Games Review: Tetris 99 is the most extreme battle royale title ever made

It’s hard to believe this is the second Tetris review I’ve written in three months. Even harder to believe, the franchise’s raw adaptability. Like the patterns its falling blocks create, Tetris seems able to change its shape at will, wholly altering the core experience with the addition of a single extra mechanic.

Tetris Effect leveraged music and rhythm to create a compelling, meditative take on the 30-year-old brand. Tetris 99 goes in entirely the other direction, substituting tranquility with absolute brutality.

Tetris 99 is a remarkably simple battle royale title, but very effective. Take a moment to appreciate the audacity: It is a competitive puzzle game that retains all the intense pressure and high stakes of a battle royale shooter.

99 players all begin a game of Tetris at the same time, the huge score multipliers they rack up being dumped as trash on other competitors. One by one they are knocked out of the game, the number of remaining players growing smaller and smaller. As the surviving player count drops, the faster the game becomes. By the time you reach the top 5 the pieces are falling at a blistering, blink-and-you’ve-stuffed-it speed suitable only for the most battle-hardened Tetris grandmasters. The last player standing wins the game.

The only strategy that will help you is a combination of foresight and adaptability. You can choose who to dump your cleared trash lines on at any time — randoms, badges (highly rated players), attackers (anyone currently trying to drop lines on you) or KO’s (players who are close to failing out) The most consistent way to screw up your opponents’ boards is to aim for a Tetris, the magic four-line clear that delivers huge points. The danger of going for the Tetris is that it leaves you vulnerable to attack yourself, your board rapidly filling with trash as you wait for that rat bastard long blue piece to save you.

The rat bastard in question, seen here finally dragging its lazy ass onto the board.

If I have a criticism for Tetris 99 its that it does a bloody awful job of explaining itself to the player. There’s no tutorial, no explainer for how its rules work. In true battle royale style, you are left to fend for yourself. If you can figure out its bizarre runes and mystical targeting system, so much the better. The good news is that a community sprang up around the game almost immediately and have devoted themselves to puzzling out the game’s inscrutable inner logic.

Here’s the long and short of what I’ve been able to glean: Clearing one line on your screen doesn’t send any opponents trash. Clearing two lines sends one trash line and clearing three sends two BUT clearing a Tetris sends a Tetris, a full four lines. This goes hand-in-hand with the game’s other new mechanic, earning badges. For every player your trash pushes off the board into a KO, you get a badge shard. Two badge shards completes your first badge. Badges are thereafter awarded in powers of 2, so you’ll need four shards for your second badge, eight for your third and sixteen total shards gets you a fourth and final badge.

But what do the badges do? Think of them as a trash multiplier; that is, the amount of trash you send will be increased depending on how many badges you currently have. One badge means you send 25% more trash per line sent, 50% on your second badge, 75% on your third and 100% extra trash if you can earn that fourth badge. To put this in perspective, if you can reach that fourth badge and drop a Tetris on an enemy, you’ll send eight lines of trash instead of four, a devastating blow and an all-but-guaranteed knock-out for most players.

Now suspend all of that information in your head and remember that you’re still required to play Tetris at the same time.

It’s fast, difficult, occasionally brutal but bizarrely addictive. Landing that #1 spot is deeply satisfying but also accompanies a release of tension that other BR titles just can’t compete with. That Fortnite could have its wig snatched by Apex Legends, only to have Apex Legends meet a similar fate at the hands of the most venerable puzzler in the game in the same month is pretty incredible. If you’re still reading this, I commend you, but you should stop. Get on your Switch and download Tetris 99. It’s free, it’s fun and its maddeningly complex. You’re gonna love it.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: Tetris is back again; The best idea for a BR title yet; It’s free
Lowlights: Rules are legitimately confusing and totally unexplained
Developer: Arika
Publisher: Nintendo
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (via eShop)
Available: Now

Review conducted on Nintendo Switch.

David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously worked as a freelance games journalist and critic, appearing on PC World Australia. He tweets at @RhunWords and plays the odd game at twitch.tv/RhunWords when the internet works.