Imperial Mahjong is a new game for the Amstrad from Cargosoft, who produced the mammoth point and click space adventure Orion Prime seven years ago. As with that title, Cargosoft has set out to produce the very best version of Mahjong for the Amstrad CPC. And, whilst I don't have time to revisit every version of Mahjong already published on that machine, and it's actually rather difficult to define what constitutes a "great" version of Mahjong, I suspect they've come very close to achieving it. This game oozes quality from every pore.
If you're unfamiliar with Mahjong, here's my crash course in it. You get a board full of tiles, featuring pretty pictures, all arranged in a pattern with tiles stacked in layers. You can only match tiles if you they match identically, or they match "honourably", and you can only remove tiles that are on the edges of the pattern. This means with most tile patterns that you gradually work "inwards", removing the tiles around the edges. It's generally best to try and remove the tiles that are on the top layers first so that you can see the ones they are covering. Identical matches are pattern-matched with the eye; honourable matches have to be memorised.
Imperial Mahjong comes with a very clear manual introducing the nuances of the game. The game originates from China and, whenever you clear a board (by removing all the tiles), you are presented with some words of Chinese wisdom ("What the superior man seeks is in himself; what the small man seeks is in others"). But it's in the graphics and sound that this game really delivers.
Firstly, there's a temptation with most 8-bit Mahjongs to use a low resolution two colour mode for the board display. That's because the tiles are quite distinctive enough to not require colour and using a low-res mode naturally frees up more of the very limited memory for computations. But this version uses the Amstrad's highest resolution mode with all eight colours and a rather nice "dithering" effect applied to the background which fools the eye into thinking it has even more.
The player glides a nicely distinguishable red arrow around the screen, selecting the pairs of tiles he wishes to remove. There's an appropriate confirmation noise when he does so, which sounds out slightly higher than the background music.
Now it's no exaggeration to say that Cargosoft has really gone to town with this background music. There are six different tunes to choose from and more than 30 minutes of music to listen to. It plays on eight octaves and wouldn't be out of place accompanying Robocop rather than a board game requiring a fair amount of concentration. Nevertheless, I didn't find it in any way distracting.
In fact, having played through countless versions of completely silent Mahjong games over the years, the music positively enhanced the experience. Because it loops, after ten minutes or so you are hearing the same bit again, but a quick press on the Escape key and you can change it.
That brings me nicely onto the menu, which is a small strip that appears in the very centre of the screen. By using just the left/right controls and Fire, you can configure practically any element of the game to your exact liking. You can set language, assess progress, switch boards, view an in-game resume of how to play and even "seed" your own game to challenge a friend. It also doubles as a pause functionality too.
As for the games of Mahjong themselves, they are as perplexing and challenging as you might expect. Personally, I really have no idea if I use skill or just blind luck to win at Mahjong. I often find myself stuck looking for a match or trying to work out exactly how to get a tile which is obstructing a lot of others removed from the board. Often I find I need to work backwards (i.e. "Well, I can't remove that one unless that other one is gone first, and I can only remove that other one if I first get rid of that pair...!") On many occasions there's a sudden realisation that the game is going to play out or, more often than not, that play is going to be impossible after a few more moves. When this happens, it's testament to the true addictiveness of the game that you'll probably hit the Escape key, hit the "Again" icon and try a second, third or fourth time rather than reach for reset.
A nice touch is that the board on which the tiles rest features a very attractive Chinese dragon, who is slowly uncovered as you make progress.
There is one glaring omission to Imperial Mahjong and that is that it's not possible to "undo" even a single move. This is important because you sometimes have a choice of which tile to match with. Your eye may not notice one of them until it's too late. Some versions of the game even allow "undo"s all the way back to the very start. Personally, I didn't miss this feature. I just noticed that it wasn't there.
Another important note is that you have to hold down Space on the title screen to get the game to start.
As far as newly published Amstrad games go, this is easily the best one I've seen this year. It comes on disc only and requires a 128K machine, although if you're playing it via emulation (as most of you will be) then WinApe will load it up with no problems whatsoever.