Dragon World 2001: The perfect arcade game to play at home

Dragon World 2001, available only on the eye-catching red cartridges used with IGS’ PGM arcade system, is a title that will feel instantly very familiar to many in spite of its relative obscurity. It’s yet another digital variation of solitaire mahjong, the same solitaire mahjong found all over every computer of a certain age and available to play for “free” on more ad-riddled websites than anyone would ever wish to visit. Your task is to match three tiles pulled out from a free edge until there are no more tiles to match and then go do it all again with a different layout somewhere else, playing what feels like an endless string of solo games on top of low resolution photos of famous places for no reason other than that’s how arcade puzzle games tend to add a little visual variety without detracting from the already graphically busy action.

It’s the sort of game you wonder why you’d ever bother spending a single second with and then when you do reluctantly give it five minutes of your time suddenly the whole afternoon’s vanished without a trace and all you hope for is another free hour just so you can play some more.

Dragon World 2001’s clever little twist on the usual formula is that rather than using a simple pair/no pair rule system you instead select any free tile on the board regardless of where the others in its set are, these pulled tiles immediately placed in a rack capable of holding a maximum of seven tiles (any valid sets of three you collect in here are automatically disposed of). This gives you a little problem-solving wiggle room, the chance to temporarily put aside that one damned tile standing between you and a match or riskily digging through a stack for that one you need you’re sure is under there somewhere, although this system also introduces a fresh set of troubles: If your rack fills up then the game’s over, even if you’ve got two in your hand and can (virtually) reach out and touch the third.

So the best course of action is to carefully analyse the board, keep track of what’s in your hand, and logically think your way to victory, right? It would be, if there wasn’t a timer in the top-left of the screen to worry about – you lose the moment that runs out too. Thankfully picking any tile as well as successfully creating matches fills this ever-decreasing bar back up a little, but you’re still always under pressure to always pick something as soon as you can, which can lead to unintended errors.

Further complicating what many sentences ago seemed to be such a simple task are the tiles themselves: The majority of them are based on standard mahjong pieces but as you progress further into the game new designs are added, with more variety naturally making it take longer and be less likely to find a match. Then just as you’ve got used to hunting down images of lipstick and robo-dogs they get really sneaky and try to trip you up with two different types of fire extinguisher, or a sheet of paper in standard and torn variants. These images are always similar enough that there’s a chance you’ll make a mistake and fill up your rack with incompatible pairings in a rush, but still distinct enough for the differences to be immediate and obvious if you actually take a proper look – it’s never a case of one thing having a blue pixel on the end and the other set having a red one. The game is trying to be tricky, rather than outright deceptive.

If you do find yourself in real trouble four limited-use items are on hand to potentially save the day, allowing you to undo your last pick, search the whole board for any valid pairings you can make (even if this means pulling up a few unrelated tiles to access one underneath), destroy all three tiles in a match split between your rack and the board (a real life-saver when you’ve got two tiles clogging up your rack and realise too late the third is thoroughly buried under a dozen others), and the ever useful crane game arm, allowing you to ignore all the usual rules and pluck any tile you can see from the board and put it straight in your rack regardless of how deeply it’s buried. So… a bit like cheating, but a restricted and fun sort of cheating – “recover from a mistake” cheating rather than “ignore the rules when it suits you” cheating. Replenishing your highly limited supplies of these helpful items can be done either by matching three rarely seen tiles with the corresponding icon on the board the same you would any other (recommended) or by losing and then using a continue (definitely not recommended if you’re paying real money for your credits).

This game’s a tricky one to judge fairly: We expect arcade titles to be impressive in some way, and Dragon World 2001… well there’s no point pretending – it just isn’t. Compared against other games within the PGM’s relatively small library alone it’s not exciting in any usual way and in general it doesn’t possess the special “wow” factor that sets most good arcade games apart from their more restrained console cousins. But in spite of these apparent flaws it’s still easy to see why this is one of six Dragon World releases on the PGM – the game’s easy to understand and easy to like. By being such a static solo experience losing is an almost entirely inward frustration, a personal error rather than something being too hard or too fast or too unfair, something that could be fixed if you had one more go…

Even so, it’s not going to be anyone’s first, second, or third choice whether they’re lucky enough to find themselves in an arcade with a pocket full of loose change or are hoping to add something new to their home PGM cart collection – I love it but I wouldn’t suggest anyone puts off buying any of the format’s action-based games for this. But even so it’s a fine example of its genre, a nice change of pace in a field that tends to try and make everything bigger and noisier than the last big and noisy thing, and a game that deserves discussing with the same level sincerity and respect any of the more famous arcade-born puzzle titles already do.

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