iPhone Gems: The Best of All 7 Mahjong Games

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Surely, you don’t want to spend $36 and a bunch of download time testing seven similar games to see which are really worthy of your time. That’s why we’ve tested the entire suite of Mahjong games released so far for OS X iPhone, and figured out which ones are the best and worst. This edition of iPhone Gems covers games from six developers, ranging from free to $9.99 in price, and our top picks this time are two $4.99 games, one of which is available in a free demo version.

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All 7 of these titles are based upon the same tile-matching game, which is alternately known as “Shanghai,” “Shanghai Mahjong” or “Mahjong,” though the last of these names is a little inaccurate. The classic Mahjong is a competitive betting game played with Chinese tiles that have been marked with coins or numbers, pieces of bamboo, flowers, directions of wind, or dragons. These titles use the same tiles, but are designed to be played by one person rather than a group; you match sets of two like tiles until every tile has been removed from the board. Because this is a one-player game, some refer to this version of Mahjong as Mahjong Solitaire, and though there are standard patterns and rules for presenting the tiles to be matched, each version of the game approaches the rules differently.


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Aki Mahjong ($10) from Ambrosia Software is amongst the more rigidly structured versions of Mahjong on the iPhone. Using grainy, muted artwork that wouldn’t look out of place on the walls of an old Chinese restaurant, Aki Mahjong presents you with a list of locked challenges, each with a static piece of background art and a set pattern of tiles. You advance to the next level by properly matching and removing all of the tiles you are given, and though the game gives you multiple opportunities to win a level by reshuffling the remaining tiles when you’re out of moves, you lose if whatever remains can’t be shuffled for a victory. Pressing the “i” icon opens a window telling you how many moves remain, and offering a hint as to the next available move.


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The best things about Aki Mahjong are its legitimately appropriate, well-composed soundtrack—orchestral Chinese-styled—and the fact that there is a linear challenge with multiple levels to play through. We also found the touch controls generally accurate and responsive, with the presentation straightforward rather than confusing. However, the tile graphics don’t look great on the iPhone’s screen by comparison with most other versions of this game we’ve tried, and unlike almost all of them, there’s no user-customizability of the experience: you play what’s given to you, with only the option of going back and playing old unlocked levels. There is also very little use of the iPhone’s special effects capabilities. For a highly similar experience, we were more impressed by, and had a lot more fun with Shanghai Mahjong. iLounge rating: B-.


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A low price is apparently supposed to generate low expectations for Jirbo’s iMahjong ($1), offered for a limited time at a low price as an enticement to play. Frankly, we wouldn’t even spend a dollar on this highly mediocre rendition of the game, which features a static background, a single tile layout, poorly drawn tiles, and one of the worst approaches we’ve yet seen to widescreen/vertical flipping: merely rotating the screen and squishing the aspect ratio. The art doesn’t look good in either orientation, but it looks worse when stretched wide.


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With iMahjong, the only challenge is to beat the same table repeatedly, but faster the next time. The game will offer you a hint as to the next move, but has no other frills; the audio is extremely limited and you don’t shift from background to background. Jirbo’s draw is an in-game “avatar” that you create with a separate application and can use to compare scores against friends, but seriously, who wants to compare Mahjong clock times with other people? Our advice is to save your buck or put it towards a different game. iLounge rating: D+.


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Long-time Japanese developer Sunsoft’s take, Mahjong Solitaire ($10), is sort of like Aki Mahjong for beginners, plus cleaner graphics. While Ambrosia’s rendition of Chinese scenery looks like it was constructed from old photographs, Sunsoft’s art is bright, and its tiles both colorful and highly legible. Similarly, its music is similarly Chinese, but a bit more upbeat. On the flip side, whereas Aki changes music and background frequently, Mahjong Solitaire repeats both from stage to stage, and the audio in particular—including chunky sound effects—tends to grate. Both games are limited in gameplay; you again have limited user control over the experience, and move from stage to stage in sequence.


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However, whereas Aki Mahjongg throws you immediately into a full, complex board full of tiles, Sunsoft presents you with a zoomed-in smaller set of tiles to teach you the ropes. You can make each stage easy, medium, or hard in difficulty, and a timer runs to keep track of your progress. Fail to remove the pieces and you’ll have to start again—each board has a “correct” solution—and continued success unlocks more levels with more set patterns. Little animations for successful tile matches keep the game sort of interesting, and you can use pinch and expand gestures to zoom in and out of the board less than smoothly.


