Activision has been releasing versions of Shanghai since 1986, but they have really outdone themselves with this latest effort. Even though versions of the Chinese game Mahjongg abound (including an excellent shareware game -- Kyodai Mahjongg -- that I reviewed in a puzzle roundup), this incredibly comprehensive and elaborate version tops them all. Every bell-and-whistle imaginable has been thrown in here to turn what is basically a simple game involving the removal of free tiles in matching pairs into an addictive experience.
The amount of variation and customization you can introduce in the gameplay here is truly extraordinary. There are nine different tile sets -- Alphabet, Astrology, Egyptian, Fantasy, Household, Mahjongg, Math, Prehistoric, and Outer Space. There are forty different tile layouts reflecting four levels of difficulty. On top of this, there are numerous custom tile sets and layouts that you can import, or you can design your own from scratch. You can play Shanghai (including tournament play), a simplified Shanghai for Kids (with some lighthearted and educational tile sets), the original Mahjongg (a game similar to Rummy), or multiplayer competitions (including two new variants called Dynasty and Pandemonium that have you race against time to win before your opponents do).
The game itself differs from the atmosphere of quiet serenity so common in computerized versions of this pastime. When you match tiles, you witness highly creative animations, and when you complete a game you are treated to a brief full screen video clip and a fortune-cookie-like positive message. While some of the animations become overly familiar after extended gameplay, they nonetheless generally significantly enhance the gaming experience.
The menus in the game are all very clearly laid out, and navigating them and playing the game is all intuitively controlled by the mouse. Joystick and keyboard use just do not make sense for this kind of game. You have lots of choices available directly affecting the challenge of the game, such as the ability to backtrack in your moves or reshuffle remaining tiles if you get stuck; but my favorite option guarantees that each board layout generated will be solvable.
The graphics in this game are uniformly excellent. Each of the tile sets is beautifully drawn, as are the game backgrounds, and the animation when you match tiles or win a game is often spectacular. There is no support here for 3D hardware video acceleration, but none is needed. You simply will not find better visuals than these in strategy/puzzle games of this variety. Even the game's icon is gorgeous.
The audio in this game is indeed special. Each tile set has its own distinctive background music, and I really enjoyed the distinctive compositions presented and their enhancement of the game experience (for example, for the prehistoric tile set the music made you feel as if you could almost hear the dinosaurs stomping around in the background). Similarly, the sound effects are awesome, with every little aspect of the audio for the animations very authentically reproduced. The designers here clearly went well beyond the kind of minimalist approach to sound effects you often encounter in this kind of game.
I am delighted to report on the superb and carefully crafted documentation in this game. The black-and-white jewel case manual is used just for installation and troubleshooting instructions, as it should be, and there is an exquisite hundred-page full-size manual detailing the history of the game, its many variations, and strategy and tips for playing (there is even an annotated bibliography in it). If only this standard were widespread among computer games, the world would be a much happier place.
System Requirements and Comments
The minimum system requirements for this game are a 90 megahertz Pentium CPU, 16 MB RAM, 40 MB hard disk space, 2X CD-ROM drive, a 256-color SVGA video card with 1 MB of RAM, a Windows 95 compatible sound card and mouse, and the Windows 95 operating system. While these specifications are average for games released these days, they are a bit steep for strategy/puzzle games of this type. The most unfortunate aspect of the game's requirements is that no matter how you install it, the CD must be in the drive in order to run the game.
This whole game exhibits extraordinary care in planning and execution to deliver the most fun possible from a tried-and-true game concept. While there is little originality in the basic gameplay, I have never felt so absorbed by and enthralled with tile matching. I simply cannot imagine a better produced version of this game. This is a classic version of a deservedly classic game.