I’m going to start this review with a quick impersonation, that of BBC Radio 2’s Steve Wright, and deliver to you a fact that you probably don’t know. In fact, it’s a fact I didn’t know until I jumped onto an online encyclopaedia to check how Mahjong was played in “the real world” as I imagined that, unlike most similar games of skill and variety, it must be a pain to set up. If you fancy a game of patience or poker or snap there’s little more required than a pack of cards and the ability to shuffle. For Mahjong, you need a box of tiles, the ability to stack them and lots of, er, patience, to reset the grid.
It actually turns out that what we know as Mahjong – the computer game involving sets of tiles stacked on top of each other in various layouts with the aim of removing all the tiles by pairing them up like a tile-based snap until all are gone – is actually Mahjong solitaire, which uses the tiles of the game of Mahjong for a completely different purpose for which they were invented. The original Mahjong is, in fact, a Chinese version of our game Rummy whereas Mahjong Solitaire, the game popularised on PCs everywhere, was made for computers in the Eighties.
Right… ignorance combatted it’s time to look at the latest release of the popular video game, this time for the Nintendo 3DS. Now, I know what you’re thinking: is Mahjong something that really cries out for a 3D remake?Now, I have to admit that it does seem an unusual contender to be given a three-dimensional makeover but here it is anyway.
Mahjong 3D: Warriors of the Emperor is built around three areas, all set inside your user area, of which there is space for four per cartridge: Conquest, the career mode so to speak; Quickplay, the place for quick snatches of play; and Create where you can build your own Mahjong puzzles and share them with friends.
There is also, naturally, the obligatory options menu where you can do exciting things like change the tile set used, adjust the sound, switch StreetPass on and off, alter the language, tweak the touch screen control and see the credits, but you probably could have guessed most of that anyway.
Let’s start with the actual gameplay. Whether you choose Conquest or Quickplay modes the play is the same. You choose a grid and are presented with a puzzle to solve. The major difference is that in Conquest you are delivered a selection of puzzles with a storyline built around them – the first puzzle, for instance, sees you removing tiles so a bridge can be built – but the plotline, like an episode of Casualty, is entirely superfluous to the enjoyment. The focus of the Conquest mode is to work your way around classical China, solving puzzles and moving around the map, but no matter how they dress it up, you’re just playing games of Mahjong with a narrative bolted on top, just like if you were playing cards with your gran and your brother keeps coming in after each round to say that, by defeating your gran at snap, you’re beating an old dragon.
You can make up your own jokes there.
In Quickplay mode you can choose three difficulties: Easy, where you have no time limit on solving the puzzle; Medium, where you have a time limit; and Hard where you have a shorter lime limit to complete the puzzle. When you start mooching through the Quickplay mode you’ll realise there are but six puzzles to try but, as you progress through the Conquest mode you unlock more puzzles, firstly in classic then special ones, which include power-ups and other additional elements.
The Mahjong grid is displayed in full 3D on the top screen, looking above average in its depiction, but seeing a stack of tiles popping slightly out of the screen was never going to rival other games in its impress-a-bility. You can move around the 3D world using the analogue stick, which comes in handy if you need to see tiles obscured by ones higher up, not just to mess around with the 3D effect. Once you let go of the stick it’s back to the bird’s eye view.
It is, though, at this point that I need to discuss the elephant in the room. In plumping for the 3D world of Mahjong the makers have had to make a compromise. I can see the boardroom decision now, executives standing around a flip board deciding between snazzy, sexy 3D Mahjong or simple touch-screen controls. They went for the former, they should have gone with the latter, and this is the rub for this game.
Because, instead of adapting the usual controls of, say a PC version, where you move the mouse around the screen, pairing up the tiles, speedily dashing around the board until the grid is empty and scoring a record time, and putting the tiles on the bottom screen which you can then actually click on, you use the touch screen to control the stylus on the top screen, which is where you remove the tiles.
There are, thankfully, two different control schemes to choose, one where the bottom screen reflects the top screen, so moving the stylus to the bottom-left of the touch screen mirrors the movement on the top-screen; and the other where moving up, down, left and right on the touch screen moves the cursor on the top relative to your movements. So there is scope to alter the controls to your preference. However, what I really want when playing is an option to put the grid on the bottom screen.
I’m not going to whip out the book of clichés and say the game is unplayable or broken – it is soon possible to get used to the control system – but it seems like the game creators tried to go out of their way to make it a frustrating experience. No matter how good you are at Mahjong, trying to use the touch screen on the bottom to control action on the top screen is sometimes difficult and unintuitive. I foolishly played my first few games with a time limit which showed up the difficulties of the system to newcomers
Using the touch screen you need to move the cursor to one tile and then move your cursor over the screen to the second tile, then release it to make them disappear. Like in other games, tiles can only be removed if they match (or in some case one of four from the same set which match each other interchangeably) and if they are not hemmed in by other tiles around them. Menus and other options are activated by moving the cursor then tapping the screen in a single-click type motion. Annoyingly menus cannot be operated by the D-pad or buttons.
As you can, hopefully, understand from my description it is an awkward experience and for me somewhat damages the fun of playing what is, otherwise, a well-constructed game.
Graphically Mahjong 3D is as good as you can expect a game of tiles to be, with interesting backgrounds, solid looking tiles and some nicely drawn cut-scenes. The Oriental-themed music is pleasant and atmospheric without being distracting or irritating.
In fact, within about forty minutes of playing I was relatively comfortable in controlling the game and could beat the challenges, but it’s not an entirely pleasing or helpful way to play. In choosing 3D visuals they’ve sacrificed the control scheme and, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how good a game looks, if it’s not easy to pick up and play on a handheld, you have problems. Forget about using your finger with this game; it’s stylus or nothing.
The game, however, does excel in other areas and throws in some good variety. Conquest puzzles, and later on Quickplay ones, can be played using power ups, activated by clicking the Y button, which do a variety of things such as undo the last move, show you a possible move, reshuffle the board, and removes all currently free pairs. There are a considerable number of power-ups and special tiles scattered through the games which add a refreshing level of challenge to the game. There is also a neat scoring mechanic ripped from other games, such as giving you bonuses points for quickly matching pairs in succession and other speedy playing, plus points for not using your power-ups when available.I would suggest a leaf through the instruction manual for this game if you buy it to become fully informed about all the different abilities and what they do!
On top of the meaty Conquest mode and Quickplay there is a detailed level creator where you can make your own puzzles, placing a variety of tiles on a grid and tweaking the background and power-ups, with the ability to save them and share them with friends via StreetPass, which also can transmit your high-scores to other 3DS users and receive there’s back.
Mahjong3D: Warriors of the Emperor is a feature-packed version of the game with a good number of puzzles, an attractive layout and a snazzy level creator. Its 3D effect isn’t going to win any awards but is good, but it seems to havebeen put in at the detriment of the playabilityand, I’m afraid, knocks the shine off what would be otherwise an impressive game.
It’s certainly not broken and once you’ve got used to the quirks of the controls it’s possible to play the game well and enjoy it but it’s not straightforward to play and for younger players or those with less dexterity it will be its frustrating controls that cause failures of puzzles, not necessarily the players lack of skills.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo 3DS code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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