Virtual Mahjong is a game I’d been aware of for a few years, seeing it pop up on eBay a number of times, but always from international sellers. A few months ago I managed to track down a copy at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo and popped it into my Saturn as soon as I got home. Just from looking at the cover art, a “graphic design is my passion” nightmare, I didn’t have high hopes for the game, but I was hoping it would have a “so bad it’s good” charm to it. Maybe there would be a fun quirk to the game or interesting 3D graphics. And actually, yeah, it did! But maybe not in the way I was expecting.
Sega Saturn games can easily be forgiven for having janky 3D graphics; the system was released early in the timeline of 3D consoles, so it was common for the graphics to be a bit rough around the edges. That being said, I wasn’t ready for what this game had in store for me.
I’ll be skipping over the intro video, which is just the three characters on the beach talking over each other for a bit. From the start screen you select either
HARD mode, then you select the character to main opponent with
C on the controller, then
START to continue. You’ll always play against all three characters, but which one you select is the one you’re trying to get undressed. Once you’ve finished one character the game automatically progresses to the next one.
At the start of the game each player has 25,000 points, and you start with five stars, also called points. Stars are gained for winning hands, lost if another player wins, lost if you’re
noten, and nothing happens if you’re
tenpai. If you lose all your stars you get a game over screen and you lose your progress for the current character. This is all pretty typical for a mahjong game of this style and era. The use of stars is a bit unique since most games rely just on points.
This is where things start to fall apart for this game. The opponents discard their tiles as fast as the animation speeds will allow, giving you no time to process what’s been discarded or who’s turn it is when calls are made. That in itself isn’t so bad; many games have instant discards. The problem is that there’s also a discard timer, so you’re limited in how much time you have to simultaneously figure out what’s been discarded, what your opponents might be up to, what you’ve drawn, and what you should discard.
On the other hand, you have the painfully long calls your opponents make, which includes dialog, loading times, animations, and occasionally characters bantering back and forth, taking up 10 seconds or more for each call, and many times you’ll get multiple calls one after another.
Once the hand is over, the
yaku are read out and the points are exchanged per usual. If you won the hand, you’ll be treated to a slightly interactive, uh… I’m honestly struggling to put it into words, but you can press button the controller to move the camera around different pre-selected angles to look at the character, and the bigger your hand the more time you have to stay in this mode. Generally this isn’t all that interesting, but there are a few where the janky animations really stand out. For example, the first time you beat Nana you get to enjoy Virtual Mahjong pushing the limits of “jiggle physics”. With Mari, you get to experience parts of her body phase in and out of existence.
One thing that I want to note, which isn’t the fault of the game in any way, is that it changes resolutions occasionally, which will cause most video scalers to interrupt their video output for some amount of time. For my Framemeister XRGB-Mini, you get several seconds of no audio or video while it resyncs with the change in resolution. Other scalers might do better, but it’s worth mentioning because, at least in the attract mode, it happens kind of a lot. Once you’re in the game it settles down for the most part.
This game fails on every level. It’s a genuine struggle to find anything to complement this game on when the things that make this game interesting are the flaws. Other games stand out for well-done 2D animation, catchy music, mini-games, stories, or other gimmicks. Virtual Mahjong has none of that, and considering that this game released four years after the Saturn launched (and cost 円120,000 if the sticker on my copy is to be believed), there’s honestly not much excuse for it considering the quality of other Saturn games of the era, never mind what was available on the PlayStation. I recorded a full playthrough of the game which ended up being just shy of two hours, and all I have to show for it are the ending animation and credits.