Tetris 99 Brings Battle Royale Action to the Classic Puzzler

Nintendo surprised the world by dropping an addictive new game in last week’s Nintendo Direct presentation. And more surprising than its sudden launch was its price tag: free for subscribers to Nintendo’s online service. Its pedigree is known the world over. Tetris 99 is the latest in the long, long line of Tetris games, and like many of the best, it adds its own, unique twist to the formula.

Last week, I talked about the prevalence of battle royale games like Fortnite and Apex Legends. I didn’t expect to be talking about battle royale-style games again so soon, but Tetris 99 is worth talking about. Unlike past Tetris games, which saw players competing against the falling blocks alone, or even against another player or two or three, Tetris 99 has you battling against 98 other humans, all vying for the top spot in a winner-take-all row-clearing war.

Unlike most other battle royale games, the barrier to entry here is incredibly low. Most people, even those who would never consider themselves gamers, can play Tetris. Many already have. They played it on their graphing calculators when they should have been paying attention in class; they played it on their computers when they should have been making spreadsheets at work; they play it today on their phones when they’re bored at the DMV. Rarely has such a simple premise created such a long-lasting legacy. Drop variously shaped blocks in such a way that they form lines. Forming lines clears the blocks and keeps the pile from rising to the top, which would equal a game over. There are more advanced moves, with skilled players able to clear four rows at once (the titular “tetris”) or maneuvering blocks into tricky positions, but the fundamentals are super easy to grasp.

That’s part of what makes Tetris 99 such a cool idea. As you stand up against 98 other players, you’re still trying to do what you’ve been trying to do since the 80s — drop those blocks and clear those lines. However, there’s an extra layer of complexity for those who are interested in a bit more. The game gives you the option of targeting other players based on certain criteria. When you target a player, your successes create difficulties for them. Clear several lines at once and you’ll create junk lines on their board, which pushes their pieces closer to the dreaded top. Play rough and you’ll be able to clear away the competition, increasing your chances of coming out on top.

Of course, while you’re busy targeting other players, players are targeting you, too. At times this can be frustrating. I’ve had matches end almost as quickly as they started because, by coincidence, several skilled players randomly chose me to target. My screen filled up with junk blocks before I had a chance to clear them away. However, these random pile-ons are not too frequent, and jumping into another match is so quick and easy, it doesn’t really have much impact. You can switch the type of person you’re targeting on the fly with the right stick, though in my experience, I’m usually too preoccupied with clearing rows to care much about who I’m blowing up.

It’s all the addictive fun of Tetris with an extra layer of frantic fun. For the relatively low cost of a yearly Nintendo Switch Online membership ($19.99 as of today), it’s a fantastic value. If you have a Switch, you need to get on this right away.