Whilst many will think of 8-bit classics like Blaster Master when they hear the Sunsoft name, one of their biggest brands has been Shanghai, with new editions for every handheld and console over the past decade or so.
Preceding Shanghai Wii by two years, the handheld and console titles have little in common beyond the same classic solitaire tile-matching game whose use of Mahjong tiles has led many to mistakenly refer to it by that name. Shanghai is arguably better suited to the DS with the immediacy of the touchscreen interface, and you could even say that it plays better than on the computers on which it originated.
Sunsoft hasn't taken any chances with this title, so you won't find the special tiles of similar DS games like Mahjong Quest Expeditions. Instead you'll have a choice of the standard game in Classic or Free Play modes, a pair of challenge modes, Time Attack and Score Attack, a two-player mode, and two extra games that revolve around matching tiles but play differently from Shanghai: Nikaku Dori and Great Wall.
The Classic and Free Play modes are pretty much the same: you choose from one of three difficulties that determines how much flexibility there is in the order of tile clearance, how many cheats you can use (these consist of highlighting all currently removable pairs and an undo last move button) and which board with which to start. In Classic Mode, you need to complete a certain number of boards that vary with the difficulty: four on easy, eight on normal and even more on hard. You cannot play the next board until you complete the current one and they're definitely some of the most challenging we've played.
In Free Play you can play any of 28 boards with your choice of background, music track and tile set; additional choices are unlocked by playing the progressive game described above. If you fail to clear a board, you're given the option to restart with either the same tiles or a shuffled arrangement. As with the previous game in the series, Shanghai Advance, you have the option to shuffle or save mid-play in case you get stuck and need some help or have to put the game down. If you save, the game will power off the DS as well, and when you next start the game you'll be prompted to pick up where you left off. Given how challenging some of these puzzles can be, being able to save mid-game is a feature that we definitely appreciate.
The two Challenge Modes play the same as the basic game, but the objective is slightly different. Time Attack tracks your best time for clearing each of the dozen or so boards available, while Score Attack is essentially an endless mode. You start out with a small pattern, and every time you clear all tiles from the screen, more are placed for you to clear. If you have no available pairs to remove due to messing up the order of removal, you can add more by tapping an icon. If the tiles pile up too high, the ones on top will start to pulse red to warn you that if another gets added it's game over. Both games have leaderboards sorted by difficulty for each board so you can review your best score for future record-breaking attempts.
The extra games also allow you to choose background, soundtrack and tile set as in the Classic Free Play game. Nikaku Dori presents all tiles on a single plane rather than stacked, and you can only remove pairs that you can link with a "U" or "S"-shaped line that crosses no other tiles. Great Wall also presents a single plane of tiles, only they're conceptually stacked like a Connect Four set-up. Clearing pairs causes the tiles above to fall down into gaps below so you need to be careful not to block off other free tiles as you play. Both games have a selection of ten layouts to choose from, and no scores are recorded, so these are pretty much like the Classic Free Play game and just for having a go now and then.
If all that wasn't enough, you can play the two player mode against a friend via Download Play or against a CPU opponent. Players are presented with two boards that they can both play off, with the goal being for each player to uncover, unblock and tap a golden tile at the bottom of their respective pyramids to score a win. The first player to win the pre-selected number of matches wins the overall game.
Shanghai DS came out five years ago, but despite this it still contains one of the better presentations of Mahjong solitaire available on the DS with large, detailed tile facings and bright, colourful backdrops that look terrific on our DSi LL. Though there's no adjustable camera angle, the presentation makes it easy to tell which tiles are overlapping for the most part. The soundtrack is a fun, peppy mix of Classical Chinese sounds, and the family Casio keyboard that will have you humming along despite the cheese (or maybe because of it) as you tackle the challenges that await.
Though other "Mahjong solitaire" titles may have more boards and special play modes, you cannot fault the Shanghai masters at Sunsoft. Though the menus are in Japanese, there's not too many of them, and they shouldn't pose a barrier for the intrepid importer. If you like tile-matching puzzle games, it's definitely worth tracking down.