Review: Shanghai II: Dragon's Eye (MD)

A history lesson in the failure of PC-to-console ports.

Activision was the first to sell a mahjong solitaire (for lack of a better term) game for IBM PCs and Apple Macs in 1986 under the name Shanghai. They even got the programmer of the original game -- which was created on University of Illinois mainframes -- to do the programming and create backgrounds. That release was a big enough hit that a sequel was pretty much guaranteed. The 16-bit consoles of the time were quite popular and apparently capable of handling the graphics, so Activision decided a console release was a good idea. They got Japanese developer Home Data to do the port and handle Japanese publication (under the name Dragon's Eye Plus: Shanghai III -- probably because a game called Shanghai II had already been released for the Sega Master System) whilst Activision published in North America and PAL territories for the SNES and Mega Drive/Genesis.

The rules of the game are the same as any number of modern versions of the game: remove all tiles from the board in pairs, with tiles counting as free when there are no tiles on top of them and no tiles touching either their left or right side. With four of each tile arranged in patterns stacked several tiles deep there's a bit of strategy to the game and it's remained popular for many years. Activision's fledgling effort to bring the game as a straight port from PC/Mac fails by comparison to later Sunsoft games using the license, because it tries to be too faithful to the home computer version and hasn't stood the test of time.

There are actually two games included here: the aforementioned Shanghai and a variant called Dragon's Eye, in which two players (or one player and the CPU) are pitted against each other as "Dragon Slayer" and "Dragon Master." The Dragon Slayer is trying to "slay the dragon" by clearing a small board using tiles from a hand of 6 whilst the Dragon Master is trying to "awaken the dragon" by filling the board from a hand of three. The board starts out with 8 tiles arranged in the centre in a square. If the slayer cannot clear a pair he must add a tile to the board, whilst the master just adds a tile and then draws a new one. There's a "flip" button for use in two-player games so players can hide their hands before their human opponents look back at the screen (take note WiiWare card game developers) and then buttons for drawing tiles and ending your turn. Otherwise it plays much the same as the familiar solitaire game.

The visuals are pretty decent for a 16-bit game with colourful animated backgrounds and sufficiently detailed tiles to make out what the various figures are. There are multiple tile facings to choose from besides the default mahjong set (thereby demonstrating the clear disconnect between this game and actual mahjong) and the ability to turn off time-consuming animations that normally happen when you clear a matching pair as well as the backgrounds. There are a total of 13 different boards to choose from: the default shanghai layout (also known as "The Turtle") and then 12 others in the form of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac.

Whilst this was a pretty fun game on the PC/Mac, little was done to properly adapt the game for home console use and as a result the game is rather painful to play. Whilst this title originally supported the little-used "Mega Mouse" peripheral on the Genesis, no effort has been made to emulate it here. Using a d-pad instead of a mouse is awkward to begin with, but even after setting your cursor speed to maximum it will feel like your cursor is moving through maple syrup. After turning off the animation for pair clearance, there's still some kind of delay in removing the tiles and the whole affair is just agonisingly slow compared to newer, Wii-specific versions. Rather than mapping hints or any other kind of controls to the other buttons available on a Mega Drive controller, Activision opted to retain the menu bar from the computer version which can be called up by pressing the start button and then navigating the drop-down menus using your d-pad as a mouse again. It's all quite tedious and feels like playing a mouse-driven game using a keyboard on an old DOS computer.

You can set a time limit for some added challenge, but there's nothing to unlock and little incentive to carry on. If you're a die-hard Shanghai fan you may get some enjoyment out of this title, but more likely you'll be frustrated by the sluggish controls and just go back to playing it on your PC.

Conclusion

Whilst Shanghai II was a great game on home computers when it appeared, attempting to shoehorn a mouse-driven computer game onto a gaming console wasn't really a great idea back in 1991 let alone today. If you don't have a Japanese Wii to take advantage of the excellent disc or WiiWare versions from Sunsoft, then you can always opt for a current WiiWare release.

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