Tetris 99 Review (Nintendo Switch)

Just days ago, Nintendo surprise-announced Tetris 99 for the Nintendo Switch, which brings the Battle Royale concept to the Tetris universe. Tetris 99 is developed by Arika and published by Nintendo. The game pits you against 98 other Tetris players in a real-time fight to the death.

If you’re a Tetris nut like me, that sounds like a recipe for an amazing game. Best of all, the game is free, although it does require a Nintendo Switch online subscription to play. A subscription costs $20 per year, which is significantly less than pretty much any other competing gaming service.

A few notes on the overall experience outside of the gameplay: As of this writing, the game itself is pretty bare bones. You can view some stats but as far as I can see there are no real leaderboards. You can choose between two pre-programmed control schemes. But there’s no private games for you to set up between you and a limited number of players, nor can you party up and enter a Battle Royale game together with friends. You also can’t play against bots. Early reports have suggested that there will be updates to the game, so hopefully at least some of these options will be added in a future update, but we’ll see.

When you get into the game, it’s basically the Tetris we all know and love. The Tetriminos move the way you’d expect. You have the option to hold a piece to deploy later, plus to see a listing of six future pieces you have coming up.

However, there are some important tweaks to the gameplay you should understand. When you clear lines, you send what’s called garbage lines to other players that are currently still playing. You can use your right thumb stick to target four different types of players with your garbage:

  • Random, which distributes your garbage randomly
  • KO which distributes your garbage to those that are closest to being knocked out.
  • Attackers which distributes your garbage to those that are attacking you
  • Badges which distributes your garbage to those with the most kills, or badges

You can also target users by using the left stick and moving your reticle over an individual player on the screen, or if you’re using the Switch as a touchscreen, you can just tap on the player you want to target. I found targeting players individually to be a bit too much to manage, so I just generally went with one of the main four options.

When you KO a player, you get badges for doing so and you also collect any badges that that player had. Each KO gives you a certain percentage of a badge – two KOs gives you one badge, four KOs gives you a second badge, and so on all the way to 16 KOs for the fourth badge. The more badges you have, the more damage you inflict on your opponents.

Speaking of inflicting damage, the bar on the left side of the screen shows you what garbage is being sent your way. The garbage doesn’t appear on your board instantaneously – that’d be pretty overwhelming. Instead, it appears after a certain amount of time. It starts at gray and eventually turns yellow, red, and when it’s on fire, that’s when it’s about to deploy. Any lines you get during this process will go towards clearing the garbage that’s targeted at you.

As the game progresses, you may want to try keeping track of want to switch your targeting to KO the most amount of people, or the people with the most badges, or ideally both. A well placed KO late in the game can give you the badges you need to win the game.

A few other gameplay notes that may help you:

  • Certain line clears will get you more garbage lines sent. For instance, a tetris will send four lines, but T-spins in particular sends out a bunch of garbage. A T-spin that results in three lines cleared can send six lines, plus any multiplier badges you may have.
  • If you do an all-clear, which means clearing all lines off the board, you send out four garbage lines, plus any multipliers.
  • If you are being attacked by many players at once, you get garbage line bonuses for each clear. For two opponents you get one line, and for three or more opponents, you basically get an extra garbage line sent out per player.

I found Tetris 99 to be incredibly addictive and polished. I don’t remember ever experiencing any lag, despite playing with 98 other players on a wireless connection. The classic Tetris gameplay is immensely enjoyable and satisfying. It’s an amazing feeling to KO a bunch of players in a row, or to find yourself in a challenging situation and need to build yourself out of it. Plus, I love the remix of the classic soundtrack, which manages to sound new while still obviously paying homage to its predecessors.

Overall, and I’ve already gotten $20 of value out of it, which is the amount I paid for Nintendo Switch Online for a year. I hope they continue to add to it as time goes on.

If you like the inventiveness of Tetris and you like the Battle Royale, you’re going to love Tetris 99. It’ll remind you why Tetris is so ridiculously addictive in the first place, and why this game is one that continues to stand the test of time.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch review – The choice is a lie

[The following contains SPOILERS for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch]

About two decades ago, a much younger version of me saw an ad in the newspaper for a movie called Mr. Payback. The ad bragged that it was the first interactive movie ever devised. I asked my older cousin to take me to see it and shortly thereafter, we went to a Showcase Cinemas to check it out.

