Tetris 99 Review — Where We Dropping, Blocks?
Tetris 99 improves an already near-perfect game and proves that battle royale can transcend genres, but it is held back by Nintendo Switch Online.
Most of us already know and love Tetris, but over the past year games like Tetris Effect and now Tetris 99 show how resilient the classic puzzle game is. While Tetris Effect displayed that it could be part of a truly spectacular visual and auditory experience, Tetris 99 answers a question that not many have asked before: Would Tetris work as a battle royale game?
Ever since PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds burst onto the scene almost two years ago at this point, the battle royale genre has taken the shooter world by storm. From Fortnite to H1Z1 to Apex Legends, the biggest games of the past couple of years have all been battle royale. That being said, we’ve also seen games like The Culling 2 crash and burn when attempting to tackle to formula. It’s become a running gag that battle royale modes are now being shoehorned into everything, but that lens is still focused on the shooter genre.
Tetris 99 makes it clear that the simple to understand “last one standing” premise battle royale games established themselves on has potential in other genres and even manages to do so in an insanely addictive way that other battle royale games can learn from. The core Tetris gameplay is as strong and enjoyable as ever, only benefiting from the 99 player count. Tetris 99’s real problems are rooted in the lack of content at launch and trappings of the far from perfect Nintendo Switch Online.
Tetris 99 saw a surprise release as a bonus to all Nintendo Switch Online members during the latest Nintendo Direct. This ultimately got a lot of players interested and highlights some major things that are pivotal to the success of a battle royale game. Both Apex Legends and Tetris 99 have proved that surprise launches may be the way to go to avoid skepticism if the brand it’s attached to is strong enough.
Being a bonus for Nintendo Switch Online subscription members will also prove to be beneficial to the game in the long run as it means Tetris 99 will be one of the most readily accessible battle royale titles on Switch as the market grows more and more. The success of Fortnite of Apex Legends proves to me that free-to-play, or “free-to-start” as Nintendo likes to put it, is the way to go as consumers will start looking for cheaper options with low barriers of entry as the genre becomes more crowded.
Another thing Tetris 99 gets that a lot of lower tier battle royale games miss: shorter matches are more palatable. With such large required player counts, the lesser battle royale shooters can suffer from a boring mid-game once players get settled in. Due to Tetris being a constantly dynamic puzzle game and the fact that no match should last more than 5 or 10 minutes, Tetris 99 never gets boring despite the hefty player count.
If anything, the short match length makes it even more addicting; personally, I didn’t play much else this past week due to how Tetris 99 got its hooks in me. I’ve never been completely absorbed by a battle royale game like this before, so Tetris 99 has gotten me to truly understand what’s so enticing about free-for-all matches filled with risk vs. reward situations where one dumb move can set you back greatly.
At its core, Tetris 99 is like any other Tetris game and that solid core is one of the reasons the game is able to start on such solid footing. Several Tetris games in the past have included multiplayer modes, Tetris 99 just drastically increases the player count. Likely due to this familiarity, the game lacks any sort of tutorial. This is a shame too, as some of the new Tetris 99 exclusive gameplay mechanics are pivotal to one’s success and give the multiplayer portion a new level of strategic depth that I was not expecting.
In typical Tetris fashion, as players clear multiple lines of tetrominoes at a single time, lines of garbage are created and sent to your opponent. In a typical 1v1 match, how and when you send garbage can be mostly ignored by casual players; conversely, it is pivotal to being successful in Tetris 99. Players can now actually aim who to send garbage to with a KO and badge system to increase garbage output in order to encourage players to pay attention.
If players want to rack up KOs, it’s smart to target players who you are on the verge of being eliminated before pulling off a Tetris (clearing four lines) that sends tons of garbage to hopefully get them out of this game. Players can manually choose who to target with the left stick, though doing so means their eyes will be taken off your own screen. For those that don’t want to do this, it’s still completely viable to choose one of four pre-sets with clear targets with the right stick: Random, K.O.s, Badges, and Attackers.
In the games where I did best, I tended to target my attackers early on before transitioning over to K.O.s mid-game and then Badges in the end-game. It’s a different kind of planning than asking your friends where you’d like to drop, but it still evokes the same tenants as other battle royale games. During all of this, you also have to focus on clearing out your own lines to order to destroy the garbage sent your way. This is a hallmark system of Tetris multiplayer and still works wonders in creating tense matches in a battle royale setting. I look forward to seeing what the Tetris pros can do with this game and wonder if Tetris 99 will be used for event qualifiers in the future.
Tetris 99 clearly carries the strengths the puzzle game has always had and even incorporates the addictive feelings of battle royale into the experience. The game will also fill CPUs into lobbies that aren’t full; fortunately, this has only been necessary in two matches I’ve played. Considering that Nintendo Switch Online is 8 million players strong, player count won’t be an issue for Tetris 99 like it can be for other battle royale games, at least for the time being
The game also is also an impressive showcase of what Nintendo Switch Online can handle. I never ran into lag across any of my matches, and only had one disconnect which was of my own accidental doing. Considering how spotty my experiences have been with multiplayer Nintendo games in the past and how demanding this game probably is on the technical side of things, I was definitely impressed with how smooth Tetris 99 stayed while I was playing.
While that is a boon of Nintendo Switch Online, the service’s banes are what hurts Tetris 99 the most. While the online experience is smooth, it’s very impersonal. Many battle royale games, specifically Apex Legends, are at their best when playing with a group of friends. Tetris 99 does not contain any team based modes; in fact, it doesn’t contain any content outside of the basic 99 player matches and menus for stats and game options.
Things like Online Events are coming in the future, but Tetris 99 is a paltry online experience, just like Nintendo Switch Online is with its features. While I can forgive the game for only having one mode, lobbies and voice chat would still have been appreciated. There is currently no discernible way to directly play with or talk to friends in Tetris 99, which is shocking for an online experience in 2019 and also makes me worried about the game’s long term sustainability despite the game’s accessibility and currently high player count.
As I’ve said, these problems are more rooted in Nintendo Switch Online’s shortcomings rather than Tetris 99 itself, but the still hold this great and addicting take on the battle royale genre back from reaching its full potential. Hopefully, these things will be improved on or implemented over time, but right now, shortly after the game’s launch, Nintendo Switch Online is the root of Tetris 99’s biggest problems.
With all that being said, I do want to highlight a subtle but very important thing Tetris 99 gets right: sound design. Throughout the entire match, different songs are cycled through as the player count whittles down. Their increasing intensity only made me more and more invested as I came closer to winning, and actually made Tetris 99 the first game I got the infamous Joy-Con hand cramps from due to how hard I was squeezing them. HD Rumble is also used minutely, but in a way that embellishes the whole experience.
Tetris 99 does highlight some of the strengths of the improvements coming to Nintendo Switch Online, but it also highlights some of the services biggest problems. Tetris is as fun as ever, and transitions surprisingly smoothly into the battle royale genre. Arika and Nintendo really show an understanding of why battle royale games have become such a phenomenon and Tetris 99 does display some progress being made when it comes to what Nintendo Switch Online can handle.
That being said, Tetris 99 doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to the Tetris formula, so additional modes or a better online experience overall would’ve really bolstered the experience at launch. The lack of modes or the player’s ability to play and talk to friends during matches is one glaring omission Tetris 99 has when compared to its peers and may hold the game back if you are going into Tetris 99 hoping it becomes the next big thing.
That being said, it does look like Tetris 99 will, hopefully, only go up from here as more is potentially added. If nothing else, Tetris 99 shows how resilient the classic Tetris formula is as well as how battle royale can transcend genres, so don’t expect either to completely disappear anytime soon.