Cutthroat falling-block puzzles.
When Tetris 99 was announced in a Nintendo Direct, it seemed like a joke. A “Tetris battle royale” was one of the weirder things announced at the presentation, but the fact that it was available for free only a couple hours later did a lot to quickly change its reputation; it went from a strange joke of a concept to a surprisingly solid entry into the battle royale genre. Tetris 99 is addicting and fun, but surprisingly, it also has a competitive metagame that players can learn and take advantage of to best the other 98 players in their match.
Tetris has always been one of my favorite puzzle games. This entry has all the mechanics of a modern multiplayer Tetris. Clearing single lines to keep your screen clear isn’t enough; the only way to send garbage blocks to attack another player is by clearing multiple lines at a time, building combos of consecutive line clears, or by pulling off a “T-spin” by rotating the purple T-block in place to fill an empty spot on your board. The bigger your combo is, the more garbage blocks get sent to your opponent. These rules have been around as long as multiplayer Tetris has, but the really interesting part is the combination of a badge system and the option to choose your target.
Every time you defeat a player, you gain a piece of a badge. Badges are like loot drops in traditional battle royales; they increase your strength by adding a multiplier to the amount of garbage blocks you’ll send to opponents. When you defeat a player who already has badges you’ll also gain every badge that they had before their death. This leads to a big risk versus reward question on who to target. Players with a lot of badges are more difficult to defeat since their multiplier also counts against your attacks. If you do manage to pull off a win against them, you’ll be in a much stronger position against the other players.
Eventually I found myself developing strategies that were very similar to the ones I would use in other battle royales like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Apex Legends. I could play aggressively from the start to build up my own power and also paint a target on my back for other players - just like dropping to a hot zone at the beginning of a match in Apex. Alternatively, I could hang back just focusing on surviving, while the other players whittled each other down at the cost of having a lower badge count in the endgame - just like holing up in the middle of the circle and waiting for the final few players in PUBG.
Despite its surprisingly deep and engaging gameplay, Tetris 99 is lacking quite a bit in features. The only mode available is the traditional battle royale. You can’t play with friends - even as opponents. You can only queue into a game with 98 other strangers and play solo against them. Additionally there’s no tutorial or training mode whatsoever. 99 does absolutely nothing to explain its mechanics to you - you simply have to figure them out on your own or look up how to play online. Even the options menu is underwhelming; I would’ve liked to remap my controls to something a bit more comfortable, but the only control setting available is to switch which analog stick you use to target other players.
Although Tetris 99 was likely conceived as a joke at the start, the badge mechanic helped it develop into a proper battle royale experience boiled down to its most basic core elements. The feature set is sadly lacking, but data miners that dug deep into the game’s code found evidence of new modes - team play and a traditional marathon mode - waiting to be added in the future. We’ll likely revisit Tetris 99 sometime later when these features get added, but for now I’d still recommend downloading it and giving it a try. “Free” is a pretty tough price to beat, and given how many hours I’ve already sunk into the world’s weirdest battle royale, I can still say there’s a lot of fun to be had in what little Tetris 99 has to offer.