It took a couple of months, but we finally have the first third-party release for Game Boy… though only just barely. These days, Shanghai publisher HAL Laboratory is more a Nintendo second party studio akin to Intelligent Systems than a true third party, but the company’s relationship with Nintendo was still evolving back in 1989. And while that particular relationship dates back to at least 1984 (when HAL programmer and future NCL president Satoru Iwata stepped in to help fix up the NES version of Balloon Fight), throughout the ’80s HAL published under its own label: Air Fortress, Adventures of Lolo, Kabuki Quantum Fighter, and so forth.
That would change as HAL became more closely integrated with Nintendo’s internal development teams. In fact, significant developments in the companies’ relationship were brewing even as Shanghai saw the light of day; the same day as Shanghai‘s debut, a major HAL/Nintendo collaboration (Mother, AKA Earth Bound) hit store shelves. So really, it’s only fitting that the first external company whose name appeared on the cover of a Game Boy release would eventually become folded into Nintendo. No credits appear in Shanghai, but it is entirely possible that this early Game Boy title features contributions by Nintendo’s future boss.
Surprisingly, this seventh Game Boy release looks at first glance to be the system’s second mahjong title. That seems excessive, even in light of the platform’s embracing of older gamers and Japan’s affection for video mahjong. But in truth, Shanghai has basically nothing to do with true mahjong outside of its use of the traditional game’s 144 tiles. Even then, a number of Shanghai variants and clones use completely alternate tile sets that completely abandon the mahjong theme altogether; even this version of Shanghai includes a variant set that switches the tiles to the Roman alphabet.
The Roman version here is actually quite terrible, though. The bold, all-caps letters become difficult to read when piled up, and given that the entire game revolves around spotting matches in a big stack of jumbled tiles, legibility is paramount. Besides, the mahjong tiles themselves actually look quite nice. Unlike with Yakuman, HAL’s tile designs use the system’s intermediate shades of grey to better mimic the mixed colors of true mahjong pieces. It’s still monochromatic, and therefore less intuitive to the eye than Shanghai variants for color consoles, but the minor change makes a huge difference for functionally identical objects.
The original Mac version of Shanghai, 1986
No, despite being based around mahjong tiles, Shanghai pays only the most superficial lip service to the ancient Chinese game. The oldest version of the game dates back merely to 1981, when it was designed for early PCs by a guy named Brodie Lockard. Activision gave the game a commercial release for Macintosh (where it made deft use of that computer’s newfangled “mouse” interface) five years later, and it was ported across to other systems almost immediately. By the time Shanghai hit Game Boy, it had already appeared on Master System, PC Engine, and more.
Conceptually, Shanghai is vastly simpler to play than mahjong. Whereas the real game requires you to worry about suits and matches and modifiers and many other factors, Shanghai simply piles up a bunch of tiles in a set (and randomized) configuration and has you match tiles two by two. Since there are four of each tile in a mahjong set, each piece has three possible matches (making two pairs per face value). The challenge of the game comes in the fact that only visible pieces at the edge of the pile, or the edge of a stacked tier, are eligible for play. You need to take special care not to lock pieces behind impossible matches — for example, to pair up tiles only when you’re sure that you won’t do anything stupid, like leave a piece stranded with its only possible match hidden directly beneath itself.
Supposedly, Lockard based Shanghai on a classic Chinese puzzle game called The Turtle, though this evidently is considered somewhat apocryphal. In any case, Shanghai‘s function seems straightforward enough: It takes superficial mahjong elements, throws everything complex about the game out the window, and lets Americans feel like they understand “mahjong.” It’s all a lie, but hey.
As an early Game Boy title, Shanghai did the trick. It’s no masterpiece, but HAL managed to put together a respectable rendition of the game. The tile graphics look surprisingly good, the music is a complete ear worm, and it’s eminently playable. Complex? No, not in the least. And certainly it’s not the best rendition of Shanghai these days — not even the best portable rendition. But reasonably addictive and suitably entertaining. It definitely fits the profile of Game Boy’s first few years of software releases: A slow, simple, puzzle game with universal casual appeal, yet ultimately nothing special, either.
Game Boy puzzlers, portable Shanghai clones, and HAL’s handheld titles would all get much better over the years. As with many early releases for the system, Shanghai feels like a halting baby step in many ways.
Japanese title: Shanhai • 上海
Developer: Activision/HAL Laboratory
Publisher: HAL Laboratory
Release date: 7.28.1989 [JP] | 6.1990 [US]
Genre: Puzzle (mahjong, matching)
Super Game Boy: No support
Previous in series: Shanghai [Sega Master System, 1988]
Next in series: Shanghai [Lynx, 1990]
Similar titles: Shanghai Pocket [Sunsoft, 1999], Shanghai Advance [Sunsoft, 2001]
Shanghai | Packaging
Shanghai | Packaging contents
Shanghai | Box front
Shanghai | Box back
Shanghai | Cartridge
Shanghai | Manual
Shanghai | Japanese packaging
Shanghai | Japanese complete contents
Shanghai | Japanese box front
Shanghai | Japanese box back
Shanghai | Japanese cartridge
Shanghai | Japanese manual
Interesting detail on previously owned cartridge: Evidently Weekly Famitsu magazine produced third-party labels for the bare tops of Game Boy carts to help players spot their games when filed or stacked. Not only is this a good idea, this label is even color-coordinated with some of the detail elements of the front label!