Tetris 99 isn’t just a great twist on a classic—it’s a gameplay revolution

By Sam Machkovech

What happens when more people get their hands on <em>Tetris</em> pieces in a single online match? A lot more than you might realize.
Enlarge / What happens when more people get their hands on Tetris pieces in a single online match? A lot more than you might realize.

In an interview with Ars Technica last year, Brendan Greene, the game designer best known for PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG), offered a throwaway opinion: every genre should have a battle royale mode. It wasn't necessarily the best-received suggestion at the time, as backlash against the battle royale phenomenon had begun, but Greene was in a good position to say it. He'd already struck gold multiple times slapping battle royale into other games as a modder.

Since then, we've mostly seen battle royale options land in PUBG-like shooters, but Wednesday's Nintendo Direct presentation shook everything up with its own surprise launch. Tetris 99, a Nintendo-published game, would launch immediately on Wednesday as a "free" perk, with zero microtransactions, for paying Nintendo Switch Online customers.

Shortly after cataloguing the Direct's firestorm of announcements, I booted up my Nintendo Switch and confirmed two things. First, this was Tetris.

Second, this was my kind of Tetris: difficult, fast, and full of victims.

But Tetris 99 isn't technically a battle royale game, at least not in the tradition established by PUBG and pushed forward by the likes of Fortnite and Apex Legends. Instead, it transforms the genre's basic concept into something fascinating: a new form of video game challenge that I've never seen before. It's time to usher in a new era of games built with constant, seemingly random pressure as a focal point—and to imagine where Tetris 99's surprisingly fun twist might land next.

98 sprinkles in your vanilla Tetris

Every game of Tetris 99 begins with an apparent 99-player requirement. As you wait for more online peers, the tiny squares positioned behind your centered Tetris grid light up, one opponent at a time, like something out of the old 1 vs. 100 game show. With everyone in place, the game counts down in ready-set-Tetris fashion. (No, it doesn't actually declare that three-word phrase, which is a shame.)

From that point, the goal is simple: outlast 98 other players in what's essentially a solo game of vanilla Tetris... with the addition of the series' "garbage" mechanic scaled up to 99 people. When you clear more than two lines at once, that will send incomplete, "garbage" lines to the bottom of another online player's grid, thus pushing their stack upward, and they can do the same to you. In some cases, you can prevent incoming garbage blocks from reaching your grid by clearing a few lines of your own; you get roughly 5-10 seconds to offset that incoming damage, if you want.

But Tetris 99 remixes the traditional versus-mode mechanic of your damage focusing squarely on a single opponent. Instead, the game distributes garbage blocks with what I would call an "intelligently random" system.

Here’s how it works

Every player can designate where they want their damage blocks to land by picking from one of four options: "badges," "KOs," "attackers," and "randoms." Though the game lacks an instruction manual, Nintendo's UK site includes a breakdown of what these targeting terms mean, in order: "You might choose to go on the offensive against the current top players, focus on those that are nearly finished, counterattack to defend against players that are targeting you... or just send garbage blocks at random players!"

The little squares in the background include itty-bitty previews of their block-stack situation, and you can manually target one of them if you want, but the itty-bitty UI makes this difficult to manage. Your other option is to pick from one of those four targeting priorities and then put your trust in the Tetris 99 gods, all while its system grabs other players' blocks and sends them your way—sometimes more intensely, thanks to this game's new "badge" system. If you're ever the last person to strike another player with garbage blocks before they fail, you'll claim their badges. Do this, and your garbage-block attacks become incrementally more powerful, but you also get a target on your back if anyone aims their garbage blocks at that "badges" metric.

And if you and another player holding onto badges face off, the victor of that garbage-block juggle gets even more badges. This kind of victory, punctuated by pleasant plinking sound effects, is one of the more satisfying moments I've had in a puzzle game in my career as a critic.

Distributed Construct Damage (DCD)

Yet in spite of that endorphin-rush moment, the resulting game mostly feels divorced from other real-life players. How am I disrupting other players? Who exactly is sending me garbage blocks? The only answer comes at the end of a given session, when a list of 99 usernames appears, ranked in order of survival time.

Should you get to a match's top-four climax, you can better guess who you were facing off against at the very end—especially if you take out a player who'd accumulated a bunch of their own badges, at which point the game plays some satisfying sounds to indicate that you've scooped up their booty. Otherwise, it's a bit of a blocky cloud.

