Keep your GTA Trilogy remaster, I just want Chinatown Wars

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It’s probably going to be ages before we get a properly new GTA. In the meantime, we’re getting remasters of a trio of classics in the form of the Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy, letting us relive our criminal misadventures in GTA 3, Vice City and San Andreas. All of these games are readily available on PC, however, and plenty of other platforms. There’s no novelty here. There’s hardly even any nostalgia. A much tastier treat would have been a remaster of Chinatown Wars, a great but oft-forgotten return to GTA’s old top-down capers. 

Chinatown Wars definitely couldn’t be accused of lacking novelties—even the choice of primary platform was out there. Though it eventually launched on PSP and mobile, the open world crime fantasy was originally a Nintendo DS exclusive. Selling drugs and running over pedestrians seemed utterly incongruous to Nintendo’s family-friendly handheld, and that was part of its charm—the surprise of having something like this sitting next to Mario and Link’s latest exploits. 

The DS’s second screen and touchscreen interface made it distinct from the previous games. In particular, I was a big fan of how it made you hotwire parked cars with a quick touch-based minigame instead of immediately being able to jack them. Some of that magic would be lost on PC, obviously, since you’re not smearing your fingers across the screen, but the systems could absolutely still persist—and remain engaging—even without poking and prodding with a stylus.

See, the touchscreen stuff was really just an extension of Chinatown War’s more hands-on approach to crime, encapsulated best by its drug-dealing system. You could fill your sack of treats with all sorts of illicit substances, and then drive around the city trying to make the big bucks. And you couldn’t just throw drugs at the hungry masses—Liberty City’s gangs had different preferences, so some would sell you acid at a decent price and want to buy ecstasy. Ultimately you were just trying to buy low and sell high, but compared to most GTA criminal enterprises it felt significantly more engaging.

This also meant that the cops weren’t just trying to bust you for drive-bys and murders—you had to avoid getting caught selling drugs as well. You wouldn’t, for instance, want to hand over a big bag of pills underneath a CCTV camera. That’s a rookie dealer mistake. 

Chinatown Wars for Nintendo DS

(Image credit: Rockstar)

It wasn’t until I picked up Chinatown Wars for my DS in 2009 that I realised how much I missed the top-down perspective of the original GTAs. GTA 3’s change to third-person shooter was obviously the right move for the series, but Chinatown Wars gave us a glimpse of how the series could have developed if it had stuck to the old ways. There’s just something more toy-like and playful about it, like you’re sowing chaos across a big diorama.

A rotatable camera made it feel like an evolution rather than just more of what we’d seen in GTA 1 and 2, but the real growth came from the art style. From GTA 3 on, the series has presented its cities as pretty realistic. There’s still a distinct style there, sure, but it has a less clear visual identity than, say, Saints Row. Thanks to the limitations of the DS and the top-down perspective, Chinatown Wars did things a bit differently. The cel-shaded, comic book approach was a practical one, making it so much easier to make sense of what was on the screen, but it also gave the spin-off more flair than any of the games in the mainline series. It looked great for a DS game, but the real victory was one of artistry over graphics. 

There was also another flip in perspective: to a character that was neither white nor American. Huang starts off as a spoiled Triad scion visiting Liberty City from Hong Kong, a stay that is extended after an attempted murder and the theft of a family heirloom. The story doesn’t deviate much from the typical revenge romp that most GTA’s offer, but we do get to see a new side of Liberty City. 

Chinatown Wars for Nintendo DS

(Image credit: Rockstar)

Despite critical acclaim and the GTA name, Chinatown Wars underperformed at launch, and then again when it launched on other handheld platforms, through no fault of the game itself. It deserved to be celebrated alongside Rockstar’s other big successes, but fate was cruel. As much as anything else, that’s why I’d love to see it reappear on PC. It deserves to be put in front of a more interested audience. 

This seems highly unlikely, of course. While I have no doubt that it’s taken a lot of effort to improve the GTA Trilogy’s aging visuals, making a handheld game look good on PC would take even more work, especially with the need to reconsider controls and all the other stuff it would need to do without. And it’s not a sure thing in the same way something like San Andreas is. Rockstar already knows it can sell a lot of copies of that. 

A boy can dream though. 

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