Forty winks in the lobby
It’s a funny old game isn’t it? Mahjong that is. On the one hand you have serious, traditional, Four Winds Mahjong. You know, the one that looks absolutely indecipherable, has a list of rules that if printed out would be thicker than a telephone directory and, when it comes to video game interpretations of the game, you secretly really want to understand said rules and the reams of in-game Japanese text in order to use those fancy, squillion-button controllers in order to play them properly instead of just winging it for 15 minutes before rage-quitting and tossing it back on the shelf.
And then there is Solitaire Mahjong. A simple game of snap, to many. Though what the untrained eye does not detect is that there is a lot more to it than simply tossing together a bunch of tiles in to a fancy arrangement and matching them until the play area is clear.
Mahjong Solitaire Refresh takes the concept of Solitaire Mahjong to an entirely new exosphere. This is a game you don’t want to dismiss too quickly. You’d be mad if you did. Read on…
Make mine a G&T
Sunsoft (stalwarts of Mahjong games with more pedigree than a can of Chum) have played an absolute blinder with Mahjong Solitaire Refresh and it all starts with the presentation. Before you even get stuck in to draining away hours of your life matching tile after tile, you’re presented with a myriad of options to nip, tweak and tuck the curation of your ultimate way to play the game. Do you want to drag tiles or traditionally click them? There’s an option for that. Motion control, touch screen or brain control? There’s an option for that (well, not brain control but I’m sure Sunsoft will offer it as a DLC someday).
The nips and tucks go on, however some elements remain under lock and key until you eventually naturally unlock them in tandem with your progress through the game. Locked items include a wealth of BGM soundtracks and gorgeous background images.
Menus are clear to read and simple to navigate. From the off you can choose to get stuck in to some serious tile matching, dip in to the options or learn how to actually play the game properly (I’ll come back to this later). An EX version of the game is available on the home screen menu but is locked out. This is available as an add-on for €4.99 (price may differ in your region) and contains an absolute stack of extra tough EX-grade maps, 80 in total, to complete!
There is a little bit of Japlish and the odd grammatical error sprinkled here and there. Something that could be quickly fixed in an update I’m sure, but not something so catastrophic as to hinder your enjoyment playing the game or making an informed strategic decision.
Sonically, the game features some really catchy tunes and I often found myself unknowingly humming along or whistling little snippets either as I played the game. It’s nothing that’s going to be winning awards but on the other hand it’s not Hard Drivin’ on the Commodore 64 either.
Then to our favourite hobby
What of the game itself? The premise is very simple. Select a level from the main game map. Tiles are placed randomly on the play area. You need to match pairs of tiles in order to clear them. Clear the board and you clear the level, opening up a handful more levels on the main game map and thus you progress.
However it’s not as linear and dull as that, and this is where Mahjong Solitaire Refresh really kicks the llamas arse. As you progress through the main map, you open up stage tiles of increasing difficulty. Each tile is denoted by a difficulty meter of 1 to 3 stars and a pixelated icon, or preview if you will, of the game map. These can take the form of anything from a basic shape such as a square or circle, to more complex designs such as an aeroplane or steam train or a building and so on. Tap on a tile and you are presented with further information about that particular stage. Details such as your best clear time, difficulty etc are given.
Yet it still doesn’t stop there. Sprinkled across the main map are Limit icons. Limit stages ramp up the difficulty further as they are a race against the clock. A Limit map tasks you with clearing 3 different play areas in under X minutes. The clock does not stop as you clear each area either! Limit stages are absolutely ruthless and you need to be at your very best in order to clear them. Take too long on any map in the sequence and it’s going to be nearly impossible to clear it. On a happier note, if you reach a dead end (you have left over adjacent tiles in the play area that cannot be cleared equalling a game over) in a Limit game, the computer will reshuffle the remaining tiles before starting the clock again to give you a second chance to clear the map. Once a Limit tile is cleared it will unlock adjacent tiles that usually unlock hidden BGM tracks and backgrounds. You can then configure these in the options menu, or in the case of BGM tracks, play them back in the built-in jukebox.
You’ll likely find that you will gravitate toward a few favourite maps. The fact that each tile is timed only adds to the replay factor as you tear chunks of your hair out trying to beat your record times. The very first stage for example I managed to whittle down from 8 seconds to 4 seconds to clear.
Reaching a Dead End can be incredibly frustrating. Limit tiles aside, reach one of these in a normal game and its game over with no option of a reshuffle. This is where the tutorial mode comes in handy and I strongly suggest going through that so you can get a grasp on the game rather than aimlessly matching tiles in the hopes you clear the screen.
Tools are available in-game that can help you to clear problematic maps. These take the form of an X-Ray option and an undo button. Each comes with a limited number of uses per game so use them wisely. The X-Ray mode I found particularly handy. Select a tile, enable X-Ray mode and it will show you matching tiles in the play area. Tiles marked with red stripes mean that you will be unable to use them to make a match. The undo button is exactly that and will take you back one step.
But wait, there’s more! Order now and we’ll send you TWO copies of…. Sorry I trailed off there. Though in all seriousness, there really is more. Well, possibly. Let me explain.
Old men in stripy trousers rule the world with plastic smiles
The sales blurb on the Nintendo website states that ‘arrange’ versions of classic Sunsoft arcade titles Shanghai, Shanghai II and Shanghai III are available in the game. It’s not been made entirely clear what this means or how you actually access them. There does not appear to be a menu option granting access, nor is there any DLC for it. My assumption is that it is either the game maps incorporated in to the main game itself (hence ‘arranged’) or you will eventually unlock each game as you make progress through the map. An official (and Google translated) press release from Sunsoft aside, I couldn’t find any further information online detailing how to get to them, so ultimately take my assumption with a pinch of salt as I attempt to get answers.
Regardless, however it has been incorporated in to the game, it’s a great touch from Sunsoft to give a nod to their past.
I won’t let the sun go down on me
So there you have it. Sunsoft have produced an extraordinary Mahjong game for the Nintendo Switch. So much has been crammed in to what would otherwise be seen as a simple little game that it’s really difficult to find fault with it, especially at the price point. €14.99 may appear steep, but when you compare it to other Mahjong titles on the same platform, there is a clear difference in quality and polish alongside having the knowledge that having Sunsoft behind it, a company with serious form when it comes to these games, gives the game an even stronger kick up the bum in the quality assurance stakes.
Mahjong Solitaire Refresh sets a new benchmark for titles in this genre, not just on the Switch but across all platforms. This is a game that will appeal to fans across the spectrum, from hardcore tile-matchers to casual puzzlers. The simple addition of the most basic of gameplay elements, the humble clock, adds incredible replay value to this title and you’ll find settling in for a quick blast of tile matching will soon suck away hours of your life. Mahjong Solitaire Refresh should come with a cigarette packet-style government health warning on the cover.
Head on over to the eShop, or pick up a retail copy from Japan as quickly as possible and get stuck in, you won’t regret it.