Although by no means the first platform holder to pioneer online console gaming, Microsoft’s Xbox Live service on the original Xbox most certainly laid the groundwork for what is now the industry standard in online functionality. The subsequent iteration of the service on Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation Network evolved online gaming - on consoles anyway - into what we have today. But one company has forever bewildered consumers when it comes to allowing gamers around the world to play with or against each other, and that’s Nintendo.
From the lack of cloud saves to fencing off the ability to make online friends with those irritating friend codes and everything in between, Nintendo’s approach to online functionality on the Wii, Wii U and 3DS has, over the years, earned it the reputation of a company that is behind the curve, steadfast in its insistence on marching to the beat of its own drum. With the Switch, Nintendo has made massive strides in catching up with the competition, even if it is still lacking in some areas. The biggest spanner in the works this time around was undoubtedly the fact that Nintendo chose to launch its newest console with free online functionality, before putting said features behind a paywall 18 months later.
A subscription charge that drastically undercuts its peers and an ever expanding library of classic NES games are serving to sweeten the deal somewhat. However, the additional promise of exclusive Switch freebies for anyone paying for Nintendo Switch Online had remained unfulfilled… until recently. That debut free game is Tetris 99, and boy, is it a doozy.
Make no mistake, however, there’s nothing inherently dazzling or groundbreaking about Tetris 99. It sports a minimalist presentation, giving players a clear, uncluttered view of the tetriminos plummeting into the well. That classic theme tune that earwormed its way into your brain back in 1989 is present and correct, albeit in a remixed form that wouldn’t sound out of place in an Ibiza rave. And unlike the myriad of other Tetris games that countless developers and publishers have churned out since Tetris Holding LLC began licencing out their game to anyone with two pixels to rub together, Tetris 99 doesn’t fuck with the formula. There are no ridiculous new shapes, no superfluous modes, no licenced characters in an attempt to pry the masses of their cash. Tetris 99 is just Tetris, but with one slight alteration...
It’s a battle royale.
Now, multiplayer Tetris is nothing new, but traditionally this mode has been restricted to two, three or four players. Where Tetris 99 differs is that while you’re rotating tetriminos and completing lines in an effort to dump garbage on your opponents, there are now 98 other players all doing the same thing. Your own well will always be your main focal point, taking up the majority of the screen, but the wells of every other player in the match are also visible, 49 to the left and 49 to the right. The battle royale aspect comes via giving the player control over which opponents they wish to target, and Tetris 99 offers multiple options when it comes to bringing the pain.
A quick flick of the right analogue stick lets you switch between various broad targeting options. Attacker targets anyone about to fling some shit your way - represented with handy and easily identifiable yellow lines leading from their well to your own - allowing you to defend yourself against a potentially fatal onslaught. K.O. targets a player who is close to giving up the ghost and lets you dump those final few lines their way and earn yourself a kill; doing so will increase your multiplier and increase the damage you deal to opponents. Badges targets the player with the most kills and, finally, you can opt to forgo any real tactical thinking and just choose Random which, as you’d expect, targets a random opponent.
An added layer of strategy comes into play with the left analogue stick, which controls a targeting reticule that you can scroll between individual opponents. This is generally useless at the start of each match, but should you find yourself in the final 10 competitors, taking that nanosecond to flick your gaze around the few remaining opponents and assess which one is the most susceptible to a K.O. can mean the difference between staying in the game or finding yourself prematurely staring at the results table.
Indeed, strategy is a fairly large component should you wish to find yourself victorious. However, the real beauty - and what I truly love about Tetris 99 - is that if you want to ignore all that and just play yourself some Tetris, you can totally do that. Granted, the battle royale setting is the sole mode available in Tetris 99 and you’re stuck with those other 98 players whether you like it or not. But if you want to simply focus on clearing your lines and let the game govern who your garbage falls on, that’s absolutely a viable option. Tetris 99 effortlessly caters to those players, while also giving the more competitively inclined the option to fully submerge themselves in the split-second strategy and sphincter-clenching tension that comes with top level play. And should you find yourself knocked out, getting back into the action is about as quick and snappy as you could hope for; not once have I had to wait more than 20 seconds to get matched with another set of opponents after a loss.
So, is Tetris 99 worth paying the £3.49 a month or £17.99 a year it costs to bag yourself a subscription to Nintendo Switch Online? God, no. Yes, it’s the most tightly controlling Tetris game in years and it’s as much fun as Tetris has always been when at its peak... but it is just Tetris, and with its singular mode it’s not exactly a high value proposition in and of itself. If, on the other hand, you’ve already plumped for the service to indulge in some Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate or Splatoon 2, then there’s really no reason not to grab this freebie. After over 30 hours of play time, 369 matches and 19 wins, I’m still giving into that “just one more match” mentality, ever eager to dive back in and attempt to rack up those victories. If Tetris 99 is in any way indicative of Nintendo’s strategy concerning doling out member-specific bonuses, things are truly looking good for Nintendo Switch Online subscribers.
Tetris 99 (Reviewed on Nintendo Switch)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
Barebones and no-frills it may be, but Tetris 99 is the best playing Tetris game in years and ultimately well worth downloading if you’re a Nintendo Switch Online subscriber.