Tetris as a game feels pointless to write a review for. The game is one of the most timeless games made in the era of video games. It has an incredibly iconic song, and has, mostly, gone unchanged through the years. In more recent years it has also seen a new level of love and respect being put into a new light with Puyo Puyo Tetris, being brought into a visual and auditory experience with Tetris Effect. However, I think the least expected, and instantly popular version has arrived in Tetris 99, the battle-royale version of Tetris.
Tetris 99 is a strange thing. It appeared out of nowhere from Nintendo during a direct. It is also a free game if you subscribe to their online service. On top of all that it is a real-time multiplayer only game about trying to beat 99 other people at Tetris in real time. Streamers are drawn to it, and more importantly, are trying to figure the game out live. It sounds strange to say, but Tetris 99 is one of the least explained Tetris games. While it may seem like Tetris is so simple it needs almost no explanation Tetris 99 adds so much depth in how it handles the multiplayer interaction that it has people guessing with the best of their abilities what it all meant.
I should start this out in saying the last Tetris game I had played before Tetris 99 was Tetris on an original Game Boy. I have never been a big player or fan of Tetris in the past. That being said, I have been playing this game obsessively and striving to be better, and understand the game more. It has part been the allure of a mostly unknown thing being learned by it’s fanbase, but more importantly it is a game that contains all of the gut-twisting anxiety of a battle royale game into such a simple to pick-up-and-play game.
The basics of gameplay are that you are playing Tetris in a central well, as per the usual game. You can flip blocks and drop them in. Completing a line horizontally of blocks will clear all blocks on that line, and drop down all lines above. You can see an alley of pieces queued up along the side of the well so you can get a hint of what is coming at you. You can also hit the left bumper button to hold your current piece for later use. Holding while already having a piece in holding will swap the two. You can only do this once every drop.
Along either side of your game board you will see 99 other small boxes that represent the games of the other players. Clearing a line on your board will send some garbage lines to a queue in other peoples games. After a certain point these will fill in underneath all rows already in their well. If your pieces, or anyone else’s for that matter, go over the top of their well they are K.O.d out of the game. If that isn’t enough pressure the game, and music, speeds up after 50 people are left, then again at 20, and it only gets faster as you close in on the top spots. While this sounds like it’s basically just utter chaos there are also a few key ways to work your way through the other players in more smart ways.
As you play you may see lines come from other game boards to yours. These are people that have a target on you, so any garbage lines they complete will hit you. But you can flick the right-stick to different directions to either target back your Attackers, go for people close to being knocked out, attack people at random, or go after those with badges. This introduces another new idea to the game. Badges. As you K.O. people you start to gain badge pieces. If you gain enough you can collect up to 4 total badges. Knocking people out will also take any badges they had. Every complete badge will add an additional 25% to the garbage lines you send to someone, up to 100% additional lines. This becomes incredibly important in the end-game.
This core concept becomes incredibly deep, frustrating, and exhilarating when you finally figure it all out. Unlike other battle royale games as well this is the first one to do the most important feature I’ve been wanting to see in these style of games. A quick requeue option at the end of a match. Getting knocked out is only upsetting for the half-second you have to hold down the rematch button and drop almost instantly into another match queue. Beyond the requeue option, however, what I’ve just described is basically everything in the entire game.
Tetris 99 has no single-player options, no other game modes, no meaningful progression outside of tracking a level. Every ten levels in the game your player icon changes a little bit, but even losing gains some experience in the game, so really the level means absolutely nothing. It doesn’t even feel like there is any sort of skill-based matchmaking or level normalizing matchmaking. You have access to a stats page, and almost no other options in the game. No additional skins or songs, just the one thing. It feels like a game that Nintendo made in a weekend as part of a game jam.
Lack of features aside, Tetris 99 is one of the most engaging things I’ve picked up and it absolutely has made me glad that I’ve purchased the Nintendo online service. I also hope they use this as a game they continue to improve and support for some time to keep it worth the price of admission to play. If you have the service, go download it for free. If you don’t, I suggest at least picking up a month of the service to pick this up and try it out. It’s a puzzle game experience unlike any other I have recently played.
Editor’s Note: GameOctane editor Beau Severson downloaded Tetris 99 for free.
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