With Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Rockstar North has brought back the 1980s.
Everywhere you look on the internet, people are saying this. They’re saying this because, in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, you can steal a Fiero look-alike and jam to Michael Jackson’s “Got to be Starting Something” while cops in gaudy green and white cars chase you down the beach for running over a roller-skating girl in a bikini. They’re saying this because the objective markers are a shade of hot pink that hasn’t occurred in nature since 1989. They’re saying this because of the Cigarette boats, and the hairstyles contained within. Namely, they’re saying this for different reasons than I’m saying it.
I’m saying Rockstar North has brought back the 1980s because the manager of my local Funcoland is evil. She is really, seriously, sadistically evil, in a way that reminds me of my third-grade teacher, Ms. Goodmon. (If you’re reading this, Ms. Goodmon -- sorry, the silence has lasted too long) I was in third grade in 1987. I listened to Madonna and U2 back then. I had tapes dubbed from my dad’s tape collection.
Enough about my tapes. We’re talking about this Funcoland manager. In two words: she’s evil. That’s all there is to it.
I’d paid a visit to this Funcoland back in September, when Animal Crossing was still fresh. On the day I bought the Gamecube memory card that remains unfilled in its bulk even today, this Funcoland manager jumped all over me.
She must be around thirty-five. She might have roller-skated in a bikini back in the mid-eighties. It’s hard to tell, now, what with her still-big hair and her tan-in-a-can and her cellulite suit.
“You gonna reserve Vice?”
She refused to speak the game’s full name.
I made like Ryo Hazuki: “Maybe some other time, okay?”
“If you don’t reserve it, you know, you ain’t gonna get it.”
“Oh yeah. No way. We’re the only store that’s gonna be carrying it. We’ve got record reservations.”
So reminded was I of my third-grade teacher that I took some interest in talking to this woman. My friend, sensing my interest, wandered over and joined the conversation.
“What do you think of that game, that Vice?” my friend and I were asking her.
“Well, there’s a demand. We’ve got record reservations. You won’t get it if you don’t reserve it.” That was all she could say.
“What about the censorship issue?”
“I’ve briefed all my employees on the ID check procedure.”
“Oh, so it’ll all go without a hitch, then?”
“Definitely. I’m ordering pizza for all of the employees.”
By the end of our conversation, this woman had offered me a job. She said I knew what I was "talking about." I declined. Really, what would I do with a job like that?
I certainly wouldn’t lie to the customers, dear reader. That’s what this woman -- the district manager, I learned, through my friend who works in the very same store -- did to her customers. She lied, like a shag carpet. I stopped by Funcoland on the “Vice” launch day, to find nine-hundred copies of said blockbuster game piled up behind the counter. To find young teens whispering about how they “didn’t even have to use” their “fake IDs.” To find a friend of my friend playing Streets of Rage 3 on the demo Genesis. He works at this particular Funcoland. He was off-duty.
I stepped in, hit start on the second control pad, and jumped in as Axel. As Axel and Dr. Zan mopped up stage three, this guy and I chatted a bit about the state of games. It was sometime during stage four that we got around to mentioning Vice.
“I had my roommate come in with my credit slip this morning,” the guy said.
“We played the hell out of it all day.”
“Did you?” I asked.
“Yep. I skipped a class.”
“Something in trigonometry.”
“Sounds like one to skip.”
“Dude, we got the helicopter -- dude, you can fly anywhere. Dude, it kicks ass.”
“I bet it does.”
I asked the guy what, really, was up with the hundreds of copies of the game behind the register.
“Oh, our manager was kind of fudging reservations.”
The manager of the game store where I used to work did this, too. He told customers that the minimum amount you can put down for a game is ten dollars. The customer usually panicked, and put down twenty, just so they could be “higher on the list.”
"Corporate loves reservations," he'd always said. "We get ten dollars, and the customer gets nothing."
The truth is this -- the minimum amount for reservations isn’t ten dollars. It’s five. When you put down ten dollars, the manager puts you down as reserving two copies of the game. Put down twenty, and the manager fills out four reserve slips in your name. This reflects well on his store when the corporate branch takes a look at it. Yes, he can get fired for it. He typically doesn’t. Usually, no one notices. This is why your local game shop will always have around a hundred extra copies of the hottest games. Or, in Vice’s case, six hundred.
Game shop politics aside, this guy -- a big X-men fan -- assured me Vice did, “Truly” kick “ass.” We spelunked through old Genesis games -- I got Fantasy Zone for two dollars! -- as we talked.
“Ray Liotta’s awesome in the game,” the guy told me.
“What? Ray Liotta?”
“Yeah, he does the hero’s voice.”
