You’ve already forgotten about it.
You’ve forgotten about time spent on the train, hunched over a stylus, frantically car-jacking getaway vehicles. You’ve forgotten high speed chases, weaving in and out of traffic. Cop cars in your wake colliding bonnet first with trucks on the freeway, their sirens spluttering and wailing. You’ve forgotten how rewarding that feels.
You’ve forgotten what it’s like to cart a suitcase full of cheap acid halfway across Liberty City to a desperate drug dealer who will take it off your hands at astronomical prices. You’ve forgotten what it feels like to tacitly make that deal and drive off one rich, rich career criminal.
You’ve forgotten how it feels to lose it all — a boot full of gear, two blocks away from point of sale — your thumb trembling as you bump into a car, an innocent mistake. Now the cops are chasing as you panic; it spirals out of control and before you know it the entire Liberty City Police Department is on your tail. All the money you’ve ever earned is riding on this — these drugs you’re carting across town. It was supposed to be a simple deal, how the hell did it end up like this?
You’ve forgotten about Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
It’s the week before the release of Grand Theft Auto V. It will be the quintessential water cooler video game. It will break records. Your Mum will ask you about it. Mainstream media will chime in. It will trend on twitter.
People might talk about previous Grand Theft Auto games. They’ll talk about how GTAIV took itself too seriously. San Andreas was the best one, wasn’t it? Remember Vice City when you first hopped into a car and Billie Jean started playing? That was sweet.
But no-one will talk about Chinatown Wars. You’ve already forgotten about it.
Chinatown Wars may be the only Grand Theft Auto game you could legitimately call ‘criminally underplayed’ without an ironic smirk. Released to widespread critical acclaim in 2009, it was one of the worst selling GTA games ever made, selling even less than the PSP’s Vice City Stories spin-off. All this in spite the fact it was released on the Nintendo DS, a console with an install base of 120 million plus at that point in time.
How did we forget about one of the greatest Grand Theft Auto games ever made?
In 2002 Rockstar Leeds was called Mobius Software and they released a game called Alfred Chicken, a game about a chicken that pecks balloons. In 2003 they released Barbie Horse Adventures: Wild Horse Rescue on the Game Boy Advance.
Six years later they released the highest rated Nintendo DS game on Metacritic, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was the GTA game to end all GTA games. It featured an art style that approached — then perfected — the top down style of the first Grand Theft Auto on PC. It did so without making any concessions to the scope and scale of mechanics seen in the 3D iterations of Grand Theft Auto IV. Whereas the ‘Stories’ series on PSP (Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories) felt like derivative, lesser editions of big boy GTAs, Chinatown Wars somehow managed to create its own unique identity, simultaneously paying homage to the systems that made previous GTA so popular amongst mainstream gamers.
Chinatown Wars was a game tailored for the Nintendo DS. It took advantage of the stylus in intelligent ways and its core gameplay was tweaked to take advantage of strengths of the DS, and account for its weaknesses. At its core: the PDA, a system that allowed you to manage missions, keep track of your stash, plan your next move. A system that fully engrossed you into the world of Liberty City far more efficiently than Grand Theft Auto IV’s mobile phone ever could.
On the periphery: the drug dealing sub-quest. Arguably the most compelling distraction ever introduced into a Grand Theft Auto game before or since. A system that juggled risk vs reward; a delicately balanced, endlessly tense mini-game players could easily spend hours engrossed in. Most GTA mini-missions are burdened with banality: take character X from point A to point B, possibly shoot character Y. Drug dealing was a game in itself: a game with strategy, skill, intricacies. It was an entire self sustaining mini-economy. I had more moments of emergent brilliance selling gear in Chinatown Wars that in any Grand Theft Auto game I’ve ever played on a home console.
But we’ve forgotten about all that. We’ve forgotten about Chinatown Wars: a game that felt like a delicately balanced labour of love, from a studio that spent years developing its handheld craft on shovelware, using the skill it attained to create one of the best handheld video games of all time.
Was it the art style? Was it too far removed from the Grand Theft Auto we had become accustomed to? Was it the platform? The DS had an astronomical install-base, but was a video game targeted at adults a tough sell on a console largely targeted at children?
Whatever the issue Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars sold beneath expectations; expectations that were humble to begin with. It didn’t matter if it was the greatest video game ever released on a handheld console, it didn’t matter if it was one of the best entries into one of the best selling entertainment franchises of all time.
We forgot about Chinatown Wars regardless. How weird.