GTA is full of cameo appearances by musicians. Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, Dr. Dre, Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Kenny Loggins, and Frank Ocean are just a few of the music giants Rockstar have put in their games over the years—but usually in a relatively minor role. Debbie Harry plays a cab dispatcher in Vice City, and Dr. Dre appears briefly as himself in GTA Online's Cayo Perico heist. However, in Vice City Stories, not only did Rockstar feature an actual pop superstar, but it made him part of the story and the focus of one of the series' best missions.
VCS originally launched for the PSP in 2006, hot on the heels of Liberty City Stories, another spin-off. At the time, many were still doubtful about Sony's handheld, so Rockstar releasing not one, but two proper GTA games was a big deal. The cities are partly recycled, but otherwise no expense was spared. Each game has its own unique story and protagonist, new licensed songs on the radio, and a cast of celebrity voice actors including Gary Busey, Danny Trejo, and in a rare video game appearance, British acting legend Timothy Spall.
In VCS you play as Vic Vance, brother of Vice City's Lance Vance. Vic is dishonorably discharged from the military and becomes a career criminal, working with, and making enemies of, a typical GTA selection of gangsters, corrupt government officials, and drug lords. Halfway through the story, Vic and Lance meet a talent manager called Barry Mickelthwaite, who's played brilliantly by Spall with the strongest Birmingham accent ever to grace a video game. If you don't know what that sounds like, just watch any Ozzy Osboune interview.
Barry is deep in debt with the Forelli crime family, and they're planning to sabotage one of his client's gigs. The client? It's only bloody Phil Collins. Vice City Stories is set in the 1980s, when Collins was at the height of his fame, so his presence in the game makes perfect sense. He's playing at a stadium in Vice City, and in a mission called In the Air Tonight, Vic is hired by Barry to keep