious relevancy of “luck” involved here. As is so often the case with Battle Royale, the most “skilled” participants aren’t always guaranteed a win if someone else manages to time one’s movements correctly. But that in no way mitigates the clear need to think outside the box (or board in this case). To not be so locked into your own state of play, to rely solely on clearing measly single lines. It’s what you do with said clearances — the “how” and “who” especially — where Tetris 99’s clever seductions begin to unravel.

Tetris 99 Screenshot 2
With each session or round, there are four different modes of attack you can use when engaging with your fellow 99 faceless opponents on-screen, activated by a single leaning of the right analog stick: Random, KO, Attack & Badge. Random, as its name implies, has you send your cleared lines to a randomly-selected player; KO actively targets those close to being knocked out of the round; Attack, ironically, works as a counter move to those actively targeting your own board, and Badge focuses on players whom have already racked up a higher number of KOs, and as a result, while more capable of dishing out junk lines, are actually more vulnerable as a drawback to their increased strength. Admittedly, Tetris 99 does a poor job at explaining any of this beforehand — which you can extend to criticizing the game as a whole, for its lack of any form of tutorial or practice mode. A surprising oversight on Nintendo’s part you might think.

But while there is a clear lack of teaching players the finer mechanics on offer and providing some means for players to at least get settled in — other than simply diving head-first into the madness — the eventual benefit to all this is of course the many avenues players can go down when it comes to planning one’s course to victory. The fact that any form of targeting, whether it’s you targeting other players or they aiming their figurative reticle on you, is presented on-screen, gives the game a touch more dread for when (if at all) the next unfortunate clutter of grey blocks could come. You could, in fact, turn this into a battle of mind games; have players believe they’re being targeted only to switch out at the last minute. Play about with the visual representations via the many streams of light, green icons and messages advising you to “watch out.” This is no longer a case of beating your opponent to the trigger — on who can make the most of a 3D environment. Reflexes are key sure, but is it imperative to play your hand so early or not? Is the threat of attack more prevalent than an attack in of itself?

You might think this all sounds a little too complex for what is essentially “just Tetris” and in a way, you’d be right. But that’s the genius of Tetris 99: on the surface, the gameplay remains the same, but where once this was a solitary test of getting as high a score as possible and seeing how long one can survive, that same competitive need is now being twisted and directed back at 98 other similarly-engaged players. And if it means screwing others over to reach the top…so be it. Players can counter some of this by, for example, using line clears as a means to push back against the impending wave (noted by a bar to the left of the board which shows how many junk lines are heading your way and how soon), which is a far more concise and less-distracting visual than the many flurries of light that serve to report the utter melee taking place across all 99 active boards in real-time. Then again, the insistent need to take a gander at how other players are fairing — perhaps to draw a better picture on how to approach things coming up — is never too far, and again, Tetris 99 finds a way to gnaw at that splendidly contradictory BR mentality of focusing on one’s efforts, while at the same time, desiring to see how the entire affair is playing out.

Whether the visual effects — let alone the action happening outside your own board — serve to assist or hinder your strict, steely focus, you can’t deny that all this still serves to better reflect the “everyman for himself” nature that Battle Royale early stages are often shaped by. A period where setting up four-line clears and storing I-shaped Tetriminos can become a more sound strategy in the long-run, but at the same time, leave you open to other players. Potentially clogging your board with far-flung junk. The fact that said junk seems to brutally push itself into your space rather than simply materializing is a welcome little touch and only emphasizes the unexpected nature that this sub-genre/style of gameplay can bring when one is least expecting it. And even if a run is a bad one and you end up finishing way down in the pecking order, the fact the game allows you to simply hop straight into a new game in a matter of seconds shows that, despite its simplicity and sparse design, Tetris 99 at least acknowledges the need not to waste people’s time with unnecessary menu-hopping (looking at you, Blackout).

Perhaps the biggest and most crucial positive we can take away from Tetris 99 is that Nintendo have it in themselves to offer players a small incentive to invest in Nintendo Switch Online. Granted, one game — one free-to-play iteration on Tetris, let’s not forget — will hardly change anything. Least of all, it’s doubtful that as addictive but sensical a spin on Battle Royale this may be, it won’t make up for the inexcusable hoops Nintendo still insist players must jump through. Tetris 99 is a step in the right direction though — proof that the Switch’s online component does indeed have potential, even if said potential stems from the quality of its software, rather than the foundation with which its online is laughably built upon. But stand-alone, a mere four months after we had possibly one of the more engaging and immersive takes on this three decade-old series, Tetris 99 has managed to surprise us all over again with just how flexible (and imaginative) this IP can be.