I don’t use the word “glee” much. It’s just not a word that’s in my regular vocabulary and I don’t watch that TV show by the same title. Still, if you were to be so curious as to ask me what’s the first thing that pops into my head upon hearing the word “glee,” my answer comes naturally…Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (2009).
Spoilers ahead…yes, gleeful spoilers…but seriously, spoilers…
I can’t recall a game, a handheld game at that, that was more fun, more insane, and more of a surprise than Chinatown Wars. Surely you’ve heard about the game’s oddness among other Nintendo titles, its M-rating, complete with some rather ruthless violence, drug running, and all. Chinatown Wars was so, so, sooooo much stupid, twisted fun.
Chinatown War’s plot is long and complex – at points I was too busy running rampant to pay attention to it – but you play as Huang Lee, the son of a Triad boss who is on a mission to deliver an special sword to the new head of the organization, Lee’s uncle. Once in Liberty City (the same locale as GTA IV) however, Lee is attacked and the sword is stolen. He goes to his uncle to explain the situation, but his uncle, who’s really nothing more than a figurehead, explains that the sword was in fact meant for the head of the Triad in Liberty City. Even so, your main goal is to retrieve the sword – Lee’s actions from then on propel the game. In and amongst all the nuttiness involved in such a task, Lee crosses paths with crooked cops, the mafia, the Korean mob, a motorcycle crew, various other ethnic gangs, and other rightly knocked characters. Ultimately, Lee finds and returns the sword and is named head of the Triad. I suppose you could look at it as a happy ending, if it weren’t for all the killing.
When I first heard inklings of Chinatown Wars in early 2009, I could barely believe that guns, sex, and violence were coming to the Nintendo DS. It was enough to make my Super Mario DS cartridge blush. But the game garnered a good bit of attention, not only for all the controversial stuff, but also for its solid story and gameplay. Its top-down but angled viewing was most other GTA titles, and the game made good use of both DS screens (complete with minigames!). Additionally, the rogue elements of the GTA series were incorporated, from seedy individuals to questionable moral choices to ample supplies of various forms of ammo. (Including a chainsaw – a chainsaw, people!) Driving, carjacking, running from the cops – that was all there too. After I went numb with hours and hours and GTA IV, the choice to buy Chinatown Wars was a no-brainer. It was the one and only DS game that I ever pre-ordered.
I don’t know if the game was perfect, but in my mind, it came pretty damn close. The graphics weren’t tremendous, but the characters and environments were more than blips on the screen. When you saw a chainsaw, it looked like a little chainsaw; the difference between vehicles was obvious, as were people and places. Driving, shooting, and combat were all solid; and the story was visceral enough to make me cringe occasionally. There was no voice acting, and that was just fine. Nintendo might have gone the route of inserting grunts, gripes, and other noises people make with each character, but I really don’t remember. Missions were mostly received via email and conservations appeared as text on the screen.
Overall, I thought the game to be tremendously fun and engaging, even more so that GTA IV. (Seriously, if they had made a Chinatown Wars movie a couple years back, I’d have been all over that shit.) The characters were so over-the-top, from the things they said and did, and some of the in-game choices were so insane that it felt like I was playing something that would never again be duplicated, on a handheld, console, or otherwise. I know Nintendo didn’t find the largest audience with this game — there was no way it could compete with the juggernaut of its family-friendly games — but I was so happy Nintendo decided to take the risk with an adult game, if only to make a few of my morning commutes all the more twisted and gleeful.
If I had an Ipad or something I’d get Chinatown Wars again without hesitation. But for now I’ll have to sit on my thumbs while awaiting the release of GTA V…my god, it will be beautiful.