I bought a Nintendo Switch about a month ago.
Since buying it, I’ve only played one game, so far: Tetris 99.
I’m a long-time fan of Tetris. I played it on my NES ever since 1989. I’m decent, but not great at it. My skill tops out around level 13 or so in the NES original. I can cruise comfortably up to about level 9 or so. My best efforts these days are about 1/4 what it would take to qualify for the Tetris World Championships, as I found out when I was at Portland Retro Gaming Expo last October.
Chances are excellent that you need no introduction to Tetris. It’s only the most famous and successful videogame ever. Blocks fall, you rotate and drop them to complete lines and clear them from the well. Everyone is born knowing this now.
Tetris 99 takes the classic mechanics and puts you up against 99 other players in a battle royale. It’s amazing how quickly a new tournament can get ready. It seems that at any given time, there is always at least 100 Tetris 99 players ready to go within a minute’s notice.
That’s incredible. I don’t know how it’s possible, but you never seem to have to wait more than a minute or two for the next game to start. Nintendo has sold 8.7 million Switch consoles since launch. The subset of Switch owners who are playing Tetris 99 at any given moment must be considerable. If we assume every Switch owner is playing Tetris 99 24/7, that works out to 6250 tetris players per minute of the day. Obviously, Switch owners are playing lots of different games, and not playing 24/7, but even so, the fraction who are playing Tetris 99 might well be around 1/62 of the total install base. So, just maybe, it really is plausible that in the real world that you can get 99 players for a pickup game at a minute’s notice. But I’m still amazed that it’s consistently the case every time I want to play another round. Perhaps they’re filling slots with bots? I wonder.
The tetris gameplay is fine. I wouldn’t say there’s any major problems with it. If I want to nitpick, though, I could think of a few things:
First, it’s a bit too easy at times to accidentally hit Up on the control cross, and instantly hard drop your block right where you didn’t want to. Maybe I’m just clumsy, maybe my hands are too big to work with the joycon. But I’ve also played a lot with the Pro Wireless controller, and I still have issues. And from what I’ve read, it’s not uncommon.
Second there’s no tutorial or guide built into the game, and this seems like a real oversight. In the NES era, Nintendo’s first-party games always had outstanding manuals, with higher page count than any other publisher, and high quality content inside. While Tetris may need no introduction or explanation, the competitive aspects that they’ve introduced could use some explanation. Sadly, this is lacking.
Fortunately, you can still get a good experience from Tetris 99 by just playing Tetris, overlook the new features and still have a fun time. That said, it’d be good to appreciate the new features and understand them!
So, to fix the missing manual, here’s what I understand:
- On either side of the Tetris playfield, you see mini thumbnails of the 99 competitors.
- You can (in theory, less in practice) tell how well you’re doing relative to the competition by seeing the stack size, see who’s in trouble, and see their Badges. Typically, I’m too busy worrying about the next falling block to look around and check on 98 other opponents.
- When you complete lines, it sends garbage rows to whomever you’re targeting: 0 if for a 1-line completion, 1 for a 2-line completion, 2 for a 3-line completion, and 4 for a 4-line completion.
- The garbage rows don’t pop up under your opponent’s stack immediately — rather there’s a timer that counts down, to give a player fair warning.
- If you have incoming garbage, and you manage to complete rows while the timer is counting down, it will deduct the incoming garbage so you don’t have to deal with it, rather than sending garbage to your targets.
- Targeting isn’t explained in the non-existent manual, and this is the thing that players should really understand in order to fare well in the battle. Using the right analog stick, you can select between:
- Random (the default option), randomly attacking one of the 99 opponents out of whoever’s still left,
- Attackers, counter-attacking those players who are targeting you,
- Badges, targeting players who have a lot of badges, or
- Killshots, targeting players who are close to elimination.
- Eliminating a player awards you with Badges, and the more badges you acquire, the more “damage” you deal out when you complete lines.
- If you eliminate a player who has badges, you claim their badges and add them to your own. So it’s smart to target players who are close to eliminated, and players who have a lot of badges, to maximize your badges. It can also be effective to counter-attack your attackers, and perhaps dissuade them from targeting you, or if not hopefully eliminate them before they eliminate you.
- You can also target an individual game using the left analog stick. Who you’re targeting is denoted by the lines connecting the bottom of your playfield to one of the opponents’ playfields in the background. Or maybe that’s who’s targeting you, I’m not quite sure. Sometimes I see multiple lines targeting me, and it’s unclear what’s going on.
- Hard Drop: This feature isn’t in OG Tetris, but if you’ve played a modern implementation, you’re probably already used to it. Press up to instantly drop the piece in play to the botton and lock it into position. This enables much faster play, which is essential to competitive battle. It can take some time to get used to it, if you’ve never used it before. But if you’ve played a modern Tetris in the last, I don’t know, 15 or so years, maybe, chances are you know about this already. There’s also a convenient “ghost” block that shows where the piece will lock into position if you hard drop it. This is really helpful and will enable you to be more precise and cut down on mistakes.
- Hold block: Another handy feature that wasn’t there in OG Tetris. This is a holding cell that can be filled with a piece, taking it out of play until you need it. Press the left shoulder button to add the current active piece to the Hold. Press again to swap the held piece for the current piece. Grab those I-blocks when you can, and hold them for when you’re ready to deal out the damage with a 4-line Tetris move. Or put a piece that’s currently a problem on hold, and play it later when you’ve got a clean landing spot for it.
One thing about the Targeting feature, I find that after a certain point I’m pretty much only able to focus on positioning my next block, and can’t devote any mental capacity or time to retargeting. It’d be neat if targeting were also possible through Controller 2, so that a second player could assist me by targeting opponents intelligently while I focus on falling blocks. Wouldn’t that be a cool 2p-coop mode?
My only other nitpick with Tetris 99 is that there’s only one background music for the game. Technically there’s one track for when you’re in game, and one track for between games. But I would have really liked to have seen a variety of tracks, remixing and revamping the old classic Tetris BGM, and giving me some variety. Having the same song for every game gets repetitive and feels skimpy.
I’ve managed to place as high as 4th in round, but more typically I tend to finish in the top 50-20 range. It just depends on how good of a game I’m having, and how many players are targeting me.
I doubt I’ll ever be able to win a round, though, as the game becomes impossibly fast for me when the second speedup happens, with 10 players remaining. When this happens, I’m hopeless and bound to make mistakes quickly, busting out in short order. Still, it could happen if I get into the Top 10 with an extremely clean stack and my opponents are all close to KO.
While I wouldn’t say that Tetris 99 is worth the cost of the entire console, I will say that it’s definitely worth the price of the subscription to Nintendo’s Switch Online services. Considering that Tetris 99 is a free game, but cannot be played without the subscription, it’s just what Nintendo needed to get people to sign up. At $20/year, it’s not expensive, and well worth it for Tetris 99 alone.