The core gameplay of Tetris is designed to be nail-biting. While the formula has had a few shake ups since then, little work has ever been needed to make the easy-to-learn, impossible-to-master game any more challenging. The surprise release this week of Tetris 99, a battle royale-esque version of the game now on Nintendo Switch, goes to show that Tetris can indeed be made more intense. The game’s developer, Arika, does this not by ramping up the speed, but by pitting you against 98 other players looking to knock you out.
The execution is straightforward: It’s competitive Tetris, but instead of one-on-one battles, Tetris 99 is a 99-player free-for-all. As I clear lines, I can send garbage blocks over to one of my many opponents, filling their board up with extra lines they need to clear. If too many blocks flood a player’s screen, they are knocked out of the game. True to the battle royale genre, this game of knockout happens until one player is left standing.
A typical game Tetris can be intense. Its random nature means I never truly know what to expect each time I play. Introducing 98 other players to the mix only makes the challenge even more frantic. In each game of Tetris 99, I’m squaring off against a horde that’s also all scrambling to clear lines. While I’m focused on my game, I also have to be conscious of the 98 other Tetris games happening all around me in real time.
Even more dramatic than that, at any given moment, Tetris 99’s UI will highlight the immediate danger I’m in because of my opponents. One of the most in-your-face elements is the game’s targeting system. When I’m targeted, the board of the player who is hoping to offload their blocks onto my board is connected to mine with bright yellow lines. It’s bad enough knowing that at any given moment, someone might cram garbage blocks on my screen. But the game is also eager to show me exactly who has me in their crosshairs.
On the left side of my screen is a growing queue of the garbage opponents can send my way. The blocks change appearance depending on their impending arrival. Grey blocks mean I have some time before they appear, yellow means they are getting close, and a wild red color means my next dropped block will usher in the arrival of unwanted blocks. As this meter fills up, I need to shift gears and try to clear as many lines as possible to counter the attack. This of course, is never easy — it is Tetris after all. If I’m unlucky and can’t fend off the flood of garbage blocks, my entire board can fill up in an instant with one attack. It’s a nightmarishly fast way to get knocked out. It also means that I can never slow my pace, as a momentary lapse could mean game over.
I also have the ability to target opponents with my own junk blocks, although the system itself isn’t clearly explained. At any time during a match, I can select one of four types of targets: K.O.s, Badges, Attackers, and Randoms. The latter two allow me to send my garbage blocks to a player that is directly attacking me or I can send them to random players.
The other two target types are a little ambiguous. Choosing K.O.s likely will send garbage blocks to players who are in danger of being knocked out, which nets me a badge. The eShop description for Tetris 99 states that knocking out players will score a badge that “may give [players] the advantage on future attacks,” although it’s not clear what that means.
Is all of this fun though? Most definitely. Tetris 99 delights in schadenfreude. Tetris Effect, with its euphoric visual and sound design, was my favorite game of 2018. It’s a little surprising that Tetris Effect’s polar opposite, a devilishly chaotic version of Tetris, is already shaping up to be my favorite game this year too.
To enjoy Tetris is to overcome the mental gymnastics required to master it. Tetris 99 is more than just a test of your ability to survive a game of Tetris, it adds the unpredictable element of other players, any of whom can take you to your doom or be the stepping stones to a dramatic victory. It may seem like we don’t need yet another battle royale or another take on Tetris, but I’m pleasantly surprised that this combination fits so well together.