Mahjong. What does that bring to mind? If you said "it's an anagram of jog'n'ham", you need to get out more. The rest of you doubtless thought of China, tiles with pretty pictures on and wizened old men with beards down to their ankles sitting cross legged at the game table. Some of you might be surprised to learn that the version of Mahjong you know (if you know it at all) is not the "proper" Mahjong; the tile matching game that ships with Windows is actually Mahjong Solitaire, while the real Mahjong is rather more like Bridge. Except with tiles instead of cards, and completely different rules, so not that much like Bridge. Anyway, where was I?
In the spirit of getting into the theme of the game, I attempted to learn Chinese, paint tiles and grow my beard. Alas, in the time available for review, the best I could achieve was "ni hau", doodling on Lego bricks and stubble. Fortunately none of these is required for Mahjong Max, which is a more varied version of the Mahjong Solitaire that most people outside of China know. And it's got a plot! Valeria, of the Cultural International Museum, is sent to China to find artefacts for their new Chinese exhibit. You're to guide her on her journey, helping her solve a series of Mahjong puzzles on a sort of treasure hunt.
Hang on. The Cultural International Museum? Not, say, the Museum of International Culture? One can't really blame them for their odd naming convention. They're clearly new to the museum business - most would display already known artefacts and host exhibits from various collections rather than tooling up as amateur Indiana Joneses and looking for new ones. Is Valeria deliberately being sent to ransack China's ancient treasures? Are we aiding in an international crime here? And what mad security firm thinks that a set of tile-based puzzles is sufficient to deter thieves?
For those not familiar with Mahjong, the game features a layout of tiles. These include three "suits" numbered 1-9, four winds and three dragons, each of which has four of each tile, and two sets of four tiles representing flowers and seasons. Your aim is to clear all these tiles by selecting matching pairs - but you can only move "free" tiles, those with no obstructions on top of them or to one side. There are bonus points for matching tiles in the same set, in sequence and so on. Some thinking ahead is needed - it is entirely possible to match the wrong pairs of tiles and end up stuck!
Mahjong Max is Mahjong Solitaire for the casual player, with a (generous) time limit to beat the puzzle and a number of options for the stuck player, such as resetting the puzzle, undoing the last move, or shuffling the remaining tiles (note that this last will take a dent out of your remaining time). As well as bonuses for matching tiles in sets or sequences, there are speed bonuses for fast matches and extra bonus points on completion for "doubles" (matching both pairs of one tile, one after the other). It also boasts a range of puzzle layouts, both nice to look at and with different levels of difficulty, and a fair crop of game modes. Sufferers of gaming OCD will be pleased to note that there is a trophy room to fill up, too.
The main graphics are of good quality, with the tiles themselves large, clear and easily distinguished - only one tileset is available at first, however, with the others unlocked by completing each stage of Adventure mode. Tiles animate quite well, falling on or off the screen when the game board is set up. There is also a range of backgrounds available in Arcade mode. The cut scenes are a little disappointing, however, with characters that seem to move with their heads rather than their legs. I'm also concerned that Valeria's boss looks rather like mine! Perhaps I'd best keep learning Chinese, just in case he has a trip in mind for me... Sound consists of a pretty standard range of sound effects and a rather limited range of music that can start to grate if you play for long periods.
Mahjong Max is a very forgiving game to play. Even the worst or unluckiest of players should be able to get somewhere - there is no limit on the number of hints, shuffles or restarts you have available beyond how much time you have left. Try to make a duff match and you'll simply be told it isn't possible. By default, free tiles are highlighted (you can switch this off if you wish). The number of tiles and combinations available is shown at the bottom of the screen and gives you a rough idea of how well you're doing. Flyaway text alerts you to speed and regular bonuses. One thing I found quite odd is that resetting the board does not reset your timer. This seems a little unfair!
While Adventure mode is limited to playing through fifty layouts in order, you can play the arcade modes as often as you like and in any order, and here Mahjong Max has done well for itself - there are 104 layouts to play, and five game modes! These include the classic mode, but also Freecell (like classic, but with two "spaces" you can hold tiles in), Golden (find and match the two golden tiles to win), Search (find and click on one of the two shown tiles to clear it) and Additive (in which you match tiles whose numbers add up to ten). If you're so inclined you can replay these to get a better time and/or score. And once you beat Adventure mode, Blitz mode is unlocked, though I have not yet had time to get that far.
Mahjong Max is generally a solid game, but there are some minor hiccups. Spelling and grammar are generally erratic, and would have benefited from a read through before release. The game plot also features odd errors beyond simply how museums work - for instance, when starting out, Valeria states that a passage opens up "to the west", when the background map clearly shows it heading east! I also found the menu screen rather slow, with some languorous fades and a slowly opening scroll for the main menu. These must be borne patiently and cannot be sped up.
All in all, I have to say that I liked playing Mahjong Max. It's a relaxing and pleasant way to spend a few spare minutes and, while it doesn't do everything as well as it could do, it does introduce some new ideas. I can see this one staying on my desktop for a while yet. Though I don't think I'll bother with the beard...
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