Tetris 99, and the Best Way to Reinvent a Classic

Look, maybe it’s because I’m getting old and out of touch, but the trend of battle royale games is beyond me. As I’ve documented a million times in this space, I’m a co-op game kind of guy, so the thought of fighting to the death against dozens of other players is already a tough sell — even with some of the squad-based play a few of those entries have.

So imagine my surprise when the one battle royale game that grabbed my attention is one that has roots from 35 years ago.

Tetris 99 slipped under the radar when it was first released, seemingly by design. It dropped unexpectedly, with no buildup or teasing, and was available as soon as it was announced. From there, it spread like wildfire, to the tune of three million players in its first two months and change since release. The formula is simple: It’s classic Tetris, where clearing groups or chains of lines (or T-spinning) sends junk to other players in some form, only there are 98 other players and it’s a fight to survive as the last remaining player. Simple, but extremely effective.

T99 has several things working in its favor.

  • It’s a straightforward experience that anyone can enjoy. If you’re a gamer, you’ve surely played Tetris at some point, right? There’s been a ton of variations over the years, from the NES classic to arcade machines to smartphones to graphing calculators that you certainly weren’t supposed to be playing in class. If that’s the case, great — and even if it’s not, it’s easy to pick up. You stack pieces and try to clear lines before they explode off the top of the screen.
  • It’s a good fit for the modern shift toward bite-size, portable gaming experiences. You can play Tetris 99 anywhere thanks to the Switch, especially if you have a mobile hotspot at your disposal. Got 15 minutes on a bus or a train? Done. Lunch break? Cake. Sneak in a quick game before work? You bet.
  • It’s free. Sure, you need access to Nintendo’s online service (which is much cheaper than its PS4 and Xbox One alternatives, though also a less robust experience), but that’s not difficult. You can also use a free trial to decide if the game is something that interests you, meaning all it takes is a download to try.
  • The layout and displays are surprisingly well thought out. Turns out if you have your main player’s board in the center of the screen and 98 other players, that makes two 7×7 grids on each side of it for the other 98 players. Now, these are almost impossible to follow while you’re playing, especially as the tempo speeds up, but it’s cool that everyone else in the game is represented on screen. As you get more practice with the game, you can start to spot some handy bits of information on the peripheral — that player is close to death, this one has a bunch of badges that strength his junk (tee hee), so maybe you want to target them next.

I’m nowhere near the best T99 player — there are monsters on YouTube with triple-digit win streaks who take bounties for extra donations on stream because they can dominate the competition so thoroughly. But I’ve improved over time to where I can consistently finish in the top 10 most of the time, and I think I’ve won 8 or 9 games now. Just the feeling of getting close is a lot of fun, especially as things get tense toward the end.

I’m surprised how much I’ve enjoyed Tetris 99. I’m not sure that it’s going to sway me on the battle royale genre as a whole, but still. My Switch tells me I’ve played 35 hours of the game, and considering I haven’t paid for any online access yet (there’s a deal right now with three months or a year of free time if you have Amazon/Twitch Prime), that’s a damn good deal.

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