Posted by Sean Aaron
A decent first effort at a classic patience game
If you saw the name of this game and thought it was going to be that game your grandmother played with her friends a la "The Joy Luck Club" you'll probably be disappointed to find that this is just a solitaire matching game. The blame lies with the fact that the programmer who first created a computerised version of the Chinese children's game called "the turtle" decided to name the game after the adult game the tiles were normally used for instead. The word "mahjong" in the West is now synonymous with a simple "match two" computer game enjoyed by millions the world over in various forms, with the latest addition being a WiiWare release from GameOn.
When you first fire Mahjong up you'll notice it has the same look and feel as GameOn's previous WiiWare outing, Solitaire. This isn't a bad thing: the interface is very clean and distinctive with an iTunes-like ease of use and a Wii-themed blue and white colour scheme, though it's a little disappointing that the music offerings and background selections were also re-used.
If you've never played mahjong solitaire before, it's just a tile-matching game: mahjong tiles are stacked in various patterns, you click two free ones (tiles that don't have others partially or fully covering them and a left or right side free) and they disappear. Make all the tiles disappear and you win; fail and you lose. It's an enjoyable way to spend a bit of time.
GameOn's Mahjong is a pretty solid offering in terms of selection. Thirty different patterns are on offer and then two bonus game modes: Matching and Memory. The former isn't really much of a game: tiles are presented face-up in a big rectangle and you just click pairs trying to clear the screen in the shortest amount of time possible. Memory is the same, but the tiles are face-down and you flip them in pairs: if the tiles match they get removed, if not they flip face down again, making this a basic children's game. In terms of layout the mahjong solitaire game proper appears to be of the Western variety - tiles are randomly laid out (based upon the fact that there are no difficulty settings for the patterns), as opposed to the Japanese versions of this game which are normally solvable and have varying levels of difficulty.
There are six different tile facings, though some are better than others. All the tiles feature images which are large enough to be easily recognised, but the problem is that the images used have too high a detail level for the 480i output of the game. This is specifically a problem with the circle or "dot" tiles in the default white mahjong tileset which look shimmery and out of focus in normal view and are difficult to look at for any significant length of time. This improves if you zoom in, but then you need to dismiss the game display to stop the elapsed time and icons from covering up parts of the board. The tileset which features a mix of playing card suits and mahjong suits has dot tiles composed of poker chips which are much easier on the eyes, so it's not clear why a change wasn't made to the default tileset to address this problem.
A bigger issue with the game is the adjustment of the 3D camera. In older versions of mahjong solitaire like Shanghai II: Dragon's Eye the 3D layout was implied by use of shading. This didn't always work and the static top-down view could confuse players as to which tiles were actually free to select or not. Of course nowadays games with 3D structures will construct things like mahjong tiles with polygons and allow for different camera angles as Sunsoft did in their excellent Japanese disc release of Shanghai for the Wii, but unfortunately the developers of Mahjong have opted for a sort of compromise which should have been rethought before release.
Players can press and hold Left or Right on the to temporarily tilt the tile pattern in that direction to get a look at the sides of the pattern, but the problem is that there's no similar control for the Y-axis. Instead simply moving the pointer in any direction on the screen will cause the pattern to tilt noticeably. It's not a huge amount of movement, but it's noticeable and it's distracting. Zooming in the screen to compensate for the tile image resolution issues makes this worse and also means you sometimes need to pan the camera about more rather than see the whole pattern at a glance. It's not clear why this solution was chosen over simply adjusting the angle in an option screen and then keeping it static in play, and it does take the shine off the game.
GameOn have presented fans of mahjong solitaire with a pretty good collection of game patterns and a nice interface to go with it - it's definitely a better option than Shanghai II: Dragon's Eye for the Mega Drive. Lack of 480p display with higher-resolution tile images and wonky linkage of camera to pointer movement mar what would otherwise be a solid recommendation. If you're a big fan of Shanghai or mahjong solitaire games, then you'll certainly be able to play and enjoy this game, but if you can import Wii games you're better off spending a bit extra for the better experience offered by Sunsoft's superior Shanghai games.