“Yeah, man. Didn’t you hear?”
I shook my head. Really, I hadn’t. The reality of what this game is was falling apart around me. The night before, a friend had told me via the internet that her Wal-Mart managing boyfriend might be able to get the game early.
“How so?” I asked her.
“Well, they’re gonna deliver the game tonight.”
“At Wal-mart?” I asked.
“Yep. At Wal-mart.”
Who here remembers a few months ago? Remember all those stores, taking a stand, back when the Pope or some senator or whoever was on television bashing Grand Theft Auto III a whole year too late?
“We will not carry this game.”
They were pretty gung-ho about their social responsibility, weren’t they?
Well, what the hell happened? Why do I see the game at Target, at Wal-Mart, at Best Buy, at all these places I was told would not, under any circumstances, carry that game?
“Record reservations,” that woman would have said. They just don’t want to miss out on good money. Nor do they want to enforce the ID-checking policy.
“She said, since all the other stores had the game, and since we had all the extra copies . . .”
“Dude, two words: Dennis Hopper.”
I was playing Grand Theft Auto II on the demo PSOne. Upon hearing the news that both Dennis “Blue Velvet” Hopper accompanies Ray “The Pimp” Liotta, I crashed a fire engine into a building, starting a fire I wouldn’t be able to put out.
“Dude,” the guy said.
The sound on the PSOne was turned all the way down. On a big stereo with surround sound, by district manager decree, the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City soundtracks were playing on repeat. I was in two worlds at once: one of them inside a Funcoland, listening to REO Speedwagon’s “Keep on Loving You,” the other one on my elementary schoolyard, being savagely lied to.
Do you remember the late eighties? Hell, even the early nineties will do. Do you remember that one kid who told all the other kids “I got Bart vs. the Space Mutants yesterday, and it rules,” when, really, he hadn’t gotten the game at all? (And the game sucked, royally) Do you remember when at lunch, still sweaty from dodgeball, a kid told you about the code to make Mario fly, like Superman? Do you remember almost getting in trouble for talking in class -- about “Dude, you can totally kill the old man in the dungeons in Zelda if you keep hitting him with your sword and dodge the fireballs 255 times!”
Videogames, like animation, started in America as a novelty, then were revised in Japan, and then came back to America, welcomed into the realm of “children’s entertainment.” Children, as children, like stories: they like telling them, and they like hearing them, regardless of their truth value. Children in the late eighties liked telling maybe-true stories about videogames. In the nineties, it kept up for a while -- tales of getting Namingway into your party if you got to the moon in under eight hours (it’s not true -- I know from experience, dude), or the legend of the Good Bee, who can totally kill anything (partly true), filled the air around middle-school lunch tables.
And then came PlayStation. In the months after the system’s launch, all the way until the first Suikoden came out, the world was a sad, barren place. The wonder was gone. Games like Warhawk, fun and visionary as they might be, didn’t make good lunch table conversation. Twisted Metal was Electronic Gaming Monthly’s Game of the Year. I felt like dying inside, or else growing up. Where were the Game Genie codes to make Mario fly? Even more, where was Mario?
It was a year before Super Mario 64 hit. And while we had fun talking about how you can totally get to the top of the castle, like, right at the beginning of the game, the juice was gone. The passion with which we discussed the secret ending you get after killing Bowser with hammers -- it was dried up.
Years later, far away from where I’d been and much older, I am now grown up, and I have been moved again. I was moved long before I bought Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, long before I discovered Burt “No Way” Reynolds, Gary “You’ve Got to be Kidding Me” Busey, Luis “Damn Straight” Guzman and Lee “Whoa!” Majors lend their recognizable voices to the game. Long before I chased down a Haitian gangster on a dirt bike, singing along: “It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under.” Long before I flew my first helicopter, sailed my first Cigarette boat, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City had moved me.
Thank you, evil Funcoland manager, for filling my head with lies. Thank you, Wal-Mart, for selling the game even after you said you wouldn’t. Thank you, friends, for telling me “the F-word” was “totally going to be in the game,” even when it isn’t. Thank you, Rockstar, for neglecting to mention that Ray Liotta supplies the hero’s voice -- or even that the hero has a voice -- until minutes before the game’s release.
Thank you, people of America, for buying so many damned copies of this game in a few days that it’s not even funny. Thank you for supporting this kind of thing.
What we have here -- so much being said about a game before its release, and so much of it turning up untrue in ways yet unmatched in videogame coolness -- is the next level in game hype. We who spoke of the Good Bee and a Playable Namingway are now grown up, some of us sadly so. Thanks for proving there is life after The Flying Mario Code.
Now, let's review this game.
[Next: the review]