Saturday, May 02, 2009

Videogame Classics - Shanghai (1990)

Shanghai was Atari's excellent mahjong puzzler on the Lynx in early 1990. Activision had brought the game to computers in the late '80s, so this was already a well-known hit, and it was a great addition to the Lynx library.

Nintendo's Gameboy was selling like hotcakes on the back of Tetris, which is just about the greatest videogame ever made. And Atari desperately needed something similar to compete, but games were too few and far between. You would think puzzle games would be falling from the sky, but no dice. Fortunately, the few puzzlers on the Lynx are quite excellent.

Still, only four puzzle games on the Lynx? Chip's Challenge, Shanghai, Klax, Crystal Mines 2 - that's it. True, the software library was small, downright embarrassing, around 100 titles. But you would think Atari would have released more puzzle games, which had to have been easy to design and develop. The production costs surely were cheaper than the big-name arcade games.

Ah, well. It's impossible to discuss the Atari Lynx without everything becoming shrowded in tragedy. It's the rock star who died young, and died foolishly. If only there were better management, if only the record label wasn't so grossly incompetent. If only Tetris hadn't happened, right there and then. There's nothing you can do but shrug your shoulders and go on living.

Anyway, Shanghai is an excellent tile puzzle game for the Lynx. It might even be the best. Two players can compete against one another, racing to removie the most tiles, I would guess. You have an impressive collection of tile formations to choose from, and they're randomized each game, promising a fresh challenge every time.

If I remember correctly, there was a Shanghai for the Gameboy. The Lynx version just stomped it to pieces. It's quite an embarassing fight, really, and you could imagine Atari taking advantage of the Lynx' sheer power to stomp Nintendo's handheld every step of the way. But that would require competence, some basic understanding of videogames and why they were popular with kids.

The Tramiels never knew what the hell they were doing. All Jack Tramiel and his sons knew was backstabbing, cutthroat politics. But that way of doing business only works when you're on top. Nintendo was on top. Commodore was on top. Atari was at the bottom. They never accepted that simple fact and it cost them dearly.

And so, one of the better Atari Lynx titles becomes a game of what-ifs and what-could-have-beens. Oh, and I have I mentioned that Shanghai is a really, really good puzzle game?

What else am I supposed to say? You match tiles, they float away, you keep going until you can't match any more or clear the board. The music is catchy, without being too annoying, which is a rare thing with Lynx games. And everything is in full color and looks wonderful. God bless the person who thought to zoom out the tiles so I could actually see what I'm doing.

If you decide to score a Lynx from Ebay (not a bad idea, really), then remember to get Shanghai. You'll have a great time.

P.S. I just remembered that Lynx had a fifth puzzle game, a matching tile puzzler named Ishido. It was almost instantly forgettable, and wouldn't hold your attention for five minutes. We'll just not bother counting it.

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