If there is a secret formula for success in creating an “ultimate” computer game for any given genre, Activision may have latched onto it. One can almost peer into the minds of the creative team which spawned Shanghai II. With the success in 30 different formats of their 1986 classic, Shanghai (with total sales of over 500,000 units), how could so successful a game ever be trumped?
This reviewer believes he has discovered the secret formula used by the creative team which created Shanghai II. There is no doubt that it all started with a meeting of the creative minds at Activision. Relax now and imagine them sitting around the conference table, brainstorming…. “Well, let’s include some new tile sets. Like the ones on all the BBS networks.” (They did. Beautiful VGA graphics present tile sets which are both artful and amusing. Different sets include playing cards; fantasy with all of the men, monsters and armor; sports; “wooden block” letters and numbers just right for youngsters; flags of the world; animals; and the stylistic Hanfuda design. Each of these different sets of tiles has its own unique qualities which do not always directly translate to the suits of crak, barn, and coin (plus winds, season, flowers and dragons) of the original Mah Jongg tile set.
Fortunately, fully illustrated on-line tile set information is there to explain these nuances with but the click of the mouse, so as to assist players in determining matches. Unfortunately, there is no easy way for players to “create their own” tile sets, but that didn’t stop all of the players of the original Shanghai, now, did it?) “Wait, we can do better than just make more tile sets. Let’s animate them, too!” (They did. Remove a pair of cats and the claw marks slash across the tile. Remove the One of Coins and it drops down a swirling well. The seasons change, the winds blow, fans open and close, fish splash about, the crowd cheers at football, and the dragons come to life. While not every tile is animated, enough are present to add true spice to the play of Shanghai II. The animations are mercifully short, dispersed enough to avoid becoming a nuisance and compelling enough to make onlookers stare on into the monitor well beyond their normal attention span. Shanghai II, like Wing Commander, has excellent “over the shoulder” draw to it.) ‘And sound. Don’t forget about sound support.
Some nice music, some ‘take away’ tile sounds, you know…?” (It’s got those, too. Unfortunately, we’ve heard complaints from others of, and ourselves experienced, a buzzing sound when playing on AdLib and Sound Blaster cards. Since sounds were one of the last things added to the game before its release, the rush work becomes apparent. Roland owners will be a trifle miffed to find out that only the music part of the sound support is available to them, while the tile removal sound effects can only be heard through their PC internal speaker. Still, if one can get past these glitches and programming limitations, there is some lovely music and clever tile removal sound effects. Admittedly, the music quickly becomes repetitive and might best be left set to play only at the end of the game, but a simple click of the mouse remedies all.
Tile sound effects include angelic harps, dragon’s roars, kitties meowing, bamboo clacking, winds blowing and more.) “Right, but I’m tired of the same old tile layout. Let’s do some new ones. The Chinese calendar would give us a spiffy theme. You know, the twelve animals, one for each year.” (So now there are thirteen layouts. In addition to the original Shanghai “dragon” layout, there is one layout for each animal on the Chinese calendar. Interestingly, this includes another, different, dragon
layout. Some of these are easier, and some are harder than the original layout, and all of them will take a bit of getting used to for veterans of the original Shanghai layout. Still, the core of Shanghai Ii’s success can be directly attributed to these multiple, layouts, as they inject new diversity into the game, extending its replay value to unimaginable limits.) “Okay, there are twelve new layouts, but everybody likes playing with blocks. How about a ‘design kit’ to make your own piles-o’-tiles?”
“Perfect.” (Gee, everyone liked building with blocks as a kid, didn’t they? Now with Shanghai II, players will find themselves playing with them all over again on their computer. This reviewer
designed two new layouts in about an hour, one a castle with a courtyard, the other in the shape of his initials, A. E. Of course, the real fun is not only in creating layouts using the 144 blank computer “tiles,” but also in tearing them apart through actual game play. Diversity piled upon diversity, enjoyment in designing layouts and enjoyment in tearing them apart. Shanghai II touches that responsive chord where complex minds can embrace simple “toys” like building blocks/tiles and lend wonderful credence to the expression, “men will be boys.”) “But we’ve got another entire game design to add. We’ve been calling it ‘Dragon’s Eye’ and…” “Is it like Shanghai?” “Well, yes and no. One player tries to build a pile of tiles in the shape of a small dragon while the other tries to ‘slay’ it by removing matching tiles. Here, let me show you. I’ve got this Mah Jongg set right here….” (This new game was then developed and is what really puts the “II” in Shanghai II. After several playings, this reviewer still isn’t sure he’s got all of the subtleties to this interesting variation on Shanghai, but it is certainly easy enough to learn. The hard part, however, is to master Dragon’s Eye. That will take even those who enjoy such “mind” games as Mastermind or Host a Mystery some time to figure out. Admittedly, it has been more fun than frustrating, trying to learn all of the ins and outs of Dragon’s Eye, and it seems a bit easier for beginners to commence as the Dragon Master, rather then the Dragon Slayer.)
“Oh, great! Can’t you see it now? A super-tournament game where players try to beat all the puzzles in the least amount of time. We can even add a ‘Hall of Fame…’ to give them something to shoot for.” (Sure enough, they did that, too. Tournament games are now “campaign games” consisting of defeating each of the twelve new puzzles. In addition to these, between every three games comes an interlude playing Dragon’s Eye. Thus, there are sixteen games to complete to finish the tournament. To assist players who cannot finish a puzzle, the “Find a Match” and “Shuffle Remaining Tiles” help keys can be used, albeit with a time penalty (a very large one, in the case of reshuffling tiles). Like running a marathon, most players will be more rewarded by actually finishing a tournament, rather than setting their goal on winning it by setting the lowest time in the Hall of Fame. Still, the immediate goal of finishing even a single puzzle reminds one of a Chinese dinner. Both end with a fortune cookie, and it’s not long before you’re hungry for more.) “You know, all this sounds great, and I think we can do it. But the reference card is gonna be a nightmare.” (That’s the truth! At six “pages” long, it’s more like a complete rules summary than a quick reference card, and to make it worse, it’s all in small text devoid of useful illustrations. By contrast, the on-line support is superior to the reference card in most respects. The very length of this game aid almost entirely eliminates its usefulness, but players are fortunate in that Shanghai II isn’t that complicated a game to begin with, so “muddling through” the first attempts at its many new features can be easily accomplished with
little reference to the documentation required). “Sounds like we’ve got our work cut out for us delivering the goods on this project. I wonder what marketing’s angle will be?” (A ball bag? Yep! Along with the 3.5″ and 5.25″ disks, Activision has included a little bag. Inside the bag are a couple of good-size marbles, one black and one white. Once players stop rolling them around in their hands like Captain Queeg from The Caine Mutiny, they usually read the little card included in the bag mentioning that these are “the eyes of the dragon.” What will those marketing types think of next?)
“Who cares? Hey, guys, ever have an idea so good you couldn’t wait to play it…?” (Ideas like that happen to garners all the time. This time, the garners are fortunate that the work is done and now they can relax enjoy playing Shanghai II either solitaire or with a friend. Even with some flaws in execution, the concepts in scope and grandeur that sired Shanghai II are those worthy of the highest praise. Well done, Activision. Well done.)