Another game of matching mahjong tiles. It has a twist, but the only interesting thing about it is its backstory.
Japanese Title: 香港
Developer: Onion Software
Publisher: Tokuma Shoten
Release date: 8.11.1990 [JP]
Genre: Puzzle (Matching)
Super Game Boy: No enhancements
Previous in series: Hong Kong [Tokuma Shoten, 1990 (Famicom Disk System)]
Next in series: None
Similar titles: Shanghai [HAL, 1989], Shisenshou: Match Mania [Tamtex/Irem, 1990]
I promised back in the Match-Mania episode that we’d be seeing another Shanghai-inspired puzzler again soon, and here were go, barely a dozen episodes later: Hong Kong. Shanghai, Sichuan, Hong Kong… basically, if you find a Game Boy cart named for a chunk of Chinese geography, you can guess it’s probably going to involve matching mahjong tiles. And so it is with Hong Kong.
Incidentally, that title made this episode an enormous pain to research, because looking up “Game Boy” + “Hong Kong” leads to endless lists of pirate and bootleg games out of Hong Kong, along with a host of releases specific to the Hong Kong region. This is no bootleg, though, and it’s very definitely from Japan. As a matter of fact, it has one of the more interesting origin stories in recent Game Boy World history.
Hong Kong came into the world, or at least into Japan, courtesy of Japanese magazine publisher Tokuma Shoten. “What’s a magazine publisher doing producing video games?” you may wonder, but as a company with a fairly heavy focus on the youth market, it made sense. One of Tokuma Shoten’s more successful business ventures in the late ’80s turned out to be its Family Computer Magazine, aka Famimaga. A direct competitor to the venerable Famicom Tsushin (Famitsu), Famimaga was pretty much what you’d expect for a games magazine of the era: Hyperactive layouts, photographic screen grabs scattered willy-nilly about the page, tips, previews, reviews, reader polls, and even occasional hints of meaty material like developer interviews.
Tokuma Shoten’s Famimaga line lasted throughout the ’90s, eventually spawning the likes of Famimaga 64. However, for a very short while, at the beginning of the decade, the company’s games magazine line crossed over into actual games. Perhaps taking a cue from the diskettes that you often found glued to the front of Spectrum-centric magazines in the UK and American PC magazines, Tokuma Shoten began distributing games with Famimaga.
“But wait,” you pipe up again in puzzlement, “wasn’t Famimaga focused specifically on consoles — on the the Famicom? How could it distribute games? Famicom carts didn’t come cheap!”
And it’s true, they didn’t. However, in Japan, Nintendo fans had a second format option that came far more cheaply than carts: The Famicom Disk System. Specifically engineered to be inexpensive, the Disk System even offered players an option to buy cheap rewritable blank diskettes and temporarily save games to them via in-store kiosks. By 1990, the format had reached the end of its life, beleaguered by piracy and obsolescence, so blank disks must have cost a little bit of nothing. And so, Tokuma Shoten decided to add some sex appeal to Famimaga by including free pack-in Disk System games.
Not just any games, either, but rather games specifically created for the purpose. Ultimately, the publisher put out six of these disks in total, and these now-somewhat uncommon disks are the only way to actually play most of those six Famicom titles — at least legally, anyway. Not that anyone but collectors really care; the Famimaga Disk System series consisted of a bunch of mundane properties that never really went much of anywhere. The one exception would be Famimaga Disk Vol. 5, which contained the debut of Compile’s long-running Puyo Puyo series and is therefore something of a notable release, especially for SEGA fans. Otherwise, though, the Famimaga Disk series has vanished unknown and unloved into history.
But the very first release in the line managed to make at least a little bit of noise before vanishing. It’s the game that appeared here on Game Boy about half a year after its March 1990 debut as a free Disk System giveaway: Hong Kong. Aside from the smaller screen dimensions and lack of color, Hong Kong for Game Boy appears to be entirely identical to Famimaga Disk Vol. 1: Hong Kong. The game looked pretty basic to begin with, so the change of format did it no real harm.
Again, Hong Kong involves a big stack of mahjong tiles. This time, they’re not piled up the third dimension but rather arranged flat, in a bricklayer pattern so that each tile is centered with the border of the two tiles above it and the two below it. Unlike other games we’ve seen named for Chinese territories, though, Hong Kong only makes use of six tiles in total from the larger mahjong set. These two details — the overlapping arrangement of tile edges and the six-tile limit — form the backbone of the gameplay. Play in Hong Kong consists simply of matching a tile from the play field to the current draw. Unlike in Shaghai, you don’t have to take tiles only from the edges; you can play any match you see on the screen, regardless of how many tiles surround the one you select.
There is a complication, however. You can only play a tile if it won’t leave a piece above it “hanging,” so to speak — if at any point you cause any tile on the field to no longer have another playing piece touching its bottom edge, the game ends and you lose. The challenge then becomes to clear the entire screen without leaving any invalid pieces. This can range from easy to maddening, because Hong Kong offers a mind-boggling degree of variety in its boards. Not only can you choose the layout shape of your tile arrangements, you can also define the “seed” variables for the pattern in which tiles are placed. There are tens of thousands of different boards possible, and while one has to assume that some of those would prove to be unwinnable, it also means you’d have to play for a long, long time before you had to repeat a particular layout.
To make things a little less daunting, the game does make one concession: The sequence in which the match tiles appears runs on an unchanging cycle, so you can plan ahead many moves if you’re the strategic type.
There’s not much more to Hong Kong, a simple but different take on Shanghai. It’s reasonable addictive and offers as much replayability as you could possibly hope for.
Some online sources list Hong Kong’s developer as Onion Software, a company that specialized in PC-9801 products and has therefore vanished into obscurity in the English-language side of the world, as with most PC-9801 publishers. This Game Boy adaptation of a freebie Disk System game marks the studio’s solitary foray into console gaming, and by all accounts that marked the end of the developer’s life. Much as with the game itself, Onion Software appears to have vanished to the ages.
In short, nothing about Hong Kong as a game particularly stands out from the ocean of similar tile-matching Game Boy releases we’ve seen so far. But at least it has an interesting backstory, right?