Tetris 99 is batshit.
After February 13th’s Nintendo Direct revealed yet another re-purposing and re-imagining of Tetris, I was left incredulous.
It’s not that the idea is, in and of itself, a bad one. Tetris has been a competitive game officially for around 8 years (unofficially, long before that). But the gold rush to capitalize on the runaway popularity of the battle royale is leading us to weird places. It’s reminiscent of the industry’s old penchant for turning aging franchises into kart racers. We used to make jokes about the potential of an Uncharted kart racer, safe in the fact that it seemed too ridiculous to ever fear actually happening.
We live in a world where we can make the same sort of goofs about battle royales. Brendan Greene – PUBG director credited with the popularization of the modern battle royale – told us they should be everywhere. With games moving their titles into that genre in ways that seem comically forced, our current form of irreverent, doom-say humor likes to take it a bridge too far. On Tuesday, February 11th, 2019, Tetris Battle Royale would have just been another funny joke. Then it pierced the veil of cynicism and lept into our world as a real ass thing that actually exists.
Tetris 99 is bullshit.
I’m a reasonably proud, relatively new owner of a Nintendo Switch. Justifying my purchase is obviously top priority. A free-to-play game that will no doubt be the talk of Twitter for the next couple of days seemed like something I should jump into. Brushing aside my initial bristling towards the concept, I dove in.
And right out the gate, I hated it.
It presents itself as something that is simply Tetris against 98 other people. The last player standing is, presumably, the best at flipping and stacking blocks. But that is an overly passive design for a competition between more than two people. Battle Royales are all about randomness and interaction. So Akria, developers of Tetris 99 and famous for their Street Fighter EX series, decided to do just that.
On top of the normal, decades-proven gameplay of dropping bricks into holes cleverly, you must now also throw bricks at your enemies. Every set of lines you kill that are two rows or larger get thrown into a stack at one of your opponents, chosen semi-randomly. They now have a limited time to make enough lines to destroy that trash or have those lines added to their playspace, ruining their game and probably their night.
Of course, nothing in Tetris 99 tells you any of this. For the first several sessions, you’ll just be flailing around, wondering why giant groups of grey blocks keep jumping onto your screen. Even as you’ll start to figure things out (or maybe read a guide), these extra meta systems still won’t seem very clear. You’ll still be left with no real counterplay when you’re inexplicably targeted by five different people at once.
The offensive strategy is understandable. You don’t want to create an environment where dozens of people can actively pick on individual players to weed them out. But the four ways you can randomly toss your trash don’t really help you protect yourself from nonsense. Only just being a better Tetris player can do that. But what does that even mean, when a game with a moderate level of RNG gets such a destructive amount more added on top of the mix?
After getting shitted on all of Wednesday night, and some of Thursday night, another epiphany arose. You can target individual screens of your choosing with the left stick. It made nothing better. I’d come to a simple conclusion: fuck Tetris 99.
Tetris 99 is good, actually
But damned if I don’t keep picking up my Switch, scrolling past my suddenly neglected copy of Wargroove, and booting up Tetris 99 for another dose of self-inflicted pain. For all of my issues with the passive aggressive trash-chucking, this game is still Tetris. At its most primordial, Tetris is still fun.
It also serves as stark contrast to last year’s Tetris Effect, which asked the question “how can we turn Tetris into a Chef’s Table dish?” Effect added sights, sounds, and VR to create a Tetris experience so moving, that it had Irrational Passions Editor-in-Chief Alex O’ Neill doing a 500 word In My Feelings challenge.
Tetris Effect used every sense it could short of smell to recreate the story of the human condition in a place you’d never thought you’d find it. Tetris 99 uses the same simple, historic Tetris colors from generations ago, and one remixed version of the only Tetris song that matters. It’s just you and the frantic energy that comes with being surrounded by almost one hundred strangers, all being shitheads in ways they can’t possibly comprehend. That sounds like the human condition to me.
There’s also slightly more strategy involved in it than can be revealed in your first sets. The targeting of your junk can be adjusted between hitting people purely at random, throwing junk at people that are attacking you, people with badges, or people about to get knocked out. Badges are handed out every time you knock someone out. Besides making you a target, they can also increase the amount of junk you send to folks. This light tactical layer gives me just the slightest bit more curiosity necessary to ring up multiple retries in a row.
Maybe the biggest draw of them all: it might prove Brendan Greene right. Maybe every game in every genre – Snake, Minesweeper, Solitaire, etc. – deserves a battle royale option. Zach Gage has made an entire career out of just slightly altering age old games in such a way that brings them entirely new life and depth. Experimenting with these things can often lead to crap we don’t want to play. But in a world where remasters dominate the revivalist and game preservation conversations, this serves as a clever way to make old things new again.
So fuck it, bring on Uncharted: Kart Capers.