Friday, December 10, 2010

Of Import: Shanghai (PC Engine)

Generally, when there are tiles displayed on my PC Engine, I'm struggling through another round of mahjong.  But there's a simpler, solitaire variation of the game that uses the standard tiles, and it's best known in the West as Activision's Shanghai.  This HuCard was one of the early PC Engine titles, Volume 4 in console creator Hudson Soft's own series, and was released in 1987 under license from Activision, based on the Western game designed by Brodie Lockard.  Following opening credits in English, all the menus are in Japanese, but the basic game can be played without ever diving into the more esoteric areas of the user interface.

This game must have been successful on the PC Engine, as the console ultimately saw three versions of the game released -- this, the original Shanghai, on HuCard, and Shanghai II and Shanghai III: Dragon's Eye on CD-ROM later on.  Despite Shanghai's popularity in the West, none of these games ever came to the American TurboGrafx-16.  Perhaps NEC felt the title screen wasn't action-packed enough:

What's interesting about this version is that the tile patterns are NOT random -- every time we start, we are presented with the same puzzle-style arrangement.  The game requires us to match pairs, constructed of identical tiles, or siblings in the floral and seasonal sets.  We can only move tiles that are free to move left or right, limiting our options at each stage of the stack's deconstruction.  Here I am, a few seemingly obvious moves in:

But this where solitaire mahjong's fascinating, deadly traps come into play -- it's not easy to clear the stack just by matching up available pairs Concentration-style.  There are 4 tiles in each matchable group, so we have some decisions to make about which pairs to match up at which time.  We therefore have to balance competing goals -- we must reduce the depth of the stack from the top down to expose hidden tiles, while also reducing the width of the widest rows to free up matchable tiles already visible.

Unlike some other versions, PC Engine Shanghai has no option (at least I could not find one in my stumbles through the Japanese menus) to shuffle the tiles, physically improbable as that may be.  So we have to play the stack as it is given to us, just as we would have to in real life.

And it's amazing how easy it is to feel victorious, matching pairs left and right, up and down, until we reach a certain point and realize that we're just plain out of moves.  We've checkmated ourselves, realizing that we need to free tiles that are mutually blocked or hidden somewhere in a vertical stack.  Like this:

We are allowed to back out our most recent moves, in reverse order, but usually at this stage I just want to reset the puzzle and start over, hoping to be smarter next time around.   The fact that each stack always starts out in the same configuration (there are several specific layouts available) means that we're not fighting dumb luck.  We're just fighting our own tendencies to go for the easy match at the expense of the longer-term objective. 

Shanghai makes for a simple but addictive strategy game; I have always enjoyed spending a few hours with it.  Many versions of Shanghai are available, and there's no real reason to choose this one over more readily available versions -- but the game was a deservedly popular early entry in the PC Engine Library.

PC Engine Shanghai is relatively common, therefore inexpensive, and may be available for purchase here or here:

Shanghai PC-Engine Hu


  1. Solitaire Mahjong is the only one I can play. Japanese people often play Mahjong, the real one I mean. I never could spend more than a few hours watching friends playing... They usually play over night, sometimes two days in a row.

    About the "Options" that doesn't seem to exist, have you been looking for the 設定 (settings)?

    I love your blog. I've just discovered it and it seems I'll be busy for a while if I want to catch up with all your articles.

  2. Welcome (or should I say, Bienvenue), Izo!