As someone who reviewed the first Mahjong computer game in the mid-1980s, when most people had never even heard of mahjong, I never imagined I’d be reviewing another one 20 years later. Obviously, these ancient tile-matching games, also referred to as Shanghai, fares well in an electronic realm, but with the introduction of Oberon’s Mahjong Match, it’s not the same old, same old.
Mahjong Match uses the tile sets that all mahjong games use, but time pressure and a variety of special tiles spice up the experience. One key difference from other mahjong games is selecting tiles from a moving conveyor belt at the bottom of the screen instead of matching pairs of tiles on a static board. I call it "snatch and match." You could also call it "pressure mahjong," because if you don’t remove tiles from the conveyor fast enough, it clogs up and you lose a life.
During basic game-play, you pick a tile from the conveyor and then click on its match in the pile above, earning 10 points for each match. Some tiles, such as flower or season tiles, can match with any other tile in their group (such as pairing a Winter tile with Summer), but earn 20 points if you match them exactly (e.g. pairing Summer with Summer). If you accidentally pick up the wrong tile, you can’t put it back on the conveyor, but you can place it in a "jewel box" at the right of the screen to make it disappear.
Special tiles occasionally appear on the conveyor or in the main pile. For instance, there’s a Magic Wand tile that helps you find matches by highlighting tiles in the conveyor that currently can be matched and, when you hover over one, a sort of electrical link appears showing you exactly where the matching tile is. The Yin Yang tile will match any tile, while tiles with a question mark (called Mystery Tiles) always will match a tile, but of course you don’t find out which one until you select it. Other helpful tiles include the Hourglass, which freezes time for a while; the Gold Bar, which is worth bonus points, but rapidly shrinks (losing value) until it finally pops out of existence; Fireworks that will remove a few nearby tiles from the rapidly filling conveyor; Bombs which will completely clear the conveyor and even a special tile that will open a second Jewel Box.
The game also likes to throw a few curves at you. For instance, Snowflake tiles appear on the conveyor and if you don’t quickly remove them, they will freeze several tiles on either side when they burst, making those tiles unavailable for a time. Up in the main pile, there are tiles that are chained, which means they must be matched once to unlock them and a second time to remove them. There are also tiles that are frozen, and you have to remove tiles in layers above or around them to cause them to thaw. Some tiles are especially frustrating because they pulsate and periodically change, so you have to be vigilant. In many games I picked up a tile to match one of the changing tiles only to have it shift just before I could make the match.
The time element and the pressure it adds to the game definitely worked for me, and the introduction of special tiles that help you out or mess with you kept things interesting – even in the easy early stages, which had a meditative flow to them that I enjoyed. This was true for most of the 54 levels, which were spread out among six stages.
My only complaint about the game is that it not well balanced. As I said, it’s downright meditative for about two-thirds of the game (the first four stages). The challenge grew during Stage 5, but I didn’t lose a life until sixth stage. At that point the game suddenly seemed to mount a serious challenge to my concentration and fast responses, not to mention judicious use of bombs, rockets and jewel boxes as needed. I started to lose lives regularly until soon I ran out. Losing a life isn’t the end of the game, but after 45 levels without losing one, I felt frustrated when I started to lose them on a regular basis. I like that the game became challenging; I just would prefer it to be more balanced. Fortunately, you can restart from the beginning of the zone, but with zero points.
Mahjong Match, with its unique twists kept me focused and more than matched my expectations. The "snatch and match" style gave the game its own feel, different from other mahjong games, and time pressure and the different tile types added variety and kept me on my toes.
Confucius say, "Lucky man who make good match live long and prosper." Or was that Spock?