FunTown Mahjong (XBLA)ESRB:
Platform: Xbox 360
My limited experience with anything mahjong consists of some PC gaming, as well as a game on the long ago released, and for some people forgotten, Sega Saturn. My then girlfriend, now my wife, was the one who played it the most and it was the first game that really got her into the world of console gaming. So when Microsoft gave us here at GameBoyz a chance to review FunTown Mahjong on Xbox LIVE Arcade, I was not only intrigued, but I wondered if this game would take me down memory lane to the days when I watched my wife to be play for hours on end.
As one would expect, a game with the words FunTown and mahjong wrapped into one does not really push the limits of the Xbox hardware. Surprisingly though, the visuals are not up to snuff even for an arcade title. In this XBLA version of mahjong you are involved in more versus modes then I had expected. Given that you are playing against either the computer AI or online opponents you are given the choice to select an avatar to represent your on-screen character. Now this sounds great in principle, and given that the NXE was unleashed last November, you'd think you could use your own NXE avatar, but unfortunately you cannot. You are given a choice of pre-made avatars already found in game. If you are playing against the computer AI, you can also assign them their own avatars too. These avatars as a whole are not nearly the quality you'd expect on a next generation machine like the Xbox 360. They seem lower resolution and something that you’d expect to see on the last generation of hardware. The actual playfield for FunTown is presented in widescreen 3D with your pre-made avatar sitting on one side of the table. It is somewhat clean and allows your game of mahjong to be fairly playable. Bottomline, although expectations are not high for a game that represents mahjong, this game somehow manages to miss what should be a quality looking game, even for an XBLA title with limitations in size.
This is undoubtedly one of the hardest sections for me to discuss in this review. Why you ask. Well, what sounds do you really have to have for a mahjong game? If any descriptor comes to mind, it is that the sound is adequate. There is a sound to represent the tiles when moving, and there is some voice acting for the available avatars. Sound is very basic and seems to be a non-integral part of the game, so to speak. So if you are thinking of purchasing this FunTown Mahjong, be forewarned that sound seems to be really a forgotten area of this game.
If there is one thing that FunTown Mahjong made clear to me, it is that the whole world of mahjong is much more complicated then I really knew. I am used to watching and/or playing single player experiences on the Sega Saturn. There was nothing complex to those as the main goal was to just clear the board of all available tiles. However, upon playing FunTown Mahjong, which has it's origin in the versus experience, I was left with the impression that I had a lot to learn about what mahjong had to offer overall.
A quick Wikipedia search gave me the impression that there are so many different versions of mahjong and so many different rules that it is mind boggling. For the enquiring minds, FunTown has its roots in 16 tile mahjong. Given that the whole versus thing (either against the computer AI or real people) is new to me, I definitely had a lot to learn. There is a tutorial included in the game, but it was very painful for me to read. This tutorial is a lot longer then I had expected, but man was it ever dry and somewhat detached. It seemed also more technical then I had expected. So I was left to take what I could from the available tutorial and go forward and learn the rest of on my own.
There is no doubt that FunTown includes a lot of rules that are associated with the game of mahjong. You will find the traditional "pungs" and "kongs" are available in the game. Interestingly enough, you will find that the game somewhat holds your hand at times when using these. For example, if you have something like a special move ("pung") the option to use it automatically pops up an you can accept to make the move or decline to use it and do something else on your own. But hand holding or not, you will find that you should and will become somewhat knowledgeable in what the game of mahjong is all about and how the game is played in a versus style. When playing against the computer AI, you will find that it is not as tough as a real person. If I was able to win some games against the computer, then there is no doubt that the more experienced mahjong player will have even an easier time then me.
Given that this is an XBLA title, there is the option to take FunTown online. You and up to three other players can hook up for some Xbox LIVE multiplayer mayhem, well as much mayhem as a game of mahjong can create. There is no hassle in setting up a game and when I took a look at the options to host a game there are quite a few things such as the number of rounds, turn timer and privacy. The game keeps score for you and when you complete a board all members of the party stay together until the host ends the session. After playing a few games online I discovered that there are some diehard mahjong players out there who have a pretty good grip on game. As I noted in my graphics section, one notable disappointment is that there is no support for NXE avatars. Given that this game has a 'community' feel to it; it would make sense to allow for such support so that those who play it can see that they are actually "in the game", especially when playing online. Scene It? Box Office Smash does it, so why not this game?
There is no doubt that FunTown Mahjong is what it is, a virtual version of 16-tile mahjong. Where my issues lie with the game is that the tutorial is not nearly as helpful as it could have been, the graphics are somewhat average, and the gameplay itself is not nearly what I expected. The one big redeeming quality is that the game has online multiplayer for up to four players (including yourself) and mahjong maniacs will enjoy playing with other human beings. At the end of the day you can expect to play mahjong when purchasing this title, but just don't expect this virtual version of the tile based game to really wow you.