Last week, the Tetris battle royale game Tetris 99 dropped with no announcement. Adam Goodall spent three days with the game. This is his diary.
FRIDAY 15 FEBRUARY
About an hour after Tetris 99’s release and I know this much: I suck at the game, so much.
Tetris 99 was surprise-announced this morning, like Lemonade but for tragic nerds. Exclusive to the Nintendo Switch, Tetris 99 followed hot on the heels of last November’s Tetris Effect, the hypnotic, psychedelic PS4 exclusive produced by Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the maestro behind Space Channel 5, Rez and Child of Eden. Together, they’re the first official Tetris games since 2014, making this a banner year for the famous game that has inspired game makers and crockery designers alike.
Tetris 99 looks pretty bare-bones when you boot it up, all bright-coloured blocks and mechanics that have been standard since The Tetris Company started enforcing their Tetris Guideline in 2001. Side note: did you know there’s a Tetris Guideline? It’s eighty-five pages long. It dictates the colour scheme for each Tetrimino – did you know they’re called Tetriminoes? – each of which must be made up of four Minos, no more, no less. Did you know the little blocks in a Tetris block are called Minos?
These guidelines set the standard control schemes for any game of Tetris on console, computer, touch-screen cellphone or television remote control. It requires every Tetris game to include a version of Korobeiniki, which means Tetris has been a loyal comrade, spreading the good word about communism, since 2001. It’s a hell of a thing. There are only three options you can change in the options menu and there’s only one game mode.
That single game mode, though, is a real doozy: it’s a Fortnite. It’s a PUBG. It’s a Battle Royale. In Tetris 99, you drop into an online arena with 98 other Tetrimaniacs and clear lines until only one of you is left. The longer you stay in the game, the faster it gets. If your grid fills up to the top with lines, you’re knocked out.
The skeleton of it should be familiar to anyone who’s ever played competitive Tetris or read clause B1.2.1 of the Tetris Guideline. But if you’re a parent who’s reading all this and saying to yourself, “finally, there’s a Fortnite that I can play,” hahaha oh boy, I’m so sorry.
See, in regular competitive Tetris, if you clear a line you can send that garbage line to your opponent and clog up their well. In Tetris 99, you can target a subsection of your 98 enemies: you can target randoms, weak players who are about to get knocked out, good players with lots of badges (and lots of damaging bonuses), or players who are attacking you.
On Day One,I have no idea how this system works, why I’d want to choose one group over another, and how to stop people from sending me piles and piles of little grey garbage Minos to ruin my life. I’m completely out of my depth and there’s no tutorial to put me back in my depth. Also, my Pro Controller is sabotaging me and randomly hard-dropping pieces (seriously, this is a consistent problem, play Tetris 99 with your joycons). I’m a defenceless infant in a forest of wolves, and the whole thing is grisly.
I break into the top 25 three times and the top 10 once on Day One, but I’m incapable of keeping up. I feel like my hands are flippers, like I’m a seal who angered a sea witch and was cursed to a life of playing Tetris 99 against the most intense Tetris players in the world seriously how are there so many people who are so good at this game
SATURDAY 16 FEBRUARY
This game is an injustice. It is worse than the underarm bowling fiasco of 1981, it is worse than the match fixing that Lou Vincent did, it is a sports crime and I refuse to countenance it. I do not deserve to be humiliated like this.
I’ve been talking on a Discord – I say talking, I mean ‘whining about my failures and asking for advice.’ Someone shared this Reddit thread explaining the game’s mechanics. Apparently you can target individual players with the left thumbstick as well as targetting groups of players! Apparently you can get a bonus for counterattacking! Apparently you can get badges for knocking people out of the game, which give you important bonuses! Apparently I’m extremely bad at video games! I love it!
There are still things I don’t work out until much later, like that if you get a bonus for attacking people who are targeting you, it follows that they are also getting a bonus for attacking you when you’re targeting them. I spend a couple of hours yelling at twenty-high piles of incoming garbage lines before I work this out.
It’s in moments like this that Tetris 99 feels like it captures something critical about the battle royale form that, up until now, has seen its influence limited to the shooter genre. Battle royale matches in predecessors like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite start without any pre-match tutorials or in-game guidance; players are just dropped into an online arena and expected to figure it out. PUBG in particular came under a lot of fire for not including a tutorial mode, a way for players to learn the game’s often-opaque set of rules and interactions without the stress of the drop. But these players missed something that Tetris 99 understands, like PUBG and Fortnite before it: that opacity is the point.
Tetris 99 encourages you to learn through doing, even if it takes a few matches, or a few days, or a few weeks. But while you can always choose whether or not to engage in PUBG or Fortnite – you can track gunshots or run in the opposite direction, you can choose to drop in spicy zones like Tilted Towers or the School or you can drop in a quieter spot – the only choice you get in Tetris 99 is how much you engage. You can never really clock who’s attacking you because all 98 competitors are shown on your screen, flanking your own Tetris well, barely comprehensible in all the chaos.
Tetris 99 is about constantly managing and protecting your space, but more importantly it’s about teaching yourself to manage and protect it more effectively. It’s a puzzle you have to solve on top of the regular Tetris puzzle, and if you can work it out, there’s a steady, powerful loop of positive feedback. It can really get its hooks in.
I’m more reliably breaking into the top 50, and I peak at number 5, at which point the game gets so fast that the Tetriminoes are hitting the ground before they appear and my mind does a hard reset with all the sensory overload. I will die and the world will suffocate on carbon and spin into the sun before I am able to win a game of Tetris 99.
SUNDAY 17 FEBRUARY
“Funky”, “Jordan” and all those other Tetrimaniacs ain’t got nothing on me. Gold medal, eat it, I’m living, baby!
Tetris 99 is the best game ever made, but it isn’t just that. It’s a grand achievement, a testament to the immense capacity of the human race for shaping the world of their existence. It’s a euphoric high in a world of grey and devastating lows; a T-spin clear wiping out a whole screen of garbage lines at the very last second, but for life. It’s the kind of ecstasy that writers have spent millennia trying to put into words, an almost religious experience akin to standing face-to-face with God.
I get knocked out of the next game at 68. Honestly, Tetris 99 can go to hell, who does Nintendo think they are to treat me like this, I am going to write a letter to Mr Miyamoto and I can tell you I will have some choice words for him and his company
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.