Today’s game is a port from the computer world, and this one is an electronic version of a variation of the ancient Oriental game mahjong, one that’s pretty much similar to solitaire. Originally crafted by Brodie Lockhart and published by Activision for the Macintosh in 1986, Shanghai has been ported to several computer platforms and even appeared on a number of consoles over the years. This Master System version is the first console port released in the States and tries to bring some puzzle-solving action to the system. Let’s see how well it succeed.
As mentioned above Shanghai is a form of solitaire that uses mahjong tiles. When the game begins 144 tiles are shuffled and randomly arranged in a pyramid-like structure (known as the ‘Dragon’ formation) and the object is the clear all the tiles off the playing field, in essence ‘slaying the Dragon’. You have to clear the tiles off in pairs by making matches and you do this by simply moving the cursor, clicking on any matching pairs, and they disappear. Thing is you can only click on tiles that are ‘free’, meaning nothing’s on top of them and they can be moved to the left or the right. Most of the pairs have to be identical, but any two of the four ‘season’ tiles can be matched with each other, as well any two of the four ‘flower’ tiles. However you have to be careful about which moves you make, it can be really easy to suddenly run out of legal moves, which will result in you getting stuck. Fortunately the game has a few aids available, such as undoing moves and getting hints at possible matches. If you succeed in clearing out all the titles you’re treated to a nice victory screen before starting the next layout. In addition to the normal solitaire mode Shanghai also features a Tournament mode, which imposes a time limit for you to make a move and disables the helps. A Challenge mode is also available where two players compete head-to-head trying to slay the dragon while seeing who can make the most matches.
Like most puzzle games Shanghai is simple in its presentation as you have the tiles on the playing field and not much else. The tiles look decent enough and the 3D perspective is pulled off nicely, though it can be a bit hard to distinguish between certain designs at times. The congratulation screen does feature a nicely-drawn dragon that shoots a fireball. The game also features three oriental-sound background tunes you can choose from which aren’t the best pieces of music but are still pleasant to listen to and don’t really intrude on the game, though you can also turn the music off entirely if you wish. But Shanghai makes up for the visuals and audio with its fun and addictive gameplay that’s easy to dive into and gives you a good test of your brain power. While you only have the one Dragon formation (unlike later versions of Shanghai), the random tile layouts make it a different challenge every time you fire up the cartridge, plus the options to further test yourself are nice. While getting constantly stuck can seem a little unfair, it’s mainly due to not thinking ahead more than anything else. For whatever reason the game isn’t compatible with the Genesis controller, meaning you have to use the regular Sega pad which does a very solid job moving the cursor around, though you’ll wish it was a touch faster.
Overall Shanghai won’t dethrone Tetris as the king of puzzlers but it is a good addition to the Master System library. Despite a few frustrating moments, it’s addictive gameplay will keep you coming back for more and it provides a nice change of pace from all the other titles on the system.