The plot of Mr. Payback (such as it was) centered around a cyborg named Mr. Payback who would use his special powers to get back at people for their sins. Every seat in the theater was outfitted with a controller and at key moments in the film, a set of three choices was presented to viewers. Whichever choice received more votes would be the one that the character on screen made, so button mashing was a must in order to get the outcome you were interested in.

At the time, I was dazzled by the technology, even though each “playthrough” of the film only lasted 20 minutes (and for a full price ticket, no less). I didn’t necessarily think that this would be the future of cinema (I wasn’t thinking in those terms back then), but I really appreciated the novelty of seeing movies and videogames collide in a big way.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Mr. Payback was a terrible film with awful characters. The acting and writing were subpar and meanspirited (despite Back to the Future screenwriter Bob Gale being involved in the film’s creation). Its method of storytelling never caught on for a variety of reasons, but one truth remained clear: It’s hard enough to do a good job of telling a single narrative with only one ending.

In the intervening years, interactive storytelling has thrived, but mostly not in movie theaters. PC games with FMV (full-motion video) on CD Rom and the Sega CD gave way to incredibly ambitious stories like Red Dead Redemption 2, Mass Effect, and the games of David Cage. The most successful of these limited the total number of potential outcomes. Sure, there might be minor differences in dialogue, or in which characters survived, but most great games stuck with only a few endings (As a recent example, see the hugely successful Red Dead Redemption 2, where your “honor” level dictates how some of the later sequences play out, but limits the outcome to 3-4 distinct endings with minor variations).

There’s a limit to how satisfying an ending can be if you can get to it by dumb luck. The laws of physics (and production schedules) dictate that the more endings there are, the less time and energy can be invested in each one.

Which brings us to this week. Netflix released the latest entry in the Black Mirror franchise, an interactive film called Bandersnatch. The story is about a game developer played by Fionn Whitehead who desperately struggles to ship a game he’s working on, Bandersnatch, before a holiday deadline. Admittedly, the tech behind how Netflix made and executed this is impressive (although bafflingly, newer devices like Apple TV and Chromecast are unable to “play” Bandersnatch). But is the story any good?

Mirroring its branching structure, Bandersnatch is hugely ambitious, with threads splintering off the main storyline and increasingly widening its scope. Depending on which choices you make, there are philosophical ruminations about the nature of choice and free will, a stark depiction of burnout in the video game production process, a direct connection drawn between mental illness and creativity, and a protagonist who struggles with daddy issues and (dead) mommy issues. It’s all very Black Mirror-esque, but without any of the focus that make the commentary and satire land effectively in a regular episode of the show.

I found the experience of watching/playing Bandersnatch to be enormously frustrating. The film frequently presents you with two options without any sense of what outcome you’re even supposed to be interested in and which choice might lead you there. Am I supposed to want to drive the protagonist to the point of insanity, or am I supposed to want him to take a more healthy path? Should I nurture his relationship with his father or should I stoke the flames of familial discontent?

All of this would be fine if the endings were comparably interesting. However, not only do some choices lead to the film abruptly ending in an unsatisfying fashion, but Bandersnatch’s creators have already stated that there are certain endings that are “definitive,” with conventional credits to accompany them. By implication, many decisions lead you to “dead ends.” One of the endings even comments on how unsatisfying the outcome is (Note to filmmakers: Commenting on how bad an ending/joke/line of dialogue is doesn’t make it better). Thus, watching Bandersnatch is equivalent to being placed in a maze without an inkling of where the exit is, or if the exit is even a desirable destination.

I can already hear some readers responding, saying, “Why are you complaining? That’s the whole point!” Indeed, one of the main themes of Bandersnatch is the idea of free will. We believe we are driving the decisions of the protagonist but, in fact, it’s the filmmaker that dictates the outcome. We can decline to get high, but our drink will be drugged. We can try to avoid talking about the memories of our mother, only to be forced into it later. The filmmakers want us to consider the possibility that free will is an illusion, and that the forces driving us may not be ones that we know, understand, or can control.

