PUBG Corp. and Epic must be quaking in their boots. Two of these three have dominated the emerging Battle Royale genre for the best part of two years, and now not one, but two games have released in the space of a fortnight to challenge their dominance. Respawn’s Apex Legends makes perfect sense, taking the established formula while challenging many of its established principles in a slick and polished game, but the other is much more unexpected. Tetris 99 challenges the kind of games in which Battle Royale can actually work. It’s an idea that’s so stupid it almost couldn’t fail!
The masterstroke, of course, is to simply throw it at Nintendo Switch owners. The game is out now, and while it requires Switch Online, it’s free for those that have a current subscription.
In essence, Tetris 99 is head to head Tetris multiplayer blown up to feature 99 players. Why 99? Because it allows you to be front and centre on the screen, flanked by an even number of players on either side in two 7×7 grids. It’s neat and smart, giving you everything you need to know and see on screen at once as you try and, not only survive the incrementally faster game of Tetris, but also attack other players and deal with their incoming lines.
It’s easy to simply play it as a game of Tetris, not really worrying about what else is going on in this game, and that’s essentially how I play – dividing my attention between this and the metagame of a Battle Royale is a little too much for me to handle – but there’s a lot of nuance to learn and dig into if you want to get better at the game.
The main thing to be aware of is who you’re attacking and who’s attacking you. The default setting is that you attack a random player that’s still standing, switching between targets every time you send an attack, but a flick of the right stick lets you instead target automatically for people close to a KO, the player with the most Badges, or opt for an attacking defence and target your attackers – the only way that you’re able to attack multiple players. Alternatively, as you can see the entire field of players and miniature representations of their game, you can use the left stick or touch screen in handheld mode to manually shift your target.
It’s not always one against one, though. You can easily find yourself targeted by multiple players, just as you can gang up on the KO leader. It immediately puts you under pressure to survive as garbage lines can rapidly pile up against you, but the brilliance of the game letting you target your attackers lets you split up your own garbage line output between them. You do, at least, get a bonus to your attacks to help.
As you clear lines, whether one, two, three or a Tetris of four, and string together combos, it sends garbage lines to whoever you’re attacking just as in regular competitive Tetris. As they feed into your table, you see the incoming lines stacking up in a column, going from grey, to red to flashing red before they snap onto the bottom of your table. Clearing your lines also clears the incoming garbage, adding a time imperative to keep you pushing.
The other imperative is earning KOs, and it’s here that the Battle Royale mechanics of looting and powering up come to the fore. For every KO you get, you earn a badge bit, which combine to create badges that add bonus lines to your attacks. The number of bits required for a complete badge goes from two to four, eight and then sixteen, adding 25%, 50%, 75% and 100% bonus lines respectively. Getting 30 badge bits would be nigh on impossible, except that you collect the bits from those you KO, adding strategy for who you target, if you can focus on that.
The problem with Tetris 99 is that a lot of this isn’t clearly explained – it’s only from a guide on Reddit that I fully grasped the mechanics. That auto-targeting “KO’s” is actually hunting for kills is far from obvious, and the fact that Badges track your kills and power you up also isn’t made clear in the slightest. Then there’s the simple skill barrier to Tetris. As usual, it starts slow and speeds up over time, but those speed jumps are sudden and jarring, with a sudden step up once you reach the final ten. Needing to keep track of the Tetris you’re playing and the overall game also requires strong multitasking and awareness that’s simply beyond me.
But in many ways, this is the purest form of Battle Royale we’ve seen thus far. You start with an even playing field on which pure skill can thrive as the field of players closes in, but because of that there’s also less chance for people to get lucky with good gear or to let others fight it out while you simply bide your time. Once you get to the final ten, you need to be a dab hand at Tetris or go home.
With Nintendo stating that events are incoming, and dataminers revealing team, CPU and a standard score attack mode, the game will continue to grow. I know that I’ve hit my skill limit already – my best result was 8th, and I’m endlessly surprised to discover that I managed to get some KOs – but there’s still something about Tetris 99 that has kept me coming back. It’s Tetris, it’s Battle Royale, it’s completely mad, and yet it works.