Why I’ve played more Tetris 99 than Tetris Effect
I hadn’t even realised I’d made it into the last five during the frantic, final stages of my first win. Blocks were falling too fast and my board was loaded too high to risk looking anywhere but where I wanted the tetrominoes to land. I’d had a mixed night on Tetris 99 until that point, with finishes ranging anywhere between 6th and 75th, but right then, figuratively and literally, the pieces just fell into place.
When the win was confirmed in what was already going to be my final match of the night, it almost didn’t feel right. The game stopped dead in its tracks just as I was taking back control, even causing me a microsecond of panic as my blocks cascaded away. An inquest ran in my head as to how I could have
Instead, I’d won.
I was obviously elated once I’d processed it, but the win felt so… unceremonious. There were no celebratory animations as there were even in the monochrome Game Boy Tetris, no sense of occasion for besting 98 others; just an understated digital badge engraved with a number ‘1’, sitting atop the elimination order.
I’ve played the Tetris-flavoured battle royale almost every day since Nintendo surprise-dropped it during their February 2019 Direct, free for subscribers of their online service. That’s weeks of claiming that I’d ‘jump in for a couple of rounds’, but then really spend anything up to three or four hours battling against other players, vying to be the last player standing.
As it stands, I’ve already more than tripled the time I spent playing last year’s Tetris Effect, a highly-lauded, captivating audio-visual treat from the minds behind REZ, Child of Eden and Lumines. Tetris Effect has elicited stories of powerful emotional reactions from others and is a game I liked a lot, but just didn’t connect with on quite the same level as, seemingly, everyone else.
There were a couple of reasons for that. During its premiere ‘Journey’ mode, the pace would (logically, given the audio’s importance) change along with the fantastic music, instantly shifting from one slow extreme to the speedy other. This led to incredibly fun, challenging portions of Tetris, but portions that made the affecting music and absorbing visuals mere secondary concerns. Simply put: there were times where Tetris Effect distracted me from its journey, and thus the messages it was trying to convey.
When that journey is over, even with an admirably vast range of ways to play found in the ‘Effect’ mode (where its Zone system – the one mechanical aspect that sets it aside from other versions – is taken away), there isn’t much else for you unless you really like to score attack.
Don’t get me wrong, that’s fine. That’s Tetris. I’m a lifelong fan of Tetris. I’d wager there’s a decent chance that, accumulatively, I’ve spent more time playing Tetris than any other series, and Tetris Effect is easily one of its best of those incarnations. But score attacks and leader boards have lost their appeal for me in recent years, especially since they moved online.
I mean, they’re not without their place. Passing the Game Boy around my family and friends to see who could outscore the others remains an important childhood memory, but the prospect of topping millions of players in any game feels like an impossible ask; an unending, fruitless endeavour I’ll soon grow bored of, regardless of how timeless those core mechanics are.
Tetris 99, then, makes for a great antithesis to that. By putting the classic gameplay into the context of a battle royale, where the only important considerations are contained within single matches, it not only narrows my pool of potential competitors from millions to just 98 but provides a far more immediate, clear-cut and attainable goal than simply climbing ranks over time.
And though that goal is, comparatively speaking, easier to strive for, it’s still challenging because – as is the case with even the big battle royale shooters – the odds of being the last standing from 99 players are low, especially when you throw Tetris 99’s tactical options into the mix.
Whenever you clear lines from your board, you will hurt someone else, giving them a tiny window to prevent junk lines from appearing on their board. You’ll attack randoms by default but can fine-tune who bears the brunt of your success with a flick of the right
I find this meta-game absorbing, as I try to strike a balance between flying under the radar and meeting my personal mini-milestones: Can I build my stack well enough to clear 4 lines at the drop of a hat if I need to react quickly to pressure? Can I do that and not leave myself in trouble should multiple folks target me? Can I reach the top 30? The top 25? The top 10?
Anything but that last one feels like a failure.
That matches only last 5-10 minutes, and its matchmaking is so wonderfully swift, means that Tetris 99 doesn’t need heaps of my time to feel worthwhile. Whereas a bad run when trying to climb a ladder in the usual format can feel like a draining setback, here I’m into the next match before I know it and, with failure quickly forgotten, I’m ready to work through those milestones once more. That makes me more likely to go again and again, especially as I can never leave a session on anything but a decent run, which means though Tetris 99 may not demand my time, it tends to take it anyway.
So, while it may not have the theatrical flourish of its visually-striking cousin, nor as meaningfully resonant or as substantial a package, by leaning into one strong game mode with laser focus and offering a more immediately gratifying and achievable goal, Tetris 99 has proven nothing but continually compelling.
Yes, Tetris 99 is absolutely a one-trick pony, but that one trick is what makes it so irresistibly moreish.