China Town is a falling-block tile-matching puzzle game developed and released by Data East for arcades in Japan in 1991.
While the game resembles other tile-matching puzzle games of the time, such as Columns, Dr. Mario, and Puyo Puyo, China Town is unique in that players control the placement of an non-rotatable single tile (one of 35 types of mahjong tiles) in order to form valid melds from the real-life tile game mahjong, automatically moving them to the player's "hand". Once a 14-tile mahjong hand has been made (usually with 4 melds and 1 pair from the board), the level ends and the player is scored based on the hand's score in the Japanese (or "riichi") variant of mahjong. The game is timer-based, with higher-scoring hands adding more to the in-game timer and extending the credit.
The game includes four game modes (each with minor differences, such as the addition of a bonus button-mashing mini-game or a board game progression), all of which can be played either "singles" (one player) or "doubles" (two player). Doubles mode is unique in that both players share the same board, requiring them to either co-operate to get one player a high-scoring hand (and extend the timer) or compete to get their hand first (and get the points).
China Town uses the 34 tile types used in Japanese mahjong. There are three suits of basic tiles numbered 1-9: characters, bamboo, and circles. There are also two sets of "honor" tiles: 4 Wind directions (east, south, west, north), and 3 Dragons (red, green, and white). (Flower and Season tiles featured in some other regional variants are not featured.) There are 4 of each tile in the "deck" for a total of 136. In addition to the standard tiles, it also includes an extra "joker" tile.
China Town is played with a joystick and one button. Similar to other falling block puzzle games, tiles fall one-by-one into a 6x7 grid controlled by the joystick. Tiles are cleared from the playfield by combining adjacent tiles into "melds" of tiles in the same suit: sequences (e.g., 1-2-3, 2-3-4, etc.), three-of-a-kind, or four-of-a-kind. When a meld is cleared, it is removed from the board and set aside into the player's hand. If one tile creates multiple melds, the player must select which one to set aside; the game will cycle through highlighting each option, and the player can select the highlighted group with the button. Also, as in standard mahjong, the player has the option to upgrade a three-of-a-kind to a four-of-a-kind if the final tile appears later on; the fourth tile will pause at the top of the playfield to give the player time to either press the button to add it to the hand, or cancel the delay by moving the tile with the joystick.
The goal of each stage is to form a hand following the rules of mahjong. A standard hand is composed of 4 melds and 1 pair. There are also two special hands in mahjong that do not follow the standard hand construction: 7 pairs (fairly self-explanatory), and "13 orphans" (a sort of "royal flush": 1+9 in each basic suit, one of each wind, one of each dragon, plus one duplicate tile from the set). In China Town, 7 pairs and 13 orphans can only be earned if no standard melds have been cleared from the playfield. (7 pairs can be earned if the pairs are located anywhere in the playfield. By contrast, to claim 13 orphans, it appears the tiles may need to form a connected "path" or "region" in the playfield. TODO: Further testing on 13 orphans is needed to see if any tiles can be placed without being connected, or if all must at least be connected to a contiguous region of honors/terminals.)
If a joker tile appears, it can be used to complete any sequence, three-of-a-kind, or four-of-a-kind. If all 4 melds have already been formed, it can even be used to complete the final pair. However, the limit of 4 each tile in the deck still applies; if 4 of a tile is already visible on the screen, the joker cannot be used to generate a "5th tile." If a joker tile is placed in a position where it cannot be used for one reason or another, it disappears.
Hands are also scored using Japanese rules "yaku" (scoring criteria, similar to poker hands). However, some concepts from multiplayer mahjong such as "open vs. closed hand," "prevailing wind," and "riichi"/"ready hand" are not represented. (For any scoring criteria from standard mahjong where a hand being "open" or "closed" would reduce its value or prevent it from being recognized, China Town treats all hands as implicitly "closed.")
(TODO: section on scoring; one major exception to note from standard rules is that due to the high difficulty of scoring 7 pairs without clearing away any other tiles, it counts as a max value hand.)
