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And ‘Best Battle Royale’ goes to… Tetris?

By Mike O’Brien |

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) took the world by storm in 2017, putting battle royale on the map as the hot new gaming trend. Fortnite took it a step further, conquering the mainstream and inspiring teachers and politicians alike to floss on national television, upsetting everyone in the process. Ask anyone what the hottest new battle royale game is and they’ll probably say Apex Legends – but they’d be wrong. Drop your purple scars and your frying pans, because I don’t care where you’re dropping. The best battle royale game right now is TetrisTetris 99, to be exact.

Tetris 99 is a new battle royale that’s free to all Nintendo Switch Online subscribers. The format is simple; you and 98 other players play a simultaneous game of Tetris in a deadly competition to be the last player standing. The blocks – or ‘tetriminos’, if you’re a nerd – fall faster depending on how many players have been eliminated. Clear multiple lines at once and another player will end up inheriting them at the bottom of their screen (also known as ‘garbage’). The more lines you clear at once, the more garbage your opponents will inherit, pushing them to the top of the screen and out of the game.

For many of you, I imagine that Tetris 99 doesn’t sound enthralling as a concept, let alone the basis for the best battle royale game in town. But there’s actually a lot more to it than meets the eye. Tetris 99 is a brutal exercise in natural selection. During the game, you can see the screens of all 98 opponents in realtime – and you can individually target who you send garbage to. As a consequence, Tetris 99 isn’t just clearing lines to survive the endless onslaught of tetriminos – players are scrambling to drown each other out of the game.

There’s something comically cruel and personal about Tetris 99 in particular that elevates it beyond other battle royales. In a game like Fortnite or PUBG, being shot by another player is par for the course. It’s a game exclusively about combating others with guns and fists and fury, making for a naturally adversarial experience. In Tetris 99, a game about… shapes… the best strategy is to explicitly prey on the weak. As you KO players, you earn badges which multiply the amount of garbage you can send to opponents. Hence, a skilled player will keep an eye on the performance of their 98 competitors and explicitly target someone who’s having a hard enough time as it is. Tetris 99 players are vultures. In other battle royales, you’ll often be fighting out of self defence, or as part of a chance encounter. In Tetris 99, no such chance encounters exist. You are being specifically targeted because someone thinks you are weak, because they think they can push you off the edge and get an easy badge. They smell your fear – and they lavish in it.

Don’t be fooled by the inviting colours and the semi-inviting noughties-esque trance remix of 1861’s Korobeiniki – this game is pure evil

The targeting system is the basis of Tetris 99’s excellence. Targeting struggling players isn’t the only strategy; you can also automatically target players with more badges than others, or players who are attacking you. By targeting players with more badges, you may eliminate opponents who are getting too strong and seize their badges to gain serious stopping power. By targeting players who are attacking you, you might be able to alleviate some pressure by drowning out those sending a tonne of garbage your way. Of course, this is complicated by how other players use the targeting system. Taking out players with badges can seem like a good way to mitigate late-game competition, but if they’re targeting their attackers, you’ll inherit their garbage too – and odds are you’ll have a real fight on your hands. Taking out your direct attackers can ease the pressure, but these conflicts can go on for quite some time, all the while other players are snatching badges from opponents on the brink of extinction. Quickly prioritising who to take out, who to defend yourself from, and who to leave alone adds a layer of strategy, and it’s a thematically perfect fit for a game defined by rapid decision-making.

Of course, there is some luck to it. By default, targeting is set to random, and you might just be unlucky enough to be targeted by several people at once as per the luck of the draw. It rarely feels impossible though, and by playing carefully, you can mitigate the risks of being devoured by vultures. This is perhaps the best thing about Tetris 99, and the reason I still play it over other battle royales. There’s nothing more demoralising than spending twenty minutes gearing up in PUBG only to have it snatched away from you by an invisible sniper before you can use any of it. With Fortnite’s encroaching storm and PUBG’s shrinking playzone, they force you to jeopardise your position, often exposing yourself to players you cannot realistically defend yourself against in some situations. With Tetris 99, you are in control of your destiny. Your peril is often the product of your own mistakes. Being targeted by several people can feel burdensome and unfair to begin with, but there is counterplay. There’s a real sense that everyone is on the same playing field, and that luck has little to do with it. Even if it goes terribly wrong for you, matches don’t last long at all, making defeats less exhausting and the prospect of ‘one more game’ all the more tempting.

I thought I was done with battle royale. Tetris 99, with its skill-determined outcomes, targeting systems keeping things dynamic, and its unassuming savagery has brought me back into the fold. No more wandering around a huge map waiting for the fun parts – this is a battle royale that engages you in every nanosecond of play. You owe it to yourself to give this game a whirl. At the very least, it doesn’t have any cringy dances for the denizens of corporate America to ruin forever.