We weren't expecting the announcement of Tetris 99 the other night, but we were delighted when we learned what it's all about. This is a free game for those players who have already invested in Nintendo's online service, and it's a purely multiplayer experience that borrows the underlying fundamentals of the battle royale genre and fuses them with the endlessly addictive thrill of playing Tetris. And so, with a newly online account (we doubt we're the only ones) we picked up our Switch, and we carried on playing until the thing had run out of batteries.
The clue is in the name. You and 99 other players are all playing Tetris at the same time, and while you're at it, garbage blocks are being thrown between players meaning only the fastest and most agile thumbs will be able to stay alive as the blocks fall from the top and rise from the bottom. It's a bite-size mouthful of quickfire Tetris that can last from anything from just a few seconds to a few minutes, and things get intense faster than you might expect.
At the time of writing, we've still not quite managed a win, although we have come second on a few occasions, and in the top ten even more often. Even on those runs to the very end of the game, your only talking a handful of minutes, and the pace is kept high because as and when your fellow players start to fall, the game speeds up. For example, once half of the players are gone, the drop rate increases accordingly, and by the time you get to the top ten, things are getting breathless with a seemingly never-ending stream of blocks to sort away.
This isn't just a solo sprint to a specified total, there's an adversarial element where garbage blocks are passed between players. When other players send their garbage to you, you have a limited amount of time to mitigate or completely nullify the attack, so if you complete a few lines at just the right moment, you can negate the incoming threat. It doesn't take long for these indirect attacks to start coming thick and fast, and it's not unusual for you to come unstuck early on in a match. At least it doesn't take too long for you to get back in the action as the matchmaking is pretty snappy.
In terms of how the game decides where your garbage drops go, that's when things start getting interesting. One option is manually selecting where your attacks will go, but you've got to look sharp if you're going to keep on top of things, and it's more likely that you'll want to use one of four preset options. You can select your blocks to go to random players, to players who are attacking you, players with badges (which we'll come to shortly), or if you're especially aggressive, you can target those players who are on the edge and fighting for survival. The option you choose with a simple flick of the right analog stick makes a subtle difference, as it allows you to target specific types of players. Not directly, as the AI makes decisions for you on the fly, but it gives you a general style.
At first we targeted random players, but after a while we felt like we would be best off taking on the better players on the board sooner rather than later, so we'd either target those with a lot of badges (if you KO a player you earn badges, plus you get any badges they may have, making you increasingly powerful and your garbage deliveries more potent - and vice versa) or we'd go after those who were attacking us, and it felt like that subtle change helped us land in the top ten with a touch more frequency.
Despite making that subtle tweak, we still crashed out early on a fair few attempts, and sometimes it can feel like your fate is in the lap of the gods and you'll play a great run and still get absolutely battered. When you get down to the last five or so players, milliseconds really do count and it pays to understand what's going on all around you, which is why it's a shame that the game's systems aren't explained at all and you're left to work things out for yourself.
If you're a fan of Tetris then you really are spoiled for choice at the moment. Less than two years ago we got the excellent Puyo Puyo Tetris, and last year we got the sublime Tetris Effect. Now we've got Tetris 99 to add to the list, and in a way, it's the perfect counterpoint to the Puyo Puyo mash-up and the VR chill of Effect. It might be a little lightweight and more could be done to help players know what's going on and how it all works, but otherwise, it's quick and direct, it's a little bit aggressive, and we absolutely love it.