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Death, Drugs and Gangs in the Palm of Your Hand—New York Times
March, 22 2009

Seth Schiesel

By now tens of millions of people are familiar with the Grand Theft Auto formula: the dystopian rendering of modern-day New York (known in the series as Liberty City); pungent street dialogue leavened with a sharp, proudly cynical gallows humor; a hilariously gnarly cast of mobsters, dealers, hitmen and dirty cops; copious drug references; a deep and eclectic soundtrack; and of course dozens of vehicles to jack and plenty of weaponry to keep the mayhem flowing.

Chinatown Wars delivers almost all of that, but what makes the game so significant is the system it has been made for, Nintendo’s hand-held DS, the successor to the Game Boy. Rockstar Games has made portable Grand Theft Auto games before, but only for the competing Sony PlayStationPortable, or PSP. But the DS is more popular, and while the PSP is largely aimed at tech-savvy adults (it plays movies and music as well as games), the DS has found its most fervent customers among children.

Yet like “Scarface,” “Goodfellas” and other gangster movies, Chinatown Wars is definitely not for children. Recent Grand Theft Auto games go quite a bit further in their references to hedonism (some might call it depravity) than almost anything coming out of Hollywood. In Chinatown Wars a drug-addled gangster tells the player about how he just got loaded on ketamine and enjoyed a menage à trois with young twins — one male, one female. These are just words on a screen, but not the sort that young children need to be reading and asking about as part of their entertainment diet. For obvious reasons the game is rated M for Mature, the equivalent of an R rating for films.

With Rockstar making Chinatown Wars exclusively for the DS, and with Nintendo approving the game for its system, the two companies are making a bold and vital statement to the public. Chinatown Wars is likely to force many to realize that just because something is called a video game does not mean it is appropriate for children. The average age of a game consumer is now around 30, and the industry, rightfully, is now producing a range of titles meant for widely different audiences.

A lot of people still don’t get this. Any parent who buys Chinatown Wars for a young child after reading the rating description on the box is being negligent or willfully ignorant. Yet I can guarantee that there will be many times when an irate parent storms back into a store and berates the clerk, “I bought this game for my child’s Nintendo, and all of a sudden my kid is asking me whether he should deal cocaine, LSD or Ecstasy.”

To which the clerk should reply: “What in the world were you doing buying this game for a child in the first place? Didn’t you read the box?”

This is a crucial moment in the maturation of both the game industry and in the mass public conception of what a game is and can be. In just the last few years games have gone from the whipping boy of politicians to a somewhat grudgingly accepted element of popular culture. But there is still a long way to go. The first great wave of consumers who grew up with video games is only now approaching 40, only now having children of their own and only now reaching positions in society where their sensibility can begin to define mainstream.

The same people who bought their children computers, then realized that the Internet was awash in pornography and took steps to deal with it are now coming to realize that games are almost as diverse in their content and intended audience as Web sites.

Chinatown Wars will be part of that process.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Chinatown Wars is that it is not simply defined by its shock value. It is a great game on its own merits. The fact that Rockstar was able to shoehorn such a vast swath of Liberty City into a relatively underpowered and anemic machine like the DS is an incredible technical accomplishment. Of course the graphics are nothing like the high-definition glory of Grand Theft Auto IV on modern consoles and PCs. And sadly the music consists only of repetitive loops rather than the full radio stations in the Grand Theft Auto home games. Almost all of the script is displayed as text, not voiced.

But Chinatown Wars nonetheless feels and plays like a real Grand Theft Auto title, not some neutered, stripped-down knockoff. It makes fabulous use of the DS’s dual screens to display action and the in-game handheld computer. Using the touch-sensitive bottom screen to hotwire cars, arm bombs and throw grenades felt like a gimmick at first but gradually grew on me until it became almost entirely intuitive.

Perhaps the highest praise I can offer Chinatown Wars is that it engrossed me so deeply that I missed my subway stop twice in the past week. The first time, as I got off the train a stop late and walked over to the other platform I was surprised that I didn’t feel any chagrin. The second time I realized I was just having too much fun killing rival drug dealers and stealing their stashes to care.