Category: Nintendo

Game review: Tetris 99

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.

After taking this picture with my smartphone, I discovered that the Switch has a built-in screen capture button with social media integration. Slick!

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.

New “Link’s Awakening” triggers debate on remakes

It seems a lot of forum activity has been generated by yesterday’s announcement by Nintendo about the remake of Link’s Awakening on the Nintendo Switch.

In short, it seems that a significant number of fans are not in favor of the remake for one reason or another. Mostly this can be summed up as: “It’s not the exact same game as the original.”

Which, is true. The remake completely changes the graphics style, from the old 2-D look of the Game Boy original to something almost claymation-like, using a fixed 3/4 perspective, but with 3D models done in a cartoonish style. It remains to be seen what other changes are in store, and whether they are good or bad. It’s rather likely that the game will play differently in some respects, whether due to differences in the game engine, or changes in the design of the game.

I happen to love the way the new graphics look, so this doesn’t bother me. I liked the original graphics, too. And if I want to play the original game, I still can, and so can anyone with a the original hardware or a decent emulator.
But it seems that, among Zelda fans, there’s a certain segment who prefer the graphics to look “serious” — like Ocarina of Time, Skyward Sword, Breath of the Wild, etc., and not “cartoony” like Wind Waker or Four Swords Adventures. Somehow, original LoZ pleases both camps, and Link’s Awakening is in the vein of LoZ and Zelda 3: A Link to the Past. And I guess the new look for Link’s Awakening is too cartoony for them. This does not bother me. I like good art direction, and that can be “serious” or “cartoony” or something else.

It’s certainly true that many attempts at re-making some original classic game fail to capture what was special about the original game. It’s tempting to try to re-imagine something that was very, very good, thinking that adding something more will make it even better. Often that’s not the case.

Certainly, there’s a built-in expectation that a remake has to live up to, which a fresh new game doesn’t, and this can offset whatever advantage the remake had in being based off of a familiar, known, successful game. It can be very easy to mess up by deviating from the original in the wrong way. For example, updating the graphics in a style that fans don’t like, or likewise with the music. But worse would be a major change in the story, something that violates canon or continuity, or is just a change that upsets fans by breaking an unwritten contract to keep the game authentic to the characters and world that Fandom has already accepted. And perhaps the gravest mistake would be failing to ensure that the controls feel tight and responsive and give the game a good feel, ideally something virtually identical to the original. There’s nothing like tasting someone else’s attempt at your favorite recipe that your mom made when you were a kid, and no matter what they do it’s always just slightly off in a way that, even if it’s not bad, it prevents you from accepting it. I think that’s ultimately what makes fans of the original all but impossible to please when it comes to embracing a remake.

But that’s not to say that remaking a game is always a bad thing. I don’t view a remake as an attempt to replace or supplant the original. Rather, I look at it like in the way I look at theater: A playwright can write a play, and it can be performed by an original troupe of actors. And other theater companies can put on productions of the same play. Some may try to do it exactly the way the original was done, following a tradition, while others may stray and experiment. Some will be good, some will not. But it’s not like people shouldn’t continue to put on performances of Shakespeare just because purists who were fans of the original will find something not to like about it. And of course people should continue to write new, original scripts. The entertainment industry is large enough, and the audience is large enough, to sustain both.

Ultimately, it will come down to how the game plays. It’s only fair to judge the remake based on what it is, and not what it’s not. And to be clear, it will not be:

  • The same as the original.
  • A brand new, original game.
  • Different from the original in exactly the way everyone would like it to be.

Will it be worthy? That remains to be seen, and will be a matter of opinion and consensus. But I’m excited about it.

I’m buying a Switch, and other reasons I’ll be a happy gamer in 2019

So a bunch of great announcements from Nintendo came earlier today. For me, the highlights are:

Link’s Awakening Remake

Yeah, Breath of the Wild blew everyone away at launch and sold a few million systems, and I’ll admit I was very tempted to rush out and buy a Switch when it was released.

But I’m not an early adopter and I wanted to wait and see if the system would be a success, particularly after seeing how Nintendo struggled with making the Wii U realize its potential. So I held off.

I like 2-D Zelda more than 3-D Zelda, because 2D > 3D, as far as I’m concerned. And this Link’s Awakening remake looks fantastic.

I’m actually maybe more excited about this than I am about finally getting to play BotW soon.

Super Mario Maker 2

I told myself at the time, I would buy a Switch if they had Super Mario Maker for it. For a while I debated getting a Wii U so I could play both Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Maker, but I decided I wanted the real, full BotW experience with the improved controls made possible by the Switch’s joycon technology.

I’m glad I waited, now. I didn’t have to wait, I could have predicted even then that we’d see a SMM at some point on the system; it was just too popular not to be a thing. But now that it’s announced and official, I can’t wait. Really looking forward to designing some Mario levels in June.

Tetris 99

Battle Royale Tetris, awww yeah!!!!

Non-Nintendo news

Well, actually I’m not quite done with Nintendo news, but these next two are NES homebrew releases.

Full Quiet

First, Full Quiet has got me all hot and bothered to put some more hours on my AVS console. I backed the Kickstarter, and got to play it and talk to creator Tim Hartman at Portland Retro Gaming Expo back in October of last year. I’m pleased to say that this game is already looking incredible, and it should be out later this year. Even if it’s not, and release slips another year, it will be worth the wait. This is not one to miss.

Just look at the latest video showing it in action.

Without exaggerating, I will say that this may end up going down as one of the greatest releases on the NES. And considering the greatness of the NES library, that’s a truly staggering accomplishment.

From talking to Tim, I’m aware that his game will also be released on Steam, playable on PC though emulation of the NES hardware, which means that even if you don’t own a working NES for some reason, you can play this game. And you should.

MicroMages

MicroMages should also be shipping sometime in 2019. This game bears a resemblance to Towerfall, the 4-player archery arena battle indie sensation from a few years ago, but runs on NES hardware, and is pretty fantastic in its own right.

FPGA retro consoles

If that’s not enough, I’m also looking forward to the delivery of the Analogue Mega SG, a FPGA-based, HDMI-output implementation of the Sega Genesis, and the Collectorvision Phoenix, a FGPA-based, upgraded ColecoVision plus.

I can’t imagine that I’ll have enough free time to play all of these nearly as much as I’d like to, but I still can’t wait, and I can’t believe all the good stuff that’s happening in the world of gaming, so much of it the product of cottage industry efforts devoted to keeping older systems relevant. 2019 is going to be a fantastic year.