Surprise release … Tetris 99.

The new battle royale version of Tetris is absurdly compelling – but prepare to take a hit to your game-playing ego

I’m sorry to have to tell you this – not everybody takes it well – but you’re probably not as good as you think you are at Tetris.

It’s tough to take. Until this morning I thought I was a Tetris prodigy. Beginning with a year-long asynchronous rivalry with my brother on the Game Boy, where each of us would play obsessively until we’d topped all the high-score tables before smugly handing the console over to the other, I’ve played Tetris most of my life. I finished last year’s Tetris Effect, a version of the Russian block-rotating puzzle game that somehow turns it into a psychedelic meditation on the birth of the universe, in one three-hour session.

But last night, in a surprise announcement, Nintendo released Tetris 99 – a battle royale version of Tetris for the Nintendo Switch. (If you’ve got a Nintendo online pass, you can play it right now, for free.) This is Tetris meets Fortnite, with 99 players starting each game and just one victor. I downloaded it this morning and match after match, I languished in the bottom 50, assailed continually by grey blocks. It came close to prompting an identity crisis. Am I secretly this rubbish at everything? I even started concocting conspiracy theories: maybe I’m failing this much because I’m good at Tetris! It’s clearly giving me an invisible handicap.

Tetris is surely the most unlikely game yet to jump on the Battle Royale bandwagon. The trend was first popularised by PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and made stratospherically popular by the now-ubiquitous Fortnite. In the past year, shooting-game standbys Call of Duty and Battlefield V both announced and introduced Battle Royale modes, and earlier this month EA released Apex Legends, a brand-new shooter that’s already challenging Fortnite’s viewership on game-streaming platforms such as Twitch. But battle royale Tetris? How does that work?

As in two-player competitive Tetris, players in Tetris 99 can target each other with attacks. Clearing lines sends them off to threaten someone else’s screen; go too long without making any Tetrises of your own, and lines of grey blocks suddenly appear at the bottom of your screen, igniting panic. The music is a heart-rate-raising techno remix of the classic Tetris theme, which speeds up as players are eliminated. This isn’t just 99 players playing individual games at the same time. It’s brutal. Forget serene, calming Tetris, where blocks fall slowly and you arrange them into pleasing configurations to make them disappear. Oh no. This is survival Tetris, where you’re squeezing tetrominos into teensy gaps at high speed as the screen fills, desperate for just a single line, like an investment banker stuck in his hometown on a Saturday night.

Tetris 99 has already taught me new things about Tetris. After several dismal finishes, I went online to see if there was something I was missing and discovered a new realm of pro Tetris moves. Have you heard of a T-spin? I’ve now watched two tutorials on them, and my head hurts. However, trying to set one up was so distracting that I started seeing that screenful of failure-blocks even quicker. So I reverted to speed: instead of patiently lining up four-line combos, I kept my long blocks in reserve and focused on just clearing lines as quickly as possible. There’s always a small element of chance – if five players all start ganging up on you at once, you’ve little hope – but it has definitely helped to play aggressively.

It’s been a couple of hours and I’m not as crap at Tetris 99 as I was. I just scored a lucky third-place finish, which may well be a career best, because the blocks were falling at such speed that I ceased to be capable of conscious thought. I’m also pathetically unable to stop playing it – twice, while writing these words, I had to stop and play another round. Like all battle royale games, your every sweet taste of almost-success makes you hungry for more.

Tetris Battle Royale is a brilliant idea. Just be prepared to take the hit to your ego when you discover that you’re much worse at it than you thought.