We Forgot One Of The Greatest Grand Theft Autos Ever Made

We Forgot One Of The Greatest Grand Theft Autos Ever Made

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.

We Forgot One Of The Greatest Grand Theft Autos Ever Made

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.


  • So? big deal if we forgot about it, maybe thats because people didnt like it? one of the best? hardly. Author is going on an ego trip

    • Ego trip? Seriously?
      I think Mark just likes his DS and is lamenting what he sees as an underrated game…

    • Someone speaking passionately about a game they enjoyed, better start a mob get your pitchforks and burn this website down.

    • You don’t believe the author [Editor!] of Kotaku AU has the right to write an article about a video game they enjoyed?

      … yet you think you have the right to write comments attacking said author for having the nerve to write their opinion about a video game?

  • “We cannot forget what we’ve never known.”
    — Someone far wiser than I, whose name escapes me

    Wasn’t it also on PSP? May have to pick it up one day…

    • Yeah, also on iOS. Such a great game. It was designed specifically for the DS so I prefer that version, but it’s also great on PSP.

      • One of the best GTA games on iPad.. If it wasn’t already released on DS, I would have thought it was made for the iPad. it plays that well on it. I never finished it on iPad.. was holding out to get my blutooth controller and iOS 7 before I really gave it a good go but the on-screen controls are the best of the GTA iPad releases.

  • It was a pretty awesome game, I played the shit out of it.

    Also was on iOS (not sure about Android), but touchscreen controls.

    • No Android, I’ve been waiting :'(
      Shame considering 3 and VC have been on the Play top sellers list for yonks

    • I somehow made it through the sniper ship mission where 8-Ball has a suicide death wish but then the last mission is nest to impossible playing on a touchscreen. I might give it a go with a controller, but then I might as well just play it again on my PC

      • Yeah that was nuts. Forget about the racing missions!

        I got a MOGA Pocket controller at PAX but it wasn’t worth it. The thumbsticks are digital and have no acceleration at all. Made GTA even harder than touchscreen!

  • I rarely think of this game when I think of the franchise, just like I rarely think about the first 2. I’m sure they have their charm, but it’s not what I personally know to be GTA.

    • Agreed. When I think of GTA, I think Vice City and San Andreas the best two in the series in my opinion, although my thoughts on that may change after the 17th rolls around.

      I wonder if GTA would be as popular as it is today if they had stuck with top down, and not made it an open world sandbox, probably not.

  • could never decide what platform to play this one… so i kinda didn’t bother… despite owning it on all of them

  • It was a fun game. But OCD got the better of me while trying to do the sub-quests and as such I never finished the game. 🙁

    • Exact same thing happened to me.

      That’s also why I never finished MGS: Portable Ops. I got so caught up in recruiting soldiers I just never got around to actually playing the game.

      • I have that issue with most games that have too many side quests. Need to learn to just play the game and finish it, then maybe muck around with side stuff later.

  • Yeah Chinatown Wars was pretty darn cool. Scaled down from the 3D versions but still just as epic.

    I played both the DS and PSP versions and preferred the DS touchscreen bits and the PSP graphics. Hopefully the 3DS and Vita get more portable specific GTA games.

  • I moved so much weight in that game 🙂 My favourite weapon was the sword – cartoon violence FTW! It really was a fun, addictive and underappreciated game, probably because it came out on the DS originally without much fanfare (despite rave reviews).

  • i have a dream that one day Rockstar would make a GTA title with japanese guy and have yakuza as the main storyline

  • I haven’t forgotten.
    Chinatown Wars’ dealing minigame kept me engaged for accumulated days after I finished the core game. To this day, I’ve never encountered a game which made me want to keep playing after there really wasn’t any point in doing so. It was gameplay, boiled down to its core elements – juggling risk vs reward.
    I chased a million dollars in that game, and got there just before my game corrupted. Even though there were no leaderboards, or any other measure by which to chart my progress, I was devastated.
    A great GTA game, no question. Anyone who says otherwise just hasn’t bothered playing it properly.

  • It’s actually still sitting in my pile of shame – still shrink wrapped. I’m desperately trying to get through the pile – or as much as possible – before the new consoles arrive.

    Might just have to bump CTW up the list. Maybe get into it this weekend in anticipation of GTA5.

  • I didnt forget… this game was my favorite DS game by far and it might even be on my top 20. i think it may even be the first game i was properly addicted to. the only thing that killed it for me was that ending. jesus that was a buzzkill

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