Shanghai is the name Activision gave to series of simple matching games featuring patterns of stacked mahjong tiles on the Apple Macintosh and later Wintel PCs (other companies have sold the same game with various other names; the game is generically known as "mahjong solitaire" or "mahjong" though it has nothing to do with actual mahjong outside of using mahjong tiles). Sunsoft of Japan licensed the name for use in Japan and put out a series of arcade games as well as home versions which have been released for nearly every handheld and console in existence. Like those other SunSoft games, Shanghai Wii is presently only available in Japan, but don't let that stop you from enjoying this modern classic.
The rules are pretty straightforward: play through a linear series of board layouts composed of Mahjong tiles stacked in 3D patterns with the goal being the removal of all tiles in matching pairs from the playfield. Tiles are considered removable by having no tiles on top of them or touching left or right sides. In addition to two versions of this basic game there are four variant single-player games and four multi-player games.
You are initially asked to input a 1-4 character name chosen from Japanese kana or romaji and pick an arctic-themed hand-drawn character to represent you, which can optionally be used as your cursor. The figures look like Inuit people and various arctic animals: fox, bear, whale and walrus.
After confirming your selections you have four menu choices: Normal Mode, Challenge Mode, Multiplayer, and Options. Choosing any of these zooms in on one of the "ice flows" composed of mahjong tiles in the background which have cute little characters dancing about on them. If you choose a game menu item you're then presented with more text boxes for the different game modes available.
The top-level options include general settings for background music (BGM) volume, sound effects volume and a couple of help functions, one of which causes unselectable tiles to be greyed-out and is enabled by default. Each game mode has separate options which vary according to the game and which are selected before the game start. Every game has choices for background music and tile set (designs on the tile faces). There are initially six tile sets to choose from which are all stylised variants on standard mahjong tile faces with a further 18 to unlock. There are seven choices of background music, though strangely you cannot preview them or listen to them without an actual game. The music tracks are the kind of lulling muzak you'd find in a department store; whilst this seems appropriate anyone who's played Shanghai Advance will miss the more active soundtrack present in that game.
The game supports 480p widescreen and is played with the Wii Remote alone, either in normal pointer fashion or on its side; the Classic controller is also supported. Using the pointer is a natural for Shanghai, which on PCs is played with a mouse. Clicking tiles with A selects them and B deselects them, though clicking on a non-matching tile with A will deselect the original choice and select the new tile. This is different from most versions of the game and can be annoying if you're using a whale for a cursor and it's not clear whether the nose or the waterspout is the pointing part!
The Normal Mode Shanghai game is a progressive game where you choose one of six series of 12-16 boards. The game starts out with boards made up of less than half of a normal set of mahjong tiles; as you progress more and more will be added. By the time you begin the 3rd series of boards they'll nearly all be composed of a full set of 144 tiles. Note of your last board completed is automatically saved (completed boards are indicated by a transparent star overlaying the pattern in the board select screen) as are any boards or other extras you unlock. Game-specific options are not saved, so you'll have to re-select background music and other options between games; even during a single play session. After you complete a series you get to see the game credits -- this cannot be skipped, paused or interrupted, so get some tea and then continue after they're done scrolling by.
The other Normal Mode option allows you to play a single board for a quick pick-up game. Initially you have 22 boards to choose from; as you complete them you unlock others until you have a total of 104 that you can jump in and play. Game options in this mode are difficulty (represented by 1-3 stars), BGM, tile set, background art (there are 10 choices initially with an additional 54 to unlock -- this changes automatically in the single-player progressive game), game board, and number of cheats.
The playfield in all single-player games includes camera control which allows you to pause play and rotate, tilt and zoom the tiles -- possibly the first time full 3D camera controls have been included in a Shanghai game! The cheats available in the two standard modes allow you to undo your last tile removal and reveal the currently removable pairs; these can be selected by clicking buttons on the left side of the screen. Other playfield features are a tile counter that shows the total number of tiles remaining, a level indicator and a time gauge that counts down (this gets faster in higher difficulties), though this is offset by small boosts gained from clearing tiles.
The Challenge Modes include a time trial with one of 8 selectable boards; a game where the object is to clear as many tiles as you can in a fixed number of time intervals; a game where you're trying to clear two out of a group of four boards in the best time possible and a fourth game in which you're trying to clear as many pairs as possible in a fixed time limit across multiple boards. All of these have leaderboards attached for improving times and scores as appropriate.
Multi-player games can be played by 1-4 people with up to three of those being CPU-controlled and either played everyone-for-themselves or in two teams of two each. In one game each player has their own board with the goal being to clear yours before your opponents; another is a competition to see who can clear the most tiles in a fixed time limit with four boards being available and players able to choose tiles from any of them; there's also a four player version of the challenge involving clearing two out of four boards before your opponents; and finally a Battle Mode featuring various selectable win conditions and power-ups that affect tiles and other players (this will require some Japanese comprehension to play with confidence as there are dozens of options to choose from). The CPU makes for an easily beatable opponent in the lowest of three difficulty settings, but higher ones definitely present a challenge; even for an experienced player.
Whilst higher level boards become quite challenging it's important to remember a key difference in the design philosophy of Shanghai boards between East and West: solvability of game boards. Western developers tend to favour randomly assembled boards which can provide more variety, but at the expense of potentially being unsolvable. In Shanghai Wii, like other Japanese Shanghai games, all boards have solutions because the pairings have been calculated in advance. After failing to clear a level due to lack of time or not having more selectable pairs you can choose to restart the level as you started it, replay with shuffled tiles or exit out to the previous menu. More challenging boards have very few margins for error so strategy when confronted with three of the same tile is paramount. It's the kind of game which favours contemplation and concentration over reflexes and isn't seen too often any more.
Shanghai Wii may well be the ultimate Shanghai game, given its slick presentation, myriad game modes and unlockables. There's so much content that unless you play the game obsessively you're unlikely to play every board for a very long time and then there's the various challenge modes and multiplayer to add a bit of variety. If you have the means of playing import disc games (or have a Japanese Wii) and enjoy a good solitaire game, then this is definitely one to pick up.