Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars — A Nintendo DS Favorite

Image by Flickr user Carlos Blanco (CC)
Image by Flickr user Carlos Blanco (CC)

This month, we’re taking some time out to look at our “favorite” games to see if they remain true favorites. While my post about a “favorite” game that I played last month is forthcoming, this week I wanted to share an article on Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (2009) that I wrote for Geek Force Network a couple years ago. At the time, I had really only dipped my toes into the expansive GTA ocean, and Chinatown Wars was a true surprise. A true surprise on the Nintendo DS, nonetheless. To this day, it remains my most favorite DS game. (And if I still had a DS, I might have played it for our challenge!)

The following article appeared on Geek Force Network, September 30, 2013: Chinatown Wars: Where GTA went really right and a little wrong

Earlier this week, I dipped my toes into the warm, murky waters (at least I hope that’s water) of Grand Theft Auto V. I didn’t get bit by anything or contract some terrible disease as a result, which is good because I’m having a grand ol’ time in Los Santos. As I usually do with games that I really want to play, I previously ignored most reviews and avoided eye contact with stills from and images relating to the game – not an easy thing to do in this day and age. But of one of the things I didn’t ignore were numerous retrospectives about the GTA franchise. I knew that the game had come a long way, but being rather new to the series, I didn’t really know just how far it had traveled to get here. It was fun to read and hear about people’s experiences with various GTA games, though my personal favorite game of the series, Chinatown Wars, was often glossed over. In this nice video from the good people of Revision3, it isn’t even mentioned at all.

Um…c’mon? Okay, so Chinatown Wars is a Nintendo DS game, it’s not really canon, and as a current-gen game its presentation was a return to the old-school at a time when Grand Theft Auto IV redefined the series. Even so, it was a notable game that got lots of recognition and praise when it was released. With heavily M-rated content, Chinatown Wars was a marked departure from Nintendo’s normal fare (which I don’t think they ever properly capitalized on.)  But setting aside all the adult and controversial stuff that made headlines, Chinatown Wars was a great game and an even better Nintendo DS game. So what did the game do right?

  • The top-down view
    Hearkening back to the old school, the top-down view in Chinatown Wars was a really great choice. While the game’s wonky camera was not always the best, navigating the streets was still a breeze, and so was managing combat (the mechanics of it, not necessarily the actual battles).  The in-game graphics were among the best of what the DS could handle – cars looked like cars, guns looked like guns.
  • The cel shaded graphics
    Speaking of graphics, the game’s cel shaded “cut scenes” and environments were rendered beautifully; again, as nice as it could get on a small screen. Sure, things looked a little cartooney, but that only added to the overall ridiculousness of the story.
  • Balanced main missions and side quests
    Like with most sandbox-style games, in Chinatown Wars you could complete the story quests at your leisure and tackle side quests whenever you wanted. The game didn’t nag you like “OMG YOU MUST DO THIS NOW!” And if you wanted to take a day or two to do nothing but steal cars or make arrests as a fake cop, you could do that. Plus, there were several replayable minigames that added to the game’s overall value.
  • The touchscreen controls
    I know that plenty of people had issue with the DS’s touchscreen controls in general, but in Chinatown Wars I never had an problem switching between the buttons, used for most maneuvering, and the stylus, used to switch between weapons or throw things. Having the stylus always in hand made me feel like I was ready for anything in the game.

While Chinatown Wars was a blast in principle and practice, it didn’t excel in all areas of gameplay. Where did things go not quite right?

  • The convoluted story
    Chinatown Wars‘ main campaign wasn’t overly long, clocking in at somewhere around 20 hours; but packed into that time was so much content that I had a hard time keeping up with the characters. Now the characters themselves, they were fantastic, but the ties that bound them were extremely long and drawn-out. While most of the actions centered around the Liberty City Triads, secondary characters came and went, and double-dealing and trickery reigned. Who was the rat, the mole, and the fox? Heck if I could remember.
  • Shock value for the sake of shock value
    I said I didn’t want to get into all the controversial stuff about this game, and I won’t in detail. Yet, it’s worth mentioning that some of that which got the game its “M” rating served to its detriment. Much like certain young stars and their “I’m an adult and look at all the adult things I can do!” attitudes, at a certain point malaise sets in and it’s hard to care. As I neared the end of Chinatown Wars, things that might have been “lurid, shocking twists!” read to me as “yes, you’re an adult, I GET IT.”

If you’re into the GTA series and have some reiteration of the DS (and you aren’t currently immersed in GTA V), Chinatown Wars is definitely worth your time. It provides a hot, heavy, and action-filled romp into a truncated Liberty City that plays out smoothly and very effectively on the small screen. The game is also available for the PSP and Apple devices if you prefer your mayhem without the Nintendo label.