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If you’re new to Mahjong and don’t need a lot of control over your experience, Mahjong Solitare is a fine place to start for a guided tour. We still think that Shanghai Mahjong offers a better way for both beginners and experts to enjoy this game, and would recommend turning down the music and sound effects here, but this is a fun game to play in bite-sized doses. iLounge rating: B-.


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Of all of the versions of Mahjong we played, Moonlight Mahjong ($5) from Midnight Martian is the one we’d recommend first to experts. There are a couple of major things that are very wrong about this game—its lack of any background art and audio; you play in silence on a flat yellow surface—and two things that are so profoundly right that the omissions are almost forgivable: the tile patterns can be selected from 12 different options, some of which defy gravity, and you can use gesture commands to rotate, zoom, and pan around them to your heart’s content. Every other version of Mahjong is, essentially, plain tic-tac-toe to this one’s 3-D; where else can you match tiles arranged in the shape of the Eiffel Tower?


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Our rating of Moonlight Mahjong is a compromise: relative to most of its more polished competitors, this game is an A on concept but a C on execution; if not for the 3-D functionality, the bland art and lack of audio would doom it to obscurity. However, the player’s abilities to actually start on any of the 3-D models, hunt around them looking for matches, and randomly regenerate properly solvable puzzles, keep Moonlight Mahjong interesting and intellectually challenging in a way that the majority of its competitors lack. Though it looks like a demo rather than a finished game, it’s a good value for the $5 asking price, and the free Moonlight Mahjong Lite version lets you have a taste of the experience at no charge. iLounge rating: B+.


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The very best of the current crop of iPhone Mahjongg titles is MobileAge’s Shanghai Mahjong ($5). It’s the polar opposite of Moonlight Mahjong in that there are no fancy 3-D effects, and the board presentations are fairly traditional, but the 2-D artwork and user customization are basically flawless. MobileAge starts you with one set of tiles and one background, but lets you connect instantly to the Internet to download as many more as you want. There are so many board layouts, types of tiles, and backgrounds to choose from that it’s essentially impossible to run out of ways to play and enjoy Mahjong here—there’s literally more to choose from in Shanghai Mahjong than any other iPod or iPhone game we’ve seen. In our view, MobileAge’s “get more stuff from the Internet for free” model is spot-on, and really aids this game’s replay value.


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It’s because of this customization that you can, for example, render all of the traditional Chinese tiles as letters and numbers that will be easier for first-time players to understand; you can also replace them with the faces of Star Trek characters, movie posters, fractals, or colorful abstract spheres. The game also has a “Windstorm” mode, which changes the standard matching rules on a turn-by-turn basis to let you make matches that would otherwise not be possible; it can be turned off, and for confusion’s sake, probably should be by default.


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Shanghai Mahjong is only missing one thing: music. There are cheesy sound effects to accompany the zooming out of matched blocks from the screen, but you’ll have to provide your own soundtrack here. Because of how well the rest of the game has been assembled, we don’t mind much, but this game would receive our full A rating with a solid soundtrack a la Aki Mahjong’s. It has the right price and right features to merit a high recommendation to all of our readers. iLounge rating: A-.


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The last Mahjong game is Maverick Software’s Yulan Mahjong Solitaire ($5). While we wouldn’t go so far as to call this an embarrassment by comparison with the other titles, it’s definitely not worth the asking price given how much more you get from a game such as Shanghai Mahjong. Here, there are eight tile layouts, one set of tiles, and no background. Smooth scaling and panning of the board are permitted with gestures, enabling you to zoom in close on fairly boring tile artwork, and there’s neither music nor sound effect accompaniment for the on-screen action. A small pop-up menu offers you the ability to get a hint, undo a move, reshuffle the board or begin again; a card at the top left of the screen tells you how many moves remain at any given point.


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Yulan Mahjong Solitaire isn’t bad, but frankly, you can get a better experience out of the similarly plain-looking Moonlight Mahjong Lite for free. Like Midnight Martian’s giveaway title, Yulan comes across as an unfinished demo rather than a completed full game, but this one lacks the 3-D twists that make Moonlight so different from the rest. This is plain single-player mahjong, completely forgettable, and illustrates the challenges iPhone game developers will have going forward: the level of polish and richness customers will expect for their $5 has just gone up, and everyone else should expect to trim prices or come up with smarter concepts to justify their releases. iLounge rating: C.