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Why Tetris 99 is one of Nintendo's most important new games | Opinion

Nintendo turns to an old favourite to sell its Switch online service

There were a few big game reveals during the Nintendo Direct last week.

Super Mario Maker 2 is arguably the one with the most commercial potential. Its predecessor sold four million units globally, which means almost a third of Wii U owners purchased a copy. A full sequel on the significantly more popular Nintendo Switch has the potential to be a sizeable hit, and surely the biggest game on the platform during the first half of 2018.

To fans, the reveal of The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening was probably the biggest surprise, and the most exciting. The Game Boy original is a classic, and a new Zelda game -- even a simple remake -- is always going to delight the faithful. It won't have the same financial impact as a full Breath of the Wild sequel, but it's clearly not expected to.

"Tetris 99 is really the first standalone reason to subscribe to the Nintendo Switch Online"

Those two games opened and closed the Direct, with an extended Fire Emblem reveal in the middle. The rest of the video was made up of announcement montages featuring various third- and first-party products, and it was amongst these that the real star emerged.

Tetris 99 received a total of 49 seconds of airtime. Yet since then it has racked up more column inches than any of the other games revealed during the entire 35-minute presentation.

In many ways, it's the perfect Switch game. Just like the console it's been made for, Tetris 99 is simultaneously nostalgic and thoroughly modern. A combination of the classic 1980s puzzler and the current obsession with battle royale games. It's a potent combination that has already won the hearts (and time) of those that have played it.

What makes the game significant, outside of its quality, is that it's really the first standalone reason to subscribe to Nintendo's Switch Online service. The game is free to all who sign up.

Nintendo fans are very excited about a new Zelda

The Switch Online service was actually off to a strong start with more than eight million subscribers, but it has always struggled with its value proposition in the eyes of consumers and the media. Nintendo is perfectly right to charge for the online functionality and updates it has been giving its audience for free since the Switch was released. Nevertheless, to fans of Splatoon or Super Smash Bros, it will feel like a tax that they haven't had to pay before. What exactly is Nintendo offering to justify this online fee?

The answer, up until this point, was a selection of NES games, some of which have been altered slightly to better suit modern players. The offering has come under some criticism. The games themselves are somewhat dated (even the updated ones), and they've been released countless times through the years -- most recently in 2016 with the NES Classic console.

"Nintendo can't afford to have 'quiet years' with its digital platform like it sometimes does with its physical ones"

Launching an online service is not too dissimilar to launching a console. If you want people to sign-up (and stay signed up), you need to convince them. Sometimes you can achieve that through a killer, must-have game, but most of the time it takes a range of different experiences to convince users to join.

Making the service a requirement to anyone that wants to play online is one way to get people through the door, even if some may resent it. Yet for everyone else Nintendo needs to work harder -- something the firm acknowledged during its latest financial call, when it discussed the fact that its consumers were moving from 12-month subscriptions to shorter one- and three-month packages.

The rumour before the latest Direct was that Nintendo would add SNES games to its online service, bolstering the sort-of free games that subscribers can access. That didn't materialise (not yet anyway), but I'd argue that Tetris 99 is a far more significant product. NES and SNES games really only appeal to the nostalgic Nintendo fan. They will work a treat, certainly, but if you want to promote your online platform to the widest possible audience, then a new battle royale game built on familiar mechanics is a good way of going about it.

Tetris 99 has become a reason to subscribe to Nintendo Switch Online

Obviously, this isn't the first time Nintendo has turned to Tetris to sell its latest proposition. Back in 1989, Tetris helped the Game Boy become the biggest handheld console in the world (a position every subsequent Nintendo handheld has managed to retain). Tetris 99 has a far harder job on its hands. Nintendo will need to keep this game updated, with new modes and competitions, if it hopes to keep people playing beyond the seven-day free trial period.

If players got bored of Tetris on Game Boy, it didn't matter too much. Nintendo had already secured the sale. If players get bored of Tetris 99, then Nintendo risks loosing that business.

Nintendo will need to deliver more classic games (NES or otherwise), and more experiences like Tetris 99. It will need to proactively support and enhance Smash Bros and Splatoon 2, to keep those consumers subscribed and entice new ones to join in. Nintendo can't afford to have 'quiet years' with its digital platform like it sometimes does with its physical ones.

This is uncharted territory for Nintendo, and so the doubts surrounding the online service up until now have been understandable. The arrival of Tetris 99, however, suggests that it might just be capable of building and sustaining a sizeable online business after all.

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who