Nintendo embrace the battle royale formula for the first time, in what is the best reason to pay for Nintendo Switch Online.
Everyone was surprised when Fortnite’s success last year failed to inspire a flood of other battle royale games, but now that Apex Legends has become an instant hit it seems inevitable that all caution will be thrown to the wind and we’ll all soon wish the concept had never been invented. But we have to admit we didn’t think the next free battle royale to come along would involve Nintendo and Tetris.
Tetris, the granddaddy of modern video game puzzlers, has been enjoying a bit of a renaissance lately, following last year’s excellent Tetris Effect for PlayStation 4. That version, whether you played it in VR or not, was all about immersion and relaxation… becoming one with the game as you enter ‘the zone’ as gracefully as possible. Tetris 99 is the complete opposite and demonstrates the true versatility of Tetris by the fact that even though it’s exactly the same game the experience of playing it feels completely different.
Tetris 99 is not a difficult game to describe, even if you’ve somehow, inexplicably, never heard of Tetris before. It involves you playing a standard game of Tetris but doing so simultaneously with 98 other players, whose screens you can see displayed in miniature beside you. Anyone is free to attack anyone else by completing rows and sending their pieces to fill up someone’s screen, with the desperate hope that you’ll be the last player standing.
Tetris 99 isn’t available to buy separately but it can be played free by anyone who subscribes to Nintendo Switch Online – Nintendo’s equivalent of Xbox Live and PSN. Many resented the service’s introduction last autumn, as although it’s much cheaper than the other two Nintendo’s online services are notoriously less robust and lacking most of the same quality of life features.
To compensate Nintendo has offered an expanding range of free NES games, some of them with added multiplayer or alternative, less difficult, variants. But in the absence of a proper Virtual Console it all feels like a slightly desperate way to try and justify the subscription, by just throwing in any random content they can think of. The Tetris 99 annoucement came out of nowhere during the last Nintendo Direct, so at the moment it’s unclear whether this is a one-off or not.
For the three people in the world that don’t know what Tetris is, it involves geometric shapes (called Tetriminoes) falling from the top of the screen and you rotating them round so that they slot together – with a complete horizontal line disappearing entirely. The shapes begin to fall more quickly the longer you last, and it’s game over when one reaches the top of the screen. There are no special rules or extra additions to Tetris 99, just a standard implementation of the modern game, including the ability to keep a piece spinning indefinitely or hold one back for later use.
The basic concept behind the multiplayer is also not new and the idea that when you remove two or more lines at once they get added to the bottom of your opponent’s screen has been around for years. The difference in Tetris 99 is the sheer number of other people playing at the same time, and the idea that when you knock them out you claim their ‘badges’, which makes your attacks more powerful but also highlights you as a target for everybody else.
The slow build-up of tension, as you realise that by lasting into the last 50 your chance of getting lost in the crowd is quickly diminishing, brings with it a wonderful sense of panic, especially as the speed of the game increases naturally the longer you last. If you think you’re a good Tetris player than Tetris 99 would soon disabuse you of that notion and we always felt very lucky to get into the top 10.
As a free game Tetris 99 works perfectly and while we weren’t initially going to review it the fact that we’ve become increasingly addicted meant it would be churlish not too. It is a very bare bones experience though, with no real options or alternate game modes (or an alternative to THAT music). There is a very simple meta game where you’re constantly levelling up with experience, but as far as we can tell all that does is change the design of the icon next to your name.
We can’t be certain though as there are no instructions, so you’re left to figure out for yourself that you can attack specific players by pressing on the touchscreen or using the left analogue stick – or aim at broad groups such as those that are attacking you or that have a badge.
We’ll say one other thing for the game though and that’s that it’s a good advert for Nintendo’s online service, as we haven’t had a moment’s problem with the connection and games are set-up and started in just seconds. Which could almost be construed as a fault if you ever expect to have any free time again, because this is the most addicted we’ve been to Tetris, or indeed battle royale in general, for a long time.
In Short: Tetris and battle royale turn out to be a perfect match with probably the best multiplayer version of the game ever made.
Pros: Tetris is as addictive as usual and the multiplayer is impressively tense the longer you last. No-nonsense set-up means a very quick turnaround and targeting individual players is surprisingly easy.
Cons: The game is really very basic, with no real options or alternate modes. No instructions and the music is going to drive some people up the wall.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Price: Free with Nintendo Switch Online subscription
Release Date: 14th February 2019
Age Rating: 3