Mahjong games have existed on Japanese consoles almost since the first machines were rolled out, and over time certain standards have emerged, to such an extent that having experience with one mahjong game will lead you to expect certain conventions in another. Part of the attraction of Tasuke's 200V Challenge Spirits Mahjong is the way it departs from these conventions not only in interface but game structure too, offering a surprisingly addictive mahjong experience at the low end of the DSi price scale.
There are two main game modes on offer: Free Play and Challenge. In the former you can choose one of eight characters to play as, set the game rules from over a dozen options and play a straight-up game against three AI opponents. Nice enough and certainly more substantial than the two-player game offered in Handy Mahjong, but Challenge Mode is what keeps us coming back for more.
Challenge Mode contains five levels of three "missions" each. Each mission gives you a different mix of opponents (though they all come from the same pool so they will repeat,) pre-set rules and a goal to complete. For someone who doesn't read Japanese being able to suss out what that goal is will be part of the challenge, but it's quite a clever hook that will keep you coming back since you'll need to complete all the missions in a level in order to unlock the next. The first mission simply requires players to win the game – not an easy task because the AI players are pretty good at mahjong. Mission 2 requires players to win with a score of greater than 30,000 points – anything less will result in you getting the "You Lose" message at the results screen, so you'll need to actually build a decent hand and not go for the easy victory.
Your ultimate goal is to reveal an image, with each successful mission uncovering another part of the puzzle. What that image will be when you've uncovered them all is unclear, but since your character is displayed wearing a veil (and holding a fan and laughing manically after each victory) perhaps it's a picture of you? Any good mahjong game needs some characters to play against and there's a nice collection of oddballs on offer here: a hard-nosed businessman clutching a pink rabbit toy, a schoolgirl, a busty biker chick and so on – certainly more interesting than the rather conservative players you'd expect after playing a lot of Mahjong Taikai.
In actual play video mahjong conventions are generally followed, but there are a couple of surprises. You can play with D-Pad and buttons just as console mahjong games have done since time immemorial, or use the stylus with a double-tap to discard tiles, which we found excellent for tabletop play on the DSi XL used in this preview. You'll have the normal prompts for acting on other player discards for declaring chi, pon, kan, ron, etc., but interestingly you won't get prompted to take action based upon your own draws. Whilst not so friendly for beginners, it means that you'll need to know if you're one away from a win and can declare "reach," or if you've actually got a winning hand and can go out "tsumo" and tap an icon in the corner to pull up the menu to do so.
Tasuke have recently released another mahjong game featuring download play for up to three other players (unusual in any DSiWare game, let alone a budget one) so you and your DSi-owning friends can all enjoy a game of mahjong without the need for a portable set. With that move it's not clear if this game is worth getting any more, but it may feature different challenges on offer in order to justify having both. Either way, Tasuke have produced a compelling game of mahjong for on the go play at a mere 200 Points. Whilst a tournament format would have been more expected, the challenge format is definitely a winner and means we'll have 200V Challenge Spirits Mahjong on our DSi for some time to come.