Games with arcade-style mechanics encourage players to endure as long as possible to reach high scores, so the objective of survival naturally fits.
Battle royales have swept the games industry with addictive competitive gameplay across multiple platforms. Strangely, despite being popularized by modern genres like shooters, two of the best battle royales come from the 1980s.
In hindsight, it was only a matter of time before Nintendo made a battle royale. On Feb. 13, 2019, “Tetris 99” was released as a free download for Nintendo Switch Online subscribers, becoming a smash hit and bringing value to an otherwise lackluster paid online service. Its success led Nintendo to release two more battle royales: “Super Mario 35” on Oct. 1, 2020, and “PAC-MAN 99” on Apr. 7.
The three Switch Online exclusives were developed by Arika, previously known for several “Tetris” and “Dr. Mario” installments, the 3DS’s 3D Classics series, and hidden gems like “Mega Man Network Transmission.” Clearly, Arika had adequate experience to create quality installments of arcade and NES titles. However, this begs the question: how did they update a classic game to fit a contemporary genre so well that it created a new formula?
Battle royales task players with surviving many competitors who are slowly eliminated as matches progress, but Arika took a different approach to the genre. Whereas typical battle royales place everyone on the same map, Arika’s battle royales have asynchronous gameplay; competitors separately play single-player games in which their successes set back opponents. Overcoming obstacles, be they Tetrominoes, Goombas or ghosts, sends them to other players and accelerates their demise.
This design choice perfectly suits games like “Tetris” that are designed to be played for however long one’s proficiency allows. Games with arcade-style mechanics encourage players to endure as long as possible to reach high scores, so the objective of survival naturally fits. Additionally, “Tetris” is so iconic that the vast majority of players recognize and understand its gameplay, making this more welcoming for new players than original battle royales.
“Tetris 99” in particular has had a healthy life cycle for over two years and remains a key selling point for Switch Online. Cross-promotional events kept players coming back for more, rewarding players with cosmetics themed to other Switch exclusives like “Splatoon 2.” Although fans worried “Tetris 99” would be unplayable someday when servers go offline, a paid “Big Block DLC” is available, including offline local multiplayer and additional modes.
Unfortunately, this alternative battle royale formula may not benefit every game, as showcased by the less appreciated middle child of the trio, “Super Mario Bros. 35.” That’s not to say “Super Mario Bros.” was a bad choice to adapt – it’s a revolutionary game that holds up, and platformers could certainly work as battle royales – but this second attempt fell victim to unsatisfying mechanics that made matches repetitive and lengthy.
Competitors lost when their timer reached zero and collected coins to last longer, operating on a literal interpretation of “time is money.” Since killing Bowser’s minions rewarded coins, sending easily beaten obstacles to opponents didn’t hasten their defeat – it prolonged matches. Players also selected one stage to be included in a playlist of levels that would repeat during the match, which usually created endless loops of World 1-1 and 1-2.
Notice how “Super Mario Bros. 35” was being referred to in past tense? The game’s legacy is defined by Nintendo’s controversial celebration of Mario’s 35th anniversary. Along with “Super Mario 3D All-Stars,” the battle royale was offered for six months until March 31 when it was removed from the Nintendo eShop. Unlike “Tetris 99,” “Super Mario Bros. 35” had no offline version.
For “3D All-Stars,” this was a serious blow against preserving game history and a disrespectful cash grab defiling industry-defining 3D platformers. A limited physical release makes sense given a finite supply, but a limited digital release is an intentional choice to drive up demand. However, at least those who bought “3D All-Stars” can still play it. “Super Mario Bros. 35,” as a defunct and unpreservable online-only game, is lost media.
Exactly one week after fans jokingly mourned Mario’s “public execution,” Nintendo revealed “PAC-MAN 99,” which fans were relieved to hear would not be a limited digital release. Although “Super Mario Bros. 35” had design choices that clashed with the battle royale elements, “PAC-MAN 99” was a return to form with arcade gameplay accentuated by the competition for survival and proved that Arika’s battle royale formula wasn’t a one-hit wonder.
Although its gameplay remains stellar, “PAC-MAN 99” is more aggressively monetized than “Tetris 99.” As opposed to “Big Block DLC” with its reasonable $9.99 price, “PAC-MAN 99 Deluxe Pack” costs $29.99, or $14.99 for offline, additional modes and several $2.99 cosmetic themes based on other Namco games. “PAC-MAN 99” had its paid version on day one, while “Tetris 99” only released downloadable content months after launch.
“Tetris 99” and “PAC-MAN 99” are easily the best part of Switch Online subscriptions, but that’s less because of how great these games are and more because of how awful Switch Online is. There are many good reasons why every trailer Nintendo releases for the service gets dislike-bombed, including poor online connection, a minuscule streaming library compared to other consoles’ online subscriptions and voice chat locked to an iPhone app.
Nintendo needs more than battle royales to make Switch Online valuable, but the success of “Tetris 99” and “PAC-MAN 99” proves Arika has a stellar formula on its hands. Several Nintendo franchises could make for excellent battle royales, as long as the mechanics match the competitive survival gameplay. Outlasting opponents through WarioWare microgames, an F-Zero race that eliminates drivers, or refining more of Nintendo’s classic hits – the possibilities are endless.
Arika’s arcade battle royales not only carry Switch Online subscriptions on their back but stand as some of the genre’s greatest hits. The formula could certainly be refined, but the use of asynchronous gameplay in infinitely looping games is a shockingly good fit for competitive online modes. It’ll be interesting to see where Arika takes battle royales next – although one would hope they aren’t targeting Zelda’s 35th anniversary.