If you’d have asked us, just a few days ago, for a comprehensive list of video game series which we could imagine in a 'Battle Royale' format, Tetris would have been right at the bottom. Splatoon could be a good shout with a lot of tweaking, and maybe even an ultra-cruel Pikmin showdown – heck, we’d even put Nintendogs higher in the list than this puzzling classic – yet here we are, in 2019, with a Battle Royale Tetris game. And you know what? The world is a much better place because of it.
Tetris is, of course, a game that has a long connection with Nintendo. Back in 1989, Alexey Pajitnov's puzzler was bundled with the Game Boy and helped it become one of the most popular gadgets of all time. While Nintendo can't lay claim to any kind of ownership when it comes to the game, it's fair to say that it wouldn't have been quite as famous were it not for the Game Boy edition. Given this history, it's oddly fitting that the title should get what is arguably its most revolutionary update on a Nintendo system.
We’re sure you’ve probably guessed this already, but Tetris 99’s main chunk of action, and the area of the screen you’ll be wholeheartedly fixated on in early games, plays like any old normal game of Tetris. Differently-coloured Tetriminos fall from the top of the screen and you need to rotate, drop, and carefully place them down below to create full lines. Doing so clears that line from the board, and clearing multiple lines in one go can do more than just wiping your board clean.
You see, Tetris 99 is a twisted, cold, unforgiving deathmatch where players attack each other in real time. There are no high scores in sight, with your only goal being to survive the onslaught and remain as the last player standing. Clearing multiple lines in one go (or even just getting combos) can send ‘junk’ lines to your opponents, raising their boards to near dangerous levels at the top of the screen and putting you one step closer to claiming your ‘winner winner Tetris dinner’.
The problem is that – to put a spin on The Hunger Games’ favourite slogan – the odds are never in your favour. Sure, you might be able to send an attack or two to some opponents every now and then, but there are 98 other players all doing the same thing, and it’s absolute chaos. In a lovely touch, you can see all 98 enemies on your screen to your left and right, almost like a sadistic television game show. You can even watch every attack be performed in real time, with ‘whooshes’ of light being beamed from one player to another.
Because of this, there are several tactics that you can employ to stay in the fight, although the game does a terrible job of explaining how these actually work. Before we jump into the good stuff, it’s worth noting that Tetris 99 feels oddly bare by today’s standards. Your only real option is to jump into an online game and watch the mayhem unfold, desperately trying to keep up; there’s hardly anything available to give you any hints on how to play, which could leave more impatient players quickly frustrated.
Even if you do succumb to this early confusion, we’d urge you to stick with it, because it slowly but surely starts to fall into place – just like the Tetriminos. You’ll notice that, assigned to the right stick (or left, if you choose to change the setting in the options menu), are four different attack types: KOs, Badges, Attackers, and Randoms. If you just so happen to get attacked by multiple players at once, there’s probably very little you’ll be able to do to survive regardless, but mastering these four options is certainly your best bet.
The names refer to the type of other player you are about to attack: Random will choose players at random; Attackers will target anyone attacking you; KOs targets those who are about to be knocked out; and Badges will aim for those who have racked up badges from KOing other players to steal them for yourself (these badges give you attack multipliers to deal more damage). As you can see, battles can become quite strategy-focused, and we sometimes saw better results when switching our mode of attack depending on our situation.
The key to this is keeping an eye on the other 98 players, using the Attackers option to defend when you’re being bombarded, and KOing others when they’re about to be knocked out to earn badge multipliers. You can also manually attack whichever of the 98 opponents you like by using the opposite stick, although this is far too fiddly in the heat of battle; playing in handheld mode allows you to simply tap the opponent you wish to attack on the Switch's screen, so we’d argue this is perhaps the best way to play.
Having said all this, forming any sort of plan while under pressure – especially when the sheer panic gets amplified as you enter the final 50, and again with the final 10 – is incredibly difficult. You’ll do well just to keep up at all; we still haven’t managed to claim a single victory after dozens of attempts, although we've cracked the top 10 several times. Once you're in the top 10, death can come swiftly and without warning, even if you have a mostly empty playfield. There may be fewer players to send junk your way but less opponents also means more focused attacks, and we've seen instances where a single 'junk drop' wipes us out completely – a situation which is exacerbated by the speed at which blocks fall during this point of the game.
From a performance perspective, everything is pleasingly smooth and dandy. We’ve experienced no issues playing the game in either docked or handheld mode, and we’ve had zero communication errors or the like facing against our 98 online opponents (if it wasn’t clear before, this is an online-exclusive game). You’ll be treated to that wonderful Tetris theme as you play (we’ll forgive the repetitiveness this time because it’s just so catchy), and this gets turned up to 11 the nearer you get to a victory. Lovely.
As a free experience (after paying for a Nintendo Switch Online subscription, of course), this is a nice little game overall. There aren’t any modes beyond the one Battle Royale setting, you have to play online, and the lack of a tutorial for the attack modes seems like a confusing omission – so things aren’t exactly perfect – but the fast, addictive nature of the content that is there is still absolutely worth a go. Rumours suggest that more modes will be included in the fullness of time, but we’re still pretty pleased with what we’ve got, especially as it's gratis to all Switch Online players.
The complete oddball of the family, Tetris 99 offers a truly unique way to play the tried-and-tested classic, even if the overall package feels a little lightweight. Playing live against 98 others is chaotic, and the action feels fast, precise, and wonderfully addictive. It’s seriously difficult, too – we’d fancy our chances in Fortnite over this any day – and we’re impressed with the fact that it's forced us to play the game with a completely different approach to our usual slow-and-steady ways. Signing up for Nintendo Switch Online just to play this game might be a bit of a stretch, but if you’re already a member, what are you waiting for? It’s free, and it might just become your next favourite time sink.