Tetris, like Mario or Pac-Man, is one of those classic game franchises that everyone knows. People who don’t play video games have played Tetris before, and the series has been around long enough to have seen the rebirth of the games industry along with multiple console generations and the winners and losers that come along with them. Tetris is one of those essential video games that everyone should play before they die, just so they can say they experienced one of the greats.
At nearly 35 years old, Tetris should be a known quantity by now – how much can a simple puzzle game successfully innovate, even given multiple decades? The answer to that question is, apparently, “a lot,” and that’s evidenced in two recent Tetris titles. Though they both share the Tetris name and core gameplay concepts, they’re almost polar opposites. One is meant to be an artistic experience that sticks with you long after you’re done playing, while the other brings the hottest thing in gaming at the moment – battle royale – to the puzzle genre.
The former game, of course, is Tetris Effect, a fascinating take on Tetris that seemingly came out of nowhere last year. Sony announced the game in the lead up to E3 2018, and while the trailer was certainly impressive, Tetris Effect was quickly overshadowed by the dozens and dozens of announcements at the show (at least for me). A few months later, the game started making headlines again, with reviewers lavishing their praise on it and its unique approach to a game that had been done tons of times before.
Tetris Effect is named for the psychological phenomenon of the same name, which involves devoting so much time to an activity that it begins dominate your thoughts outside of it. In the case of Tetris, for instance, people would see falling blocks when they closed their eyes or find themselves thinking about how real-world objects fit together, as if the Earth were one big Tetris field.
Tetris Effect leaves the classic Tetris gameplay mostly untouched but ties it to music and beautiful (oftentimes trippy) background visuals, and while it might seem a little strange for me to be talking up a Tetris game because of its music and art, it’s surprisingly absorbing. The music, in my opinion, is fantastic in the way that it builds as you clear more lines and get closer to your goal. The speed at which blocks fall lines up with the music as well, so in some songs, you’ll go from a relatively slow tempo to a much faster one in a split second.
Because of that, Tetris Effect can be quite challenging at times. I never really cared about having to start a level over though, because much like standard Tetris, Tetris Effect is a game you can play over and over again without ever really getting bored. Frustrated, maybe, but again, the music and visuals help there as well.
We ended up naming Tetris Effect as one of the best games of the year, and it’s definitely deserving of the few Game of the Year awards it managed to steal away from titles like God of War, Spider-Man, and Red Dead Redemption 2 last year. The only negative about the game is that it’s exclusive to the PS4, which means that people who don’t own that platform won’t be able to experience the unique twist it offers on the classic Tetris brand of gameplay.
If playing Tetris Effect is like spending an evening at the theater, Tetris 99 is a night playing laser tag. Like Tetris Effect, Tetris 99 came out of nowhere, as it was announced during the latest Nintendo Direct and released later that same day as a free title on the Nintendo eShop.
“Okay,” you think, “so when I boot it up, I’m going to see microtransactions for skins or some kind of energy system that limits how much I can play.” We’ve become accustomed to expecting the worst from free-to-play games, but interestingly enough, Tetris 99 is devoid of any kind of in-game purchases. Instead, it’s offered for free to anyone who subscribes to Switch Online, which was definitely a pleasant surprise.
Another pleasant surprise is how good it is. At the moment, Tetris 99 is a fairly barebones game consisting of only one mode, but that’s okay because that single mode is a blast to play. As its name suggests, Tetris 99 pits you against 98 other players, each with their own playing field that’s displayed alongside your own (though at a much smaller scale, obviously). While most of your focus will be on your own board, you also have some degree of control in determining which players your garbage blocks are sent to when you clear lines.
Of course, that also means other players will be targeting you from time to time – or right from the beginning of the match if you’re unlucky – so you need to be thinking fast and be ready to drop a string of combos if garbage blocks accumulate in your own playing field. On top of that, the game speed increases as more players are eliminated, so your play will have to be both quick and accurate if you want to have any hope of winning a match.
The late stages of a Tetris 99 match are intense and exciting, and I think that gives it a ton of appeal and replayability despite the fact that there’s only one mode in the game at the moment. Judging from screenshots alone, it can seem a bit intimidating at first, but it’s easy to pick up and play and is definitely one of those games that can turn minutes into hours as you queue up for one match after another. It’s going to get better from here too, with periodic events planned and new modes recently discovered by dataminers.
In my opinion, Tetris 99 is one of the best reasons to pay the $20 asking price for a year of Nintendo Switch Online, and I’d go as far as to say that it’s still worth it even if you aren’t planning to play any other Switch games online. It’s that much fun.
So, out of nowhere, Tetris is totally killing it. Both Tetris Effect and Tetris 99 are absolutely worth your time, assuming you own their respective exclusive platforms and aren’t some kind of weirdo who hates puzzle games. That part about owning the platforms these games appear on is the only real hang-up, as Tetris Effect is exclusive to PS4 (and PSVR) and Tetris 99 is exclusive to the Switch. It’s a shame that we may never see these games get a wider release, because they’re two of the best games we’ve ever seen in the long-running franchise.
At the very least, hopefully Tetris Effect and Tetris 99 represent the beginning of a renaissance era for the Tetris series. They’ve proven that concepts as old as the ones found in Tetris can still be added to and improved upon, and it would certainly be great if other developers pick up the mantle and explore this idea of putting a unique spin on Tetris further. For now, though, I’m completely satisfied trying (and failing) to win a Tetris 99 match.
Have you been playing Tetris Effect or Tetris 99? If so, head down to the comments section and let us know what you think of them!