Tetris 99 hides the way it works - and that's brilliant
Did you know that if you're playing Tetris 99 handheld, you can target anyone using the Nintendo Switch touchscreen? I didn't.
Did you know you get bonus lines if more than one person is attacking you? I didn't.
Did you know Attackers mode is the only way to send junk to more than one player at once? I didn't.
Did you know the amount of delay before an attack's junk fills your screen shortens the longer the game goes on? I didn't.
Believe it or not, people are trying to work out how Tetris 99 works. That's right - people are puzzled by a Tetris game in 2019.
For those of you yet to experience the delights of Tetris 99, it is, essentially, Tetris battle royale, which is a wonderful idea I can't believe only now, 35 years after the original Tetris came out, has come to fruition. But it's still just Tetris, fundamentally. How can it contain such mystery? Why does it need to be demystified? Just what the hell is going on?
I've put a lot of time into Tetris 99 since it came out and I bloody love it. But I am only now beginning to understand how it works. A lot of my confusion and lack of knowledge stems from the game's seeming deliberate refusal to explain itself. There's no tutorial. There's no instruction manual. All there is is the option to go ahead and get stuck into Tetris battle royale. It's sink or swim - and no doubt you'll sink for a good long while before you learn how to stay afloat.
If you're playing Tetris 99 you'll already know much of what I'm about to run through, but for the initiated, here's a snapshot at the user interface. At the top of the screen are four modes of play: K.O.s, Badges, Randoms and Attackers. These modes instruct the game to use the junk you create by clearing lines in a certain way. I understand what these modes mean - sort of! Select K.O.s and you'll send your lines to those players who are near death, like going for a last hit in a MOBA. Badges means you target the player with the most badges (more on this later). Attackers means you target those who are targeting you. And randoms does exactly what it says on the tin.
That's top level stuff. But underneath, what exactly do these four strategies mean? I'm not quite so sure. I know selecting Attackers means I attack those who are targeting me, but how is my junk divided up? I know selecting K.O.s means I'll go for kill shots, but how does it decide which player to target? What determines which player nails the K.O.? Is Random truly random, or are the biases behind it?
Things get more mysterious at the bottom of the screen, where we see our per cent UP. This tells us our bonus lines as a percentage, but exactly how is it determined? It seems to relate to the number of badges you have. How do you get badges? By killing players. But then you only get bits of badges for a kill. How many bits makes up a badge? Questions upon questions.
Players are trying to unfurl Tetris 99's mechanics, posting their findings on reddit and other places. A consensus is emerging. There's a popular reddit post by a player who's done a fantastic job of trying to make sense of it all, to develop some kind of winning strategy based on observation of how the game appears to work (having badges for endgame is key, it seems). But questions remain - some very specific.
At first, I found Tetris 99 frustratingly confusing. Why not include a tutorial, or explain itself in-game? But the more I play, the more I'm getting a kick out of learning how this game works underneath. And I'm enjoying seeing players come together online to discuss this most surprisingly brilliant game of 2019, sharing their findings, asking questions and revealing winning strategies. The more I think about it, the more I've come to realise hiding all this stuff is actually a genius decision by the developers.
Tetris 99 hides its mysteries in a thrilling way. You don't even know what you don't know. Tetris 99 encourages players to dig its mysterious out and learn how they tick. Sticking this inside a game design as universally known as Tetris feels really, really clever.
I realise that I've enjoyed this demystification process in other games I've played, too. I enjoyed it when I, alongside everyone else, was playing Skyrim, and it felt like I had absolutely no idea how to play that game properly and every day I learnt something new about how it worked. I enjoyed it again when the first Destiny came out and I had no idea what the various stats meant or what all of the items were for. Now, I'm learning how Tetris 99 works and I'm having a blast.
I never thought I'd say that about a Tetris game in 2019, but here we are.