When done right, Mahjong can be the ultimate pick-up and play game. Perfect for unwinding after a long day at work or capping off marathon gaming session. It requires some thinking but just enough so that you can still play when your brain is fried. When I got the word that I’d be reviewing Bigben Interactive’s take on Mahjong I was very excited. At its core Mahjong is a simple game, but the power of current generation hardware can really amp up the presentation values and make for a must have casual game. Unfortunately, my feelings of relaxation and enjoyment were short-lived and were instead replaced with perplexed feelings and concerns that I hope will be addressed by the developer.
Most people know how to play Mahjong, but just in case you don’t I will go over the very basics. There are 144 tiles adorned with different symbols laid out in an intricate pattern. Some tiles are stacked on top of each other while others may only be linked to another tile on one side. It’s up to the player to match identical tiles and earn points. You can only match a tile if it has a side that’s not touching another tile. As you go on there are fewer tiles to choose from and ideally you match everything and clear the level. As you complete easier levels the patterns become more complex and thus more challenging.
It seems pretty cut and dry in terms of mechanics, yet I was incredibly disappointed with some design choices after just my first game. Unlike most Mahjong games, there is no shuffle option in Bigben Interactive’s version. This means that you can get down to the final few tiles, be unable to proceed and get a game over. You don’t earn any progress or reap any rewards for your effort and there is no undo button; if you get a game over it’s all for naught. I found this very disheartening as I was playing and continued to get game over after game over. It quickly became stressful and frankly not fun, and that’s not how Mahjong is supposed to be. I can understand wanting the game to be challenging, but why not add an option for shuffling tiles for beginning players?
Aside from the major issue of no shuffling, I also didn’t care for the controls. You are able to use either the analog stick or the d-pad to select tiles, I greatly preferred the d-pad. Instead of a floating cursor you make matches by highlighting tiles; once you make a match the highlight is automatically assigned to the tiles above the match. It does work but there were many times when I selected the wrong tile, lost the highlight or just got briefly confused. If you get stuck you are able to use up to three hints per level, this came in handy as aside from identical matches there are special matches. Meaning you might be able to match two flowers or seasons symbols, even if they look different. I like this inclusion as it added a unique touch to such a traditional game, although at first I was a little confused.
Where Mahjong really stands out is its presentation values and variety. The menus are clean, everything looks good and loads smoothly and quickly. Players can choose from a variety of tile symbols and backgrounds to suit their preferences. Some of the backgrounds such as flowing water and mountain ranges look gorgeous in high definition. The music is soothing and relaxing and helps set a great ambience for the game. There are 70 levels in all and players can also compare their scores with their friends and on a global leaderboard.
In its current form, Mahjong is all sizzle and no steak. Beautiful backgrounds and fun tile choices are great, but when the gameplay is so rigid and unforgiving then it really seems like wasted potential. I really hope that Bigben Interactive considers patching in a shuffle mode and some cursor options. If they do I will gladly take a second look and update my thoughts. In its current form I really can’t recommend Mahjong to anyone but the most hardcore fans.
Updated Thoughts, 6 weeks later:
After taking a lengthy break from Mahjong I went back to it with an open mind and a different approach. When I originally wrote this review I didn’t want to accept that this version of Mahjong really requires strategy to clear levels. Easier games had spoiled me into making haphazard matches without thinking about the results. When I came back to the game I really had to strategize and when I did that I found much more success. Things like making sure I match two tiles that are above other tiles before matching open ones made a world of difference. I’m still playing BigBen Interactive’s version of the game and I’m hoping to complete all the levels, but I still wish their was a shuffle button!
Original Review Score: 6/10
Updated score below, added product price