Puyo-Puyo Tetris is an esport you can play against yourself
It wasn’t until level 30 of Puyo Puyo Tetris’ wonderful Adventure Mode that I realized that some of my A.I. opponents were playing a different game from the one I was.
I don’t mean that literally— because it’s entirely possible for your opponent to play Puyo Puyo while you play Tetris, or vice versa. This was a straight-up Tetris-on-Tetris battle, which I lost repeatedly before finally clicking into a proper groove. The problem, I realized, was that I was setting up a Tetris, hitting it, and then working hard to rebuild the conditions for another Tetris as fast as I could. I was working hard, and then something would go awry, and I’d end up needing to abandon my plans and go into damage control for a while, getting lines here and there, hoping to work my way back to an opportune space.
When I beat the level, it was because I planned ten moves ahead. My opponent, I realized, was not slamming their Tetrominos down as fast as I was, and although I knew that speed would ultimately be the key to beating them, the symbolism of the AI’s more methodical approach was lost on me. The game was telling me to plan better, to work harder at my set up. Don’t settle for one big attack – plan for three big attacks, one after the other after the other. Craft a monument to your opponent’s hesitations from tetrominos, and then bring it down on their head. To win, I had to really want my opponent’s blood. I have played Tetris - in whatever form it has presented itself to me - for years, but it was only then that the game’s competitive depth is sinking in for me.
Puyo Puyo Tetris is a wonder. It gives you two distinct puzzle games, both as old as time itself. The Russian block-stacker Tetris needs no introduction, while Puyo Puyo’s blob-matching is recognizable as a distant cousin of Bubble Bobble, which spawned Candy Crush and its ilk, even though it plays entirely differently from any of those. These are games you might play as time-wasters-– I remember my work computer carried a weird bootleg version of Tetris back in my retail days-– but they’re both also games with considerable pro scenes. Puyo Puyo was an esport before esports was even a thing, spawning a huge competitive scene in Japan during the 90s, and the Classic Tetris World Championship, while only seven years old, comes from a long tradition of advanced players showing off their mastery. I recently watched a video of last year’s championship finals. I found myself noting strategies for later use, questioning some of the player’s decisions, and actually gasping in shock at the final moments of the last match.
None of this would matter to me if it weren’t for Puyo Puyo Tetris’ campaign structure, and the way it has me-– and this is not a joke-– picturing Tetrominos falling whenever I close my eyes. This is a game that assumes you know the basics of its two puzzle styles, then asks you to learn the rest by examining how your opponents are beating you. The rules and style of play change between each level in Adventure mode, and the game is doing more than simply upping the difficulty each time – it’s teaching you how to deal with a whole heap of discrete scenarios.
If one level is a straight-up Tetris vs Tetris or Puyo vs Puyo challenge, chances are the next level will ask something different of you – score a lot of points fast, or get a high score before you clear many Tetris lines, or deal with some other variation. It might throw you into a Puyo Puyo ‘Big Bang’ battle, which give you screens full of Puyos and asks you to figure out how to clear as many as you can in one action, or a ‘Swap’ match, in which you switch between Tetris and Puyo Puyo every few seconds, making you think more about the timing of your attacks. One mode even grants you power ups and modifiers, which encourages a flexible playstyle to ‘pop’ the boxes that appear on your side of the screen.
Over time, your competence builds up. Easier challenges feel like reprieves, like training sessions in-between the big match-ups. I haven’t simply become a little bit better at Tetris and Puyo Puyo, I’ve learned a whole heap of situational strategies. My ability to plan ahead in both games has improved, but I’m still working on my situational awareness, which is a much larger part of either game than I had realized. I’m getting better at watching my opponents when they’re beating me, and learning from how they’re doing it. Developing my abilities at these classics feels like revisiting an essential skill and becoming talented at it, like going back and fixing up my handwriting or getting into an exercise routine that starts to yield results. This is not something I realized that I wanted to do with Tetris or Puyo Puyo.
Getting exceptionally good is necessary if I want to play the game online. Puyo Puyo Tetris launched back in 2014 in Japan, on just about every system available (aside from the Xbox 360), and over the last three years an invincible army of super-players has built up. Imagine an online chess game that matched you up with Deep Blue every time, or a game of Scrabble where your opponent has found a way to deprive you of both vowels and the letter S, and you’re about halfway there. Even on Switch, where the game should theoretically be fairly new for all players, it’s a bloodbath for a player like me, halfway through the Adventure mode.
I don’t know that I’ll ever get to a point where I can take these opponents on, but I feel like Puyo Puyo Tetris is teaching me enough to make my single-player victories feel like real achievements that have come about from study and practice. Puyo Puyo Tetris may look like one of the Switch’s more casual launch period games, but in fact it wants to make a champion out of you.