We'll be honest, while some members of the Nintendo Life team are clever and cultured enough to know all about the intricacies of Mahjong, some of us have to consult Wikipedia to learn the rules. It shouldn't have surprised us, however, that when we opened Mahjong Mysteries - Ancient Athena the variation on offer was basically a single player match-2 visual test, much like many other Mahjong titles released on Nintendo download platforms. The title itself is a mystery, though, as there's no adventure or storyline outside of some squabbling historians. Mahjong 3D - Warriors of the Emperor, this 'aint.
Let's be clear about Mahjong Mysteries, this isn't — as the title may suggest — an adventurous tale where you face off with computer opponents in a battle of wits to save the world. Even if that's an exaggeration of expectations, it should be emphasized that this adopts the single-player variation of the game that, in the wrong hands, is painfully simplistic, while an initial flirtation with a storyline is swiftly forgotten and becomes an irrelevance.
In terms of the gameplay, it's very simple — 144 tiles of varying designs are stacked to form a shape, and at any given time you're able to move and match those that are available and in-play, while those grayed out have to be unlocked by making matches and freeing up space. While playing this in real life would require a lot of understanding and concentration, in this game it's a process of rapid-fire tile matching; familiarity with tile designs will improve your performance, though at any time you can switch between five different sets.
The complexity on offer is from the shaping of the tile-layout, but in no time you may find yourself absent-mindedly matching tiles for more time than you'd care to admit — it's addictive, but in a mind numbing way. The immersion will, however, be occasionally broken by a surprising control quirk. You drag the stylus on the bottom screen to move a cursor around the tiles on the top screen; you then release to select a tile, before moving the stylus to the matching tile and releasing to select and complete the match. Occasionally releasing the stylus to adjust your hand or scratch your nose may select a special item tile by accident and waste it. Once you're in the zone you avoid doing this, but it's an irritation that's all the more noticeable as it punctures more repetition in the gameplay.
As we stated earlier, the branding of this game as "Mysteries" is a little cheeky, as the Adventure — or what we've seen of it, we'll happily admit we haven't played all 300 reported levels — is just puzzle after puzzle against the same bland backdrop. The music alternates between a few variations, and a colourful map between levels suggests you're moving between a lot of interesting historical sites, but the Mahjong is all exactly the same. It's like the idea of a game that combines Mahjong with an exploration of historical sites was conceived, but given no significant budget.
While Adventure mode gets harder by steadily dropping your allowed time from 20 minutes — levels typically only took us about five minutes to clear — they don't noticeably get harder. Some blessed variation arrives in Relax Mode, which offers the standard mode without the so-called adventure and eight alternatives that shake up the rules. A few are rather unimaginative, but better examples are Remember — tiles are blank and you highlight to briefly see the symbol — and Shuffle — the set is shuffled if you fail to find a match every 20 seconds. The basic activity remains the same, but at least these options switch up the rules, as well as allowing you to choose from an impressive range of tile layouts.
While the visuals and sound are competent albeit bland, we do feel that the use of 3D is a mistake in this title. It's initially impressive, popping out of the screen and giving a greater perception of how some tiles are stacked against each other, but it also slows the frame-rate significantly. The cursor is sluggish and lacks smoothness while navigating across the tiles, and the experience is far easier to play in 2D. For those sharing a 3DS with others meanwhile, there are four save slots, which is just as well as the Adventure Mode forces you onto the next level with no means, as far as we can tell, of selecting a level to play.
Mahjong Mysteries - Ancient Athena is a strange game in that it defies the expectations of its branding. While this single player-only variation is a popular form of Mahjong on Nintendo services, this example does little to draw you into the experience; the Adventure Mode hints at a storyline or quest that doesn't exist in any meaningful way. It's a slog through the same activity over and over again, with just Relax Mode offering some minor relief; it's addictive, yes, but only in a reductive, numbing sense. If matching pairs of tiles is something you enjoy, or you want a time-waster to play for 10 minutes at a time then this may be worth consideration. If you're a Mahjong enthusiast there are better, more imaginative options available on both the 3DS eShop and DSiWare.