What can be said about Tetris that hasn’t been said already? Well, that depends on the type of Tetris game in question. Tetris Effect changed the conversation around the classic puzzle concept last year by directly tying your actions and the flow of stages to the fluctuating rhythm of an eclectic (and all-around amazing) soundtrack. In the case of the Switch-exclusive Tetris 99, the moment-to-moment gameplay is more immediately recognizable, but a new twist helps it stand out from Tetris games of old: a 99-player last-player-standing competition. It’s chaotic, which can work in your favor or lead to moments that feel practically unfair. Thankfully, with the solid gameplay at its foundation and a quick means of getting into a new match, no game of Tetris 99 feels like time wasted.
The competitive aspect of Tetris 99 is something most people are familiar with, albeit based on less ambitious setups. Clear some lines, and a batch of junk lines will appear in a queue next to your opponent’s puzzle space. If they can clear lines of their own, the junk-in-waiting can be negated; if no new lines are completed, the weight of your success will bear down on their board and reduce the free space for mid-drop tetrimino trickery.
This straightforward setup has, in the past, been utilized in two-player scenarios. With 99 players competing at once here, all visible next to your puzzle space with lines appearing and disappearing between players every few seconds, your early matches will feel a little confusing.
Somewhat frustratingly, Tetris 99 offers no explanation of its inner workings nor the function of various attack modes you can pick from during a match. You can get really far by simply playing Tetris the way you always have, but an uninformed player will always be at a severe disadvantage. Even though all the info is a quick internet search away, it’s disappointing that Tetris 99 is bereft of these details or explanations.
So here it goes: You can influence automated attack patterns using the right analog stick, determining whether your offensive lines get sent to randoms, players attacking you, people near death, or players who have done the most killing in the match. Playing handheld, you can also use the Switch touchscreen to target players manually. Less intuitively, when playing docked, the left analog stick can be used to cycle through the phalanx of players on either side of your screen.
The control given to you by most of these options can be used in strategic ways, but none more so than by attacking killers, AKA the “badges” option. It’s named thusly because killing a player nets you a portion of a badge and, better yet, any belonging to the defeated player. These badges enhance the output of your attacks, throwing more lines per combo and making the final moments of a match a living hell for your opponents. With the increasing speed of a Tetris 99 match, manually picking your targets based on small icons is an expert’s game, so these automated attack profiles are ultimately to your benefit, even if they aren’t explained well and could potentially be a source of confusion for new players.
The beauty of Tetris 99 is the tried-and-true game at the center of it all. Tetris is a god among games, and competitive Tetris only enhances the rising tension of a match. Tetris 99, being a game with so many competitors and a default “random” attack pattern, means that you will inevitably enter matches where the odds feel stacked against you from the beginning with no rhyme or reason. And when that happens, you may find that you have no recourse with a screen full of junk lines.
Even though each loss isn’t always a lesson learned, it’s also just a small roadblock, as a new match is generally seconds, rather than minutes, away. Simply hold down a button to start a search for new players, and watch the screen fill up with opponents in the blink of an eye. There may come a time when the countdown clock expires and matches have less than 99 players, but at launch, that is a very rare occurrence.
Tetris 99 may not be a proper battle royale game, but it taps into the same emotional well, where a large number of players vying for supremacy creates an ever-present intensity that’s difficult to shake. Add that layer to a game that’s plenty capable of instilling tension on its own, and you’ve got a riveting experience that even at its worst is still a game very much worth playing. There’s obvious room for improvement, but that’s the last thing on your mind when the pieces start falling and the players start dropping.