Like Mad magazine and heavy metal, the Grand Theft Auto games are made for the perpetual juvenile in all of us. They're profane, violent, and for those who care to look beyond the controversy, brimming with blunt satire of modern American life. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories flashes back to South Florida in the '80s. Or more accurately, to the alternate dimension of Art Deco decadence immortalized in Miami Vice and Scarface. Players have slung dope and torched cars in Vice City before, but this return trip for Sony's handheld doesn't feel like a rehash so much as an alternate angle.
The game's lead, Vic Vance, is no wise guy—he's just caught in the riptide. He's a career soldier with an ailing brother and a mom who freebases whatever money he can scrape together. Consorting with criminals and psychopaths isn't his only option, but damned if a life of crime doesn't seem like the path of least resistance. And so Vic reluctantly teams with one lowlife after another, slowly building an illicit empire from the ground up.
The whole money, power, respect thing is yesterday's news in games. That's where Rockstar's speedball of social commentary and irreverence comes in. Vance's cronies are cartoons of movie thugs, voiced with élan by Hollywood toughs like Gary Busey and Danny Trejo. Vice City's radio stations crackle with crude but cutting parodies of just about every subject that makes air. These trappings, superficial though they are, elevate Vice City Stories from violent fantasy to something tastier: pop culture with teeth.
Beyond the game: San Andreas' sprawl was dauntingly vast. Liberty City feels quaint in retrospect. Vice City's parallel isles hit a geographical sweet spot: Their streets are numerous, but ultimately knowable. Worth playing for: Rockstar must be where mix-tapes go when they die. The game's crack selection of period tunes promiscuously spins cheesy pop hits next to little-known genre gems. Frustration sets in when: Occasionally, the only mission between you and the rest of the story is an elaborate, multi-step caper that goes south every time an ally dies or a ride goes up in flames.
Final judgment: A playground of totally '80s excess worth revisiting, especially with such ballsy satirists at the cigarette boat's helm.