Since this is Tetris, that's mostly OK. Your focus will be on your own Tetris grid, which starts at the slowest possible speed and ramps up based on the number of remaining players, not on time. Get all the way to the top 10, and the drop speed accelerates pretty intensely. Until then, the challenge comes as much from your own grid management as it does from randomly distributed garbage blocks—which, as in Tetris games past, often emerge with steep one-line gaps that can be exploited for return-fire four-line clears.

The result is an interesting new version of Tetris challenge that heretofore has never existed: what I'm calling distributed construct damage (DCD). On top of the series' usual random-block chaos, Tetris 99 asks a compelling question: how can the game organically change its challenge model to something other than "oh no, the blocks are falling faster"? Enter DCD.

Now, at any time, the game can start sending alerts about incoming damage blocks, and this signals a serious question for Tetris players. Do they immediately clear lines to fend off the impending attack, as noted by a number of blocks in a lower-left warning box? Or do they hang on to their higher stack for a second, take on the damage, and try to come out ahead—by clearing the mixed stack of normal and damage blocks, like a Tetris lord, and claim some KOs?

That simple addition of badges—a gift for taking out an opponent—makes the latter option a tantalizing risk-reward choice. Those badges are darned near necessary to succeed in a top-10 scenario, because you'll need more powerful damage-block dumps to trump your later opponents, and each successive badge you pick up adds to your attack power. But they also put a target on your back on your way to the top.

Vanilla Tetris already revolves around what design nerds call a Random Number Generator (RNG), which determines which Tetris piece you get next. DCD slyly adds a second, more nuanced RNG-styled dice roll to the game: whether you'll receive damage blocks at any given moment, driven in part as a reaction to your play style.

A wholly new challenge model—and a tease of what’s to come

The result, just in terms of the blocks popping up in an individual screen, is some darned good Tetris, if you're into the series' more stressful side. (If you want a more placid, life-affirming version of the series, Tetris Effect may be more your speed.) But Tetris 99 also delivers something interesting with its unique difficulty model: constructs playing the same game and thus contributing similar data—damage blocks, KOs, and badges—to a central pool.

This is not the same as a video game in which you directly interact with opponents. Tetris 99 doesn't match up with, say, building a military force in a game like StarCraft, all while keeping tabs on an opponent and attempting to react to a mix of the known and the unknown.

Dota 2's Auto Chess mod, as explained by popular game streamer TrumpSC

The closest corollary I've seen in video games is the burgeoning Dota 2 mod Auto Chess. This free, Chinese-developed mod wrests many controls away from players to let them focus on an economy of coins and warrior purchases while going through multiple rounds of combat, sometimes against real players and other times against an AI. The combat is automatic, and the economy can punish players for accumulating either a winning or losing streak, so players are constantly trying to thread a performance needle while dealing with an almost slot machine-like system of RNG. (All without microtransactions, I might add.)

Both games dangle real-life and AI constructs as factors in your own screen's basic challenge crux. And the result in both cases is addictive, rapid-fire dances with admittedly simple controls (drop some Tetris pieces, buy a few Auto Chess characters each round) and a just-out-of-reach dangle of visible puppet strings.

All of which is to say that other video game genres could benefit from having players' decisions feed into a central, RNG-driven pool of slight chaos, so long as they have nearly immediate impact. For example, a farm-sim game where players' polluting decisions fed into a climate model would probably take too long to unfold for meaningful impact.

But what if taking too much wood in the first minute of a Fortnite match somehow impacted the resources in a given match—in a build-crazy world where materials like wood, brick, and iron absolutely factor into the endgame? What if Angry Birds relaunched with an ongoing-universe schtick, one in which players must race to clear destructible levels' piggies while doling out Tetris-like damage blocks in all directions? And what if an augmented reality game one-upped Pokemon Go by having its players feel connected to each other in live battles where their decisions rippled back and forth?

What if...

What's more, what if a game launched with a Tetris 99 gimmick but everything was driven by AI? If we learned six months from now that Tetris 99 was a fraud and that each session's 98 opponents were AI the whole time, that would be tacky and distasteful... but it wouldn't change the core challenge offered by vague, hard-to-pinpoint garbage blocks appearing while players focus on their own grids. And in our crazy machine-learning era, we're not that far off from simulated simultaneous constructs being run by game developers just for funsies. What might emerge if a game developer watches 100 simultaneous instances of its single-player game being automatically played by AI, looks for trends or possible points of overlap, and then has a "eureka" moment?

I'd love to see more game makers experiment with marrying dozens of simultaneous gameplay instances, with or without legitimate online multiplayer attached, and see what happens. Either way, Tetris 99 is more than a classic game with a bunch of strangers piling on. It's a tantalizing (and surprising) taste of new game design potential, where the cloud is the limit.