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Tetris 99 is more than a fun diversion, it’s one of the best things about Nintendo Switch Online.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to feel a frisson of excitement when an S-shaped tetromino appeared on screen during the recent Nintendo Direct.

Here comes Tetris Effect, I thought. But no, there came Tetris 99, a free game that looked every bit like one of the many sub-par Tetris variants that have flooded the market in recent years.

Tetris 99 is a free-to-download game that is available exclusively to subscribers of Nintendo Switch Online. It’s a slim, online-only release with a single paltry game mode, annoying music, and none of the visual flair of Tetris Effect or nostalgic charm of Tetris DS.

But here’s the thing. Tetris 99 is wonderful.

It doesn’t have dolphins swimming around your head, or exploding galaxies that transport you to a plain of zen-like self-realisation, but it does make you feel like you’re on a mad-cap game show. And that shouldn’t be under-estimated.

Tetris 99 combines the series’ timeless block dropping gameplay with battle-royale multiplayer. As you clear lines of tetrominos, you can deposit them into an opponent’s well. It’s standard multiplayer Tetris, only this time there are 99 players.

Tetris 99 screenshot

The Tetris formula remains as simple and instinctive as ever, but the new multi-multiplayer aspect adds an extra level of chaos. The thrill comes from balancing your own game, and the tactical selection of your targets. Quick flicks of the thumb sticks – or a tap on the touch screen – are all it takes to wreak havoc. Puzzle royalty becomes puzzle-royale.

Tetris 99 is a messy game, and it can sometimes feels unfair if a succession of other players decide dump their junk on you at the same time. Any strategy you might have quickly gives way to panic as you juggle the demands of your own descending tetrominos and the blocks that begin to stack up beneath you. But even if you are unceremoniously piled upon, game turnaround is fast, and the desire for ’one more go’ nags at you, just as it always has with Tetris.

The gradual whittling away of your opponents taps into the feeling of surviving by the skin of your teeth that makes the battle-royale genre such a phenomenon, but it also evokes the sense of communal play that made 1 vs. 100 such a compelling Xbox Live experience a decade ago. The result is a release that has somehow become one of the best reasons to subscribe to Nintendo’s fledgling online service.

Tetris 99 screenshot

Nintendo Switch Online is a curious beast. It’s packed with features – cloud saves, NES games, and online play being the main attractions – but it lacks some of the social hooks found on Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus. In Tetris 99 we have one of its best perks.

The game serves a similar function to the equally addictive My Nintendo Picross: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which came to the 3DS to promote the launch of My Nintendo in 2016. That game, unfortunately, was a one-off.

Nintendo President Shuntaro Furukawa recently outlined the company’s ambitions for Nintendo Switch Online, saying, “We need to further enhance the content of the service for the subscriber base to reach a certain size.” I hope that Tetris 99 is the first example of these enhancements, and the start of a new line of smaller releases that add value to the service.

This bite-sized puzzler doesn’t reinvent the block, but it’s a clever update to a classic game, and a magnetic experience that I’ll keep returning to.

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