Tetris 99 Review

Knock Your Block Off
Developer: Arika Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch

The only perfect game ever made starts 2019 with a bang

Everybody loves Tetris. In 1989, Compute! Magazine named the IBM version as their ‘arcade game’ of the year. ‘People say this about lots of games’, they proclaimed, ‘but Tetris is, by far, the most addictive game ever.’ The free copy of Tetris that came with some Game Boy units is one of the biggest catalysts behind the bulky handheld’s immense success. The series is more than 34 years old, having been ported to countless systems and platforms. It’s almost impossible to divorce the words ‘Tetris’ and ‘timeless’.

So, why are we so surprised that there’s now a battle royale version?

Tetris 99 may not be the most pleasing thought at first. ‘We’re reaching the bottom of the barrel’, people cried, ‘and now we’re all paying the price for our hubris!’. I’m here to tell you all that not only is Tetris 99 nothing to fear, it’s actually not as much of a stretch as you think. After all, Tetris has always been a competitive game. You’re never really playing Tetris by yourself. You’re playing it against yourself.

Tetris is a game where the challenge comes from you. You get less and less time to make decisions as time goes on, yes, but who’s still making the decisions? Who’s the one that cracks under pressure and realises only too late that they’ve buggered it up? Who has to watch your mess grow ever-taller with your original mistake still sitting at the bottom, taunting you? It isn’t the game, buddy. As technomancer Ted Nelson once put it:

‘The good news about computers is that they do what you tell them to do. The bad news is that they do what you tell them to do.’

I am the man who arranges the blocks…

To put down a game of Tetris is conceding defeat against your own mistakes. It’s really not that weird of an idea to put an extra person into the mix, as even versions going as far back as the early 1990s have. Why not 97 more? In a way, it’s kind of brilliant.

Tetris 99 plays exactly like a modern Tetris game does. Rotate blocks, build for the four-line ‘Tetris’ hard-hitter, hold the right blocks for later, until you eventually fail. These are rules enshrined in Tetris’ version of the Ten Commandments, so it’s hard to not know them at this point. As is the norm with multiplayer Tetris, though, lines completed by your opponent(s) in their pit will fill up yours. Deleting your own rows will lower the amount of opponent-created blocks. We’ve all been here before.

On the surface, this sounds chaotic; 98 people filling your pit with lines sounds horrendous in theory! Tetris 99 rectifies this problem (somewhat) by making it selective. Using the right analogue stick, you can choose where your completed lines go in broad terms. ‘Line Energy’, which is a term I just made up and everybody should use now because I’m just that good, can be directed towards KOs, people that are currently attacking you, etc. This is where Tetris 99’s most devious new mechanic comes into play: Badges. Whenever you KO an opponent by being the last person to fill their screen with blocks before they cark it, you get their badges. The more Badges you have, however, the more likely it is that you’ll be targeted by players who switch their right-stick phasers to ‘kill the bastard that’s winning.’

If you use the left stick, you can pick out individual players from the ever-shrinking number of boxes surrounding yours. Targeting fledgling opponents becomes more necessary as their progress becomes clearer. Do badly, and your box’s free space will light up in a big and bright red – making you a great target. If several people catch on and choose to pile on, either at the start of the game or the end, you’re finished.

Line piece please, line piece please, LINE PIECE PLEASE

That may sound frustrating – and it is – but what separates Tetris 99 from every other battle royale game? Isn’t how far you manage to come and how you take it when it comes to the crunch at the heart of the experience? Matches can last anywhere between 40 minutes to 40 seconds. Come to think of it, Tetris 99 may have broken down battle royale to its most primal form. There are no variables like aiming a firearm, or activating an ability, or even the luxury of knowing the map. Tetris’ marriage to timelessness has lowered the barrier of entry to such a degree that the only real variable is humanity’s inhumanity to humanity. Your success depends on how successfully you can thwart the attempts of other people to thwart you. The only thing between you and defeat is making less mistakes than 98 other people. It’s Tetris or die. You either Tetris, or you die.And it’s here, in the spiked fire pits of Tetris 99, that you have the most heart-poundingly addictive gameplay that Tetris has seen yet. Sure, Puyo Puyo Tetris is good. Great, even. But it doesn’t have the rush, the chaos, the absolute bliss of fighting off three attackers at once by getting two Tetrises in a row! There’s a hidden genius to Tetris 99, and makes me wonder where on Earth this game has been all this time.

And it’s here, in the spiked fire pits of Tetris 99, that you have the most heart-poundingly addictive gameplay that Tetris has seen yet. Sure, Puyo Puyo Tetris is good. Great, even. But it doesn’t have the rush, the chaos, the absolute bliss of fighting off three attackers at once by getting two Tetrises in a row! There’s a hidden genius to Tetris 99, and makes me wonder where on Earth this game has been all this time.

With all the wanky prose out of the way, there are a couple of nitpicks. While not as bad most of the time, the particle effects can very much put off your game at points. Too many flashing fireworks made me miss an ideal block placement one too many times to ignore. Also, it’s never fun to start a match then immediately get dogpiled by lots of opponents whose Line Energy is directed your way at random. Yet, it happens anyway. The gruelling pace of the game may not suit everybody, either, especially with the lack of a tutorial.

But at the end of the day, Tetris 99 is just that; Tetris. It’s the same game I poured hundreds of hours into on my grandparents’ Game Boy, hundreds more into the one I had on my first mobile phone, and now the hundreds of hours I’ll put in here. The battle royale code has been cracked. By fucking Tetris.

Final thoughts

Tetris 99 is what you get when you take the only perfect video game ever made and make it reflect the inner violence of the human soul. A free title – provided that you’re subscribed to the Switch’s online service – and a damn fine one at that.

Reviewed on Switch
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Good

  • It's still Tetris
  • Intense to the point of insanity
  • A window into the human condition
  • Just bloody fun

Bad

  • All the flaws of a battle royale system
  • Too flashy sometimes
8

Get Around It

Aza blames his stunted social skills and general uselessness on a lifetime of video games. Between his ears is a comprehensive Team Fortress 2 encyclopedia. His brain, on the other hand, remains at large.
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