Handing over a brick of heroin to a visibly paranoid dealer, I finalise the sale price using the DS stylus – and can’t help picturing a disapproving Shigeru Miyamoto. As the constantly smiling creator of Mario – the huggable godfather of gaming – Miyamoto seems endearingly innocent. Now, I’m using the device that brought us Nintendogs to push Class A drugs.
Still, there are more pressing matters at hand. Finally agreeing to my price, the scruffy-looking junkie reluctantly hands over the cash. Suddenly, sirens pierce my ears. Fuck. Was I set up?! It doesn’t matter; the finer details and Shiggy’s sad-looking eyes will have to wait. As an impressive convoy of police cars swarm the park, I send my tiny 2D avatar sprinting as fast as the B button will carry me. With shouting officers closing in, I lob a molotov at the nearest squad car and vault over the park’s railings, yanking a cabbie out of his taxi before flooring the accelerator.
Welcome to GTA: Chinatown Wars – Nintendo DS’ most delightfully debauched game.
For most, this is the forgotten GTA game. And If I’m honest, I’m not really sure what I was expecting from Rockstar’s curious-looking DS spin-off. After seeing a few stylized screens back in the day, I envisioned a half-hearted, linear cash-in – something that very loosely captured the feel of the franchise. Instead, what I got was one of the most mechanically rich and authentically drug-trade-orientated GTA outings to date.
Launching in 2009, this once-DS exclusive was one of seven ‘Mature/ 18+’ rated games on Nintendo’s family-friendly handheld – and it bombed horribly. With GTA fans happily playing the franchise’s 2008 HD Nico-centric adventure, Grand Theft Auto 4, it seemed gamers were no longer interested in playing a top-down GTA. Back in 2009, I was one of those sneering players, too. But now, after picking up a grubby old copy on eBay, I can’t stress how wrong I was.
In many ways, Chinatown Wars is the most realistic GTA entry you can play. From forcing you to hotwire cars, buy your own gas, and measure the fluctuating price of the drug market, this unassuming Nintendo spin-off provides some of the deepest gameplay in the series. Its story is disarmingly brilliant, too; written by series creator Dan Houser and produced by Rockstar founder Sam Houser (who looks a bit like Harry Potter, according to the BBC) Chinatown’s dialogue feels just as sharp and uncompromising as its console brethren.
For those worried about censorship, dick jokes, street crime and blood-soaked betrayals are still very much intact. While the main story sections are told via text and slickly animated graphic novel-esque panels, I was surprised to discover that voice acting still punctuates the sleazy corners of Liberty City’s streets. Walking down the mainstrip in Liberty City’s Chinatown, a wasted dudebro beside me excitedly exclaims “I must have done two grams… I LOVE this city!” before I’m offered the time of my life with a quest giver’s favourite sex worker. Yep – this is definitely still Grand Theft Auto.
Becoming a drug lord is a series highlight. Unlike in other GTAs, drug dealing isn’t just narrative dressing here; it’s a core mechanic. Where, in the mainline GTAs, you can amass a ton of cash and have little to actually spend it on, in Chinatown Wars the main missions pay surprisingly poorly. While the core story will give you just enough of a wage to scrape by, it’s the largely optional drug dealing side missions that really rake in the dollars. If you take the time to make drug deals across Liberty City, you can earn a fat chunk of change, allowing you to slowly buy up condos around the cities and live out your Scarface fantasies.
Like GTA 4 before it, Chinatown Wars tells the tale of an immigrant trying to make it in America – although this time around, our hero has a family fortune on his side. Unlike the by-his-bootstraps Niko Bellic, Chinatown Wars’ protagonist is the heir to a renowned Chinese dynasty. With your father dead, it is time for Huang Lee to leave China behind and rejoin his estranged family in Liberty City – recapturing his family’s former Triad glory. It’s this South Eastern flavour that adds a refreshingly different feel to this DS-made GTA. The more martial arts focused combat is a nice change of pace from the mainline games, for example, and it feels oddly refreshing to see Liberty City through non-Western eyes.
Speaking of Liberty City, this DS outing offers a surprisingly large and authentic-feeling sandbox. Impressively, aside from Alderney City, every facet of GTA IV’s Liberty City has been squeezed into this tiny DS cartridge. I found myself regularly recognising certain areas of the map from the full-fledged Xbox 360 game, which – if I’m honest – feels a bit like witchcraft on Nintendo’s absurdly low-specced handheld.
Unsurprisingly, GTA’s clunky driving hasn’t translated well to the DS, a fact I’m reminded of as an angry pedestrian I almost run over yells ‘you whack, bitch!”. Sure, not quite as motivating as the feedback I get from Cooking Mama, but, OK mate – noted. How you escape police cars is very much its own thing here, too. There’s a very cool Burnout feel to car chases in Chinatown Wars, with destroying pursuing police cars allowing you to shed those pesky wanted stars, rather than destroying squad cars adding to your problems.
If there’s one area where GTA does feel compromised on Nintendo’s 2004 handheld, it’s the radio stations. Scraping the inane talk hosts entirely and featuring a glitchy lo-fi instrumental soundtrack, the tunes here are akin to backing tracks for a Soundcloud rapper’s mixtape. Or “lo fi beats to study and sling drugs to”. Sure, they’re not the licensed bangers you’d expect from Chinatown Wars’ console counterparts, but they’re still pretty vibey – keeping me nodding my head as I shot down rival gangs and squished yet another pedestrian. Sorry ladies and gents, that time really was my bad.
As I continue to lose myself in this tiny, low-res world, I’m struck that Chinatown Wars represents the kind of lovable gaming oddity that can only come from a game made for a dedicated handheld. In fact, it’s a GTA that feels entirely built around the convenience of portable play. From instant mission restarts, autosaves and genuinely cool touchscreen implementation, this is the kind of endearing experiment that the ubiquity of modern gaming platforms means we sadly probably won’t see again. And despite its tone, it was a perfect fit for Nintendo’s vision of the handheld, too.
Aside from the loss of half a dimension, what shocked me most about exploring Liberty City on Nintendo’s first dual screen console was just how uncompromised this sprawling sandbox really is. There’s just something about Chinatown Wars that feels instantly compelling. Maybe it’s the carefully considered touchscreen controls, the love and care clearly poured into every pint-sized pixel, or simply the inherent naughtiness of playing something so vulgar on a Nintendo console.
Either way, the end result is something I enjoyed infinitely more than 2021’s underwhelming GTA Trilogy remasters. Sitting at a deserved 93 rating on Metacritic and with GTA 6 not arriving any time soon, this overlooked classic is well worth your time.