We usually don’t focus on games that have released within the last ten years on Retro Weekend ,but hey, we have to throw some curveballs every now and then. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars may not be the oldest game in the series, but it holds a very special place in the franchise for multiple reasons. The reason I want to bring up Chinatown Wars is because of how ballsy it was. Not only did it originally release on one of the most family-friendly consoles at the time, the Nintendo DS, but it went back to basics with an overhead camera angle that hadn’t been seen in the series since 2004’s Game Boy Advance title, Grand Theft Auto Advance. But instead of simply rehashing the same tropes and familiar ideas of GTA, Chinatown Wars mixed the best of both worlds and created a brand new and incredibly well-received title that to this day remains extremely overlooked.
Making Old, New Again
The Nintendo DS couldn’t hold a candle to its competitor, Sony’s Playstation Portable (PSP) system in terms of power. While the DS could push out great looking games like Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart, most developers fell back into a pseudo-16-bit phase that, to me, turned the DS into some type of SNES+. While the PSP was pushing to create handheld games comparable to the then current generation of consoles, the Nintendo DS tried focusing on touchscreen and dualscreen gameplay in order to compete. At first glance, Chinatown Wars looks like a downgrade from the Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories games that were released on the PSP. But with some cunning ingenuity, the developers at Rockstar Leeds didn’t just try to make another 3D third-person sandbox game; they figured out what the DS could do and built a game around that.
Chinatown Wars may return to the overhead view seen in the original Grand Theft Auto games, but there’s a ton of extra details and work put into this world. Everything on screen is a 3D model, from the cars to the buildings to the street lights. If you get too reckless your car will flip around, you can knock over streetlights and watch them dance across the road as you zoom on, and the higher you get, the bigger your car or character model will become. Despite the camera angle, the world continues to feel just as alive as anything you’d see on the consoles; only now, the visuals are united by a bold comic book-like design that pulls the whole world together.
Cars and characters all pop with a deep bold block outline that helps you figure out where everything is on screen. Things can get pretty chaotic so these deep borders along your character help your eyes keep from getting lost. This aesthetic continues on into the story, where cutscenes are presented through text and pictures. Though the plot tries to be as vast and epic as anything you’d see on the console games, the great looking still comic images don’t do justice to express the mood of the characters. I also think being forced to read the dialogue shows just how cheesy GTA dialogue can be. I rolled my eyes so much while playing this game that I can’t tell if I’m just fooling myself into thinking its charming in a cheap B movie kind of way or if I’m just trying to survive it.
Handheld games benefit from the fact that you can take them with you on the go anywhere, but sometimes you don’t have hours to sink in at a time. Grand Theft Auto missions tend to get a bit long-winded with multiple sections and, until recently, most games didn’t even have the decency to give you checkpoints. Chinatown Wars embraces its handheld platform by creating an experience that you can engross yourself in for hours at a time or simply chip away at, little by little. Missions only take a few minutes at a time, making it very easy to pick up while you’re on the train, or taking a short bathroom break. Even when I’m playing Chinatown Wars for long periods of time, the brief mission structure is a welcome addition to the series. It keeps the game moving at such a quick pace that it’s hard for anything to feel long-winded or repetitive. In fact, for a majority of the game, each new mission presents a challenge that showcases a different mechanic of the game. Other titles in the series could learn something from Chinatown Wars.
Being specifically designed for a touchscreen interface, Chinatown Wars boasts a few mini-games that are tied right into the gameplay and feel more intrinsic to the experience than gimmicky. The name of the game is Grand Theft Auto, but the act of stealing a car is like taking candy from a baby, usually. However, there are some cars in which you will have to unscrew panels and actually hotwire it before it’s yours. This little game adds a whole new dimension to Chinatown Wars that’s absent from other games. In order to get that really fast ride, you might have to do a little extra work. Pick the wrong car that needs hotwiring when you’re getting chased down by the fuzz and it could be the difference between jail and freedom.
In addition to the carjacking game, you can also buy scratch-off tickets to hopefully gain some extra cash. Picking up a lottery ticket in between missions became a ritual to me because of how quick and easy they are. You also have to act out creating Molotov cocktails by filling up a bottle by aiming the pump into the bottle and then stuffing a rag inside. There’s also some electronic hacking and GPS navigation that all make use of the touchscreen. These features were reworked for the PSP version of Chinatown Wars that came out later, but the iOS version remains pretty faithful to the original DS version.
On top of these touch-based diversions, Chinatown Wars is also the only game in the franchise to included a drug smuggling side job. While playing, you can find dealers around the city that all have their own unique markets. Finding out who sells low and buys high can become one of the most addictive aspects of the game and it certainly is one of the best ways to raise money. I think what makes this side job so effective is that it isn’t run down the player’s throat, but instead allows you to tackle it on your own time. The fact that you can be driving to a mission and see a dealer on the way is not only a rewarding diversion, but a fun one at that. Just chalk it up to another plus for Chinatown Wars.
It is a shame that Chinatown Wars is so overlooked in the world of Grand Theft Auto because it deserves to be right up there with the best of the series. It takes the style of the old original games and completely pumps it full of nearly everything you could wish for in a GTA title. There’s guns, profanity, fast cars, and a seemingly never-ending amount of content to enjoy. It makes more use of the touchscreen in meaningful ways that developers are still trying to figure out these days. Take it from me as someone who passed this title up in the first place: find it, play it, love it.
See you next Retro Weekend!