Time for a true confession: I've never won a Chicken Dinner, a Victory Royale, or any other first-place finish in a battle royale game. I figured that Tetris 99 might be the first. After all, I know Tetris. I've been playing Tetris for almost as long as I can remember. But no, Tetris 99 is kicking my ass just as surely as Fortnite and Apex Legends.
In my first game of Tetris 99, I didn't even make it out of the Top 75. I was bombarded by pieces from seemingly every direction, my stacks rising at an alarming rate until I was suddenly out. I didn't even really have time to start building toward clearing out a Tetris before I became just another distant KO on someone else's screen.
As it turns out, I'm not as good at Tetris as I imagined. Lots of people aren't, actually. Tetris 99 is a competitive crucible designed to weed out the casual players from those who actually know what they're doing. It's been a revelation.
The key difference is in the pace. For many, Tetris has traditionally been defined by a sense of slowly rising momentum. The 1989 Game Boy version of Tetris, the release that truly popularized it with mainstream audiences, let you choose any speed from zero to nine to start. Most started at zero, allowing them to clear lines at a deliberate pace as the blocks fell faster and faster.
This was the version of Tetris where I first cut my teeth. In my heyday, I was able to fly well beyond level 10 and watch a rocket soar into space—the Tetris equivalent of a win screen. In the years to come, I would play Tetris DS, Puyo Puyo Tetris, and Tetris Effect. I did fine in all of them, but if Tetris 99 has taught me anything, it's that I didnt know nearly as much about the underlying strategy of Tetris as I thought I did.
Compared to classic Tetris, Tetris 99 moves at an almost terrifying speed. Most Tetris 99 matches last maybe five minutes or less. It's not a slow roll; it's a frantic attempt to gain purchase by quickly and deliberately clearing lines before you're overwhelmed by garbage. Mistakes are punished quickly and harshly.
when I'm being targeted by 4 people in Tetris 99 pic.twitter.com/S3ycsYW4aH— Shen (@shenanigansen) February 18, 2019
Without a solid understanding of how to truly succeed in Tetris, you will be left flailing. You just don't get the same margin for error that you do in other versions. As it turns out, Tetris 99 is a peek into another side of a foundational classic; one where experts are able to complete lines so fast that they can borderline break the game.
My housemate Ryan has been following that community for years now. When we would play Puyo Puto Tetris, he would invariably demolish me unless I happened to get extremely lucky. He's good enough that he was able to win first place in Tetris 99 in his first half-dozen tries. He can clear multiple Tetrises almost effortlessly, never hesitating when deciding where to put a critical piece. He talks about garbage patterns and the Super Rotation System. When it came time to write some Tetris 99 tips, I actually had him send some suggestions to our guides folks.
Ryan has been my shepherd through Tetris 99, and he's already helping me to become a better player. In my best run to date, I was able to break into the Top 10, his repeated admonitions that I needed to build flat running through my head as I played. True, such advice isn't exactly revelatory for longtime Tetris players, but even the implementation of very basic strategies is more than most players can manage.
With Tetris 99, many players are experiencing the competitive side of the series for the first time. While it's true that Tetris has been competitive since Nintendo decided to pack the link cable in with the Game Boy, Tetris has traditionally been more of a solitary meditative exercise in the eyes of mainstream gamers. Competitive Tetris players have always been their own special breed.
In being freely available on a highly popular console, Tetris 99 is rapidly breaking down the barriers between these two communities. It helps that it's also a brilliant take on the 99-versus-1 concept that defines the explosively popular battle royale genre. It's fascinating to just sit and watch a match in progress, dozens of tiny games taking place in the background amid robotic calls of "KO," the music ramping up to a frantic remix of "Flight of the Bumblebee" as you get into the final ten.
Tetris 99 may well prove to be a brief fad as casual players get frustrated and move on. Its online requirements make it much harder to break it out on a long flight. Short of an offline single-player update to complement the online, it's hard to imagine Tetris 99 having a ton of staying power through the summer and winter. But then again, I have a tendency to underestimate online games on Switch. Rocket League, Fortnite, and Warframe are certainly doing fine for themselves.
Whatever happens, Tetris 99 is proving to be the perfect introduction to the competitive side of the game. And it's making us all much better Tetris players.