If indeed this is one of the purposes of Bandersnatch, then I can say that it makes its point, but not in a way that I found to be particularly entertaining or enjoyable. “I’m going to make this decisionmaking process enormously frustrating and constraining for you, so that you may understand the pointlessness of all your actual real-life decisions!” is not a pitch that excites me for something to consume. In fact, it’s actively off-putting (Side bar: For an example of this type of commentary done well, see The Stanley Parable).

That said, Bandersnatch is not without merit. Previous Black Mirror director David Slade does a great job nailing the period look and surreal feel of the story, and Whitehead’s performance is a chilling depiction of a descent into madness. Bandersnatch also wants the viewer to consider the concept of technological enslavement. If there’s one theme to take away from the previous season of Black Mirror, it’s that we should consider if/when the technology we use might ever “suffer” in a way that we might understand that term.

In one of the more effective and mind-bending storylines, the viewer is able to inform the protagonist that they are controlling him via Netflix, and attempt to explain what all that means to a character who only has knowledge of 1980s technology. It’s a great meta moment that makes you as the viewer reconsider your relationship to the entertainment you consume. After all, everything you watch is ostensibly there to serve your viewing needs.

My first playthrough of Bandersnatch was only 30-40 minutes long, as I quickly made a choice that led to the Bandersnatch game being released in a poor state. Conveniently, the game allows you to rewind to previous decisions and, in an interesting twist, previous playthroughs can often impact the outcome and nature of future ones. I ended up spending around 1.5-2 hours with Bandersnatch before I realized that I had seen most of what it had to offer, and exploring further would necessitate wasting time re-watching a lot of content I’d already seen. The stories and their outcomes just weren’t interesting enough for me to further engage.

Bandersnatch is a mile wide and an inch deep. How you choose to get to the bottom of it is pretty much immaterial.

Disclosure: I currently work for Amazon Prime Video. The opinions expressed here are solely mine and do not represent those of my organization or company.

Pocket iOS App Review (with Listening/Text to Speech Feature)

Between my podcasts, my blog/newsletter, and my social feeds, I do a lot of reading online to keep up with what’s going on online. For years I’ve used apps like Pocket and Instapaper on iOS to save articles for later reading offline. I use both because it’s nice to have a backup of all the stuff I’m saving, and often if an article doesn’t format correctly in one app it looks fine in the other.

But recently, Pocket added a listening feature that’s made me use the app much more heavily. It uses Amazon Polly to create a listenable text-to-speech version of every article you’ve saved. This means you can now listen to saved articles instead of being forced to read them.

As a result, I’ve now been consuming articles at a much higher rate than before. There are many contexts where it’s easier and more acceptable to be listening to something rather than reading it, and this app makes things easier in those contexts.

As great as this is, there are a few things I wish they’d improve:

  • It’s currently not possible (or at least not obviously possible) how to make a custom audio playlist with articles you’ve saved. This would be a cool feature to add in the future.
  • I wish I had the ability to choose which voice I wanted to read the article. On Android, I believe this is already a feature.
  • My most desired feature is the ability to start consuming an article in one format, and then resume it later in another. For instance, sometimes I’ll be reading an article via text on a bus, then need to get off at my stop. It would be great to switch to audio right then. Currently the app does not allow you to resume right where you left off.

You can check out Pocket at getpocket.com.

 

The two conversations that defined ‘Better Call Saul: Season 4’

Here’s a brief video on what I loved about Better Call Saul this season – specifically, the two conversations in the season finale that define the arc of the characters. It’s really impressive when a prequel can chart new territory from its predecessor, and I think the show has done just that.I wrote, filmed, and edited this video over the course of just a few hours on Saturday. I hope you find the insights to be worth your time. If not? S’all good, man.


I’ve been under the weather after my trip to Virginia, and the travel didn’t improve things (it turns out when you have sinus issues, you shouldn’t get into an aluminum tube with recirculating air hurtling across the country at 500 miles per hour!). But I hope to back to full functionality soon. In the meantime, here are some interesting links I’ve come across: