It’s worth getting something out of the way early, as it can cause consternation. This is not traditional eastern mahjong (or mah-jongg). This is the westernised variant which is single-player, has no hands to speak of, and has one, simplified aim: to remove all of the tiles from the board by matching pairs.
That’s going to turn some noses up, but there’s a place for the variant that’s on offer here. We must have spent close to a hundred hours playing Shanghai on the Atari Lynx, which was the first time we encountered something similar to this. We’re on board with the uncomplicated joy of anticipating problems and trying to clear them beforehand.
Very basically, Mahjong goes something like this: you are presented with over a hundred tiles, placed in such a way that they stack and overlap each other. There are four of each tile, which is more than enough to start forming pairs. Find and select a pair, and they disappear, revealing the tiles beneath and likely allowing you to make further pairs. The tile layout diminishes, and eventually the entire board is cleared.
Complications come from what lies beneath. It’s entirely possible for a shape – a series of five lines, for example – to be stacked on top of another of its type. If these are the only two remaining tiles of this type, then you’re doomed. Your job is to ensure that it never reaches that eventuality. Stacks and overlaps are two ways that you can be blocked, but it’s just as possible that a long row of tiles will be as obstructive.
We’ve played these kinds of games for years, particularly on mobile where they shine. Like a game of Patience or Solitaire, it’s entirely possible that a layout is impossible, or constructed in such a way that success is unlikely, so the game does still have its niggles (tile positions are procedurally generated here, so this does happen). But there are some simple rules at play, both informal and formal, which means that you can zone-out and complete a puzzle without activating too many brain cells.
For a simple game, Mahjong – Xbox Series X|S does a haphazard old job of bringing it to Xbox. Sanuk Games, who did a much better job of converting Tetris to Xbox with Tetraminos, really does struggle here when it should be the easier of the two tasks.
First of all, this is the most vanilla of packages. Sure, there are seventy levels on offer, which is significant, but there is nothing else to speak of. There are no additional modes which might change how you play. There’s no fiddling with the basic rulesets, where other games might have tried power-ups and bonus tiles. You can’t even change anything cosmetic, like backgrounds or tiles. You’re getting seventy layouts and you’re going to like it or lump it.
When you haven’t got a touchscreen or mouse, a game of Mahjong can become fiddly. And so it proves here. Mahjong – Xbox Series X|S opts for a highlighted-tile approach, where you snap from tile to tile with a tap of the analogue stick. Except the game can’t deal with tiles that are slightly offset. If something is left of your tile but ever-so-slightly north or south, then you will need to press up rather than left, which feels erroneous. And lugging the game’s focus over to a tile in the opposite corner of the game-screen is time-consuming and cumbersome.
But the tripwire that kept snagging us was stack heights. It should be incredibly easy to tell which stack of tiles is higher than another. There should be drop-shadow and side-tile out the wazoo, making it clear what’s blocked or not blocked. But the perspective is too top-down, the drop-shadow too subtle. It’s unnecessarily difficult to tell which stacks are blocked and which are not, and the result is a lot of flailing about. It’s not something you can learn: it’s something you have to put up with.
A small mention goes to the tile graphics, too. We’re not used to the seasons and flowers that are used here, but they are far too easy to confuse. Most of the seasons have flowers on their tile, so it’s entirely possible to think you’re matching them with flower tiles when, in fact, you’re not. In any other Mahjong game, you would change the tile cosmetics. Here, you’re stuck with it.
Considering Mahjong – Xbox Series X|S low-balls its efforts, creating a game that’s absolutely devoid of ambition, it’s a wonder that it still gets so much wrong. It shouldn’t be this difficult to select or match tiles, and those are the only two actions you make in the game. A serene, meditative game suddenly starts to get on your nerves.
With seventy puzzle layouts and no frills, Mahjong – Xbox Series X|S might seem like the ideal purchase for someone who wants a no-nonsense version of the classic game. But when the simplest interactions come with baggage, there’s no reason to pick this over the many other options on the Xbox Store.
You can buy Mahjong – Xbox Series X|S from the Xbox Store
- Seventy puzzles is a sturdy package
- Mahjong is a classic regardless of the port
- Lacking game modes
- Lacking almost everything, actually
- Controls are slow and fiddly
- Stack heights are extremely hard to glean
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to – Purchased by TXH
- Formats – Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One
- Version reviewed – Xbox Series X
- Release date – 15 December 2022
- Launch price from – £8.39