The game has a time limit, with bonuses awarded for high scoring hands and penalties assessed for failing to complete a hand before the playfield is filled. The timer starts at 2500 units (~2m9s total). The time bonus for a winning hand is the hand's point value divided by ten. The time penalty for failing to complete a hand is 1000 units; if there is still time remaining, the stage must be replayed. The game does not automatically end when the timer reaches zero; instead, the player begins to accrue a "debt" of negative time that must be paid off by a winning hand. If the timer is zero or below at the end of the stage (even if a winning hand was earned), the game is over.
At the beginning of the game, the stage starts with an empty playfield. In later stages, the playfield contains preset patterns of tiles pre-filled from the deck. Initial tiles can start either "face up" with its identity known, or "face down"; a "face down" tile is revealed when a tile lands next adjacent to it. As the player progresses, stage layouts become increasingly challenging. Higher scoring hands will also skip further into the game, which acts as a form of dynamic difficulty and increases the challenge of aiming for a high score.
Some later stages feature animated backgrounds or distractions that partially obscure the playfield, but the game is otherwise follows the same general mechanics throughout.
China Town can be played as a one player ("Singles") or two player ("Doubles") game. In two player mode, each player controls separate tiles, forms separate hands, and has a separate score counter. However, the indicator of which tile will appear next is shared; the player that places their tile first will take the next one shown. The player that completes their hand first will end the stage and earn points. Both players also share the same game timer.
Doubles is a hybrid co-operative/competitive mode. Players can either work together to earn high scoring hands and keep the game timer high enough to continue play into later stages, or race to complete hands to earn more points or even intentionally sabotage the game to run down the timer.
At the start of each play, players can choose from one of four game modes:
- Professional - Standard "endless" mode, with no mini-games, cutscenes, or board game progression. (TODO: Truly endless?)
- Fuusen Yarou: CG Kaze Action ("Balloon Rascals: CG Wind Action") - Between rounds is a one-on-one button-mashing action mini-game (known as "Pump Game") where two cartoony figures attempt to pop the balloon on the opponent's side first by either over-inflating it (rapidly tapping on the button) or having a turtle with a spiked signpost run into it (with players periodically taking a break to run at the turtle and change its direction). When both players run at the turtle at the same time, they perform a quick button-mashing sequence in an attempt to stun the opponent. The game is either PVP or player-vs-CPU, with the winner awarded a Joker tile icon. (TODO: At this time it's unclear what the joker tile does or how to use it; may increase frequency of joker tiles in later stages?)
- Narikin Monogatari ("Upstart Story") - A simple and comical story mode with a limited amount of stages (TODO: How much?), showing the player's character amassing various wealth and luxuries by winning hands. In Doubles mode, each cutscene shows the player who won the hand receiving luxuries, with the opposing player shown in poverty.
- Lady & Bunny: Hachi-i Par Sugoroku, Dragon Key no Nazo ("Lady & Bunny: Eight Party Sugoroku, Riddle of the Dragon Key") - A mode with board game progression (resembling e-sugoroku). Players control either Hyper Lady-May (player one) or Bunny-Ran (player two) as they work to collect all eight pieces of their "Dragon Key" scattered across the galaxy to enter the "Miracle Castle" goal space (where after winning a difficult stage, they choose from multiple endings). Players "roll the dice" by winning hands, with the "han" value of each hand determining the how much space to progress (from a minimum of 1 to a maximum of 6). Periodically, a random event will occur that will move the player from the space they landed on to another, as well as potentially start the "Pump Game" mini-game.
Regardless of game mode, the main gameplay remains the same and players can earn a spot in the high score table by accumulating score for that credit.
When a joker tile is placed without forming a meld, it crumbles and disappears. However, while the cell where the joker was placed appears empty, its id is still present in the playfield. If another joker appears, it is possible to create a glitched "three-of-a-kind" by connecting it to another tile adjacent to the invisible joker.
- Both the first/invisible joker and second/visible joker must be adjacent to a standard tile.
- It's not possible to form a sequence meld with this bug; both joker tiles attach to the same standard tile, making the only possible meld a three-of-a-kind.
- It's not possible to form a four-of-a-kind with this bug.
- An invisible joker will not associate with another invisible joker.
- If a pair of standard tiles is made adjacent to an invisible joker, connecting a visible joker to the pair will offer the selection of either the legal three-of-a-kind (with real tiles) or the bugged three-of-a-kind (with invisible joker).
- From initial testing, Double Joker does not appear to allow breaking the 4 tile limit of each type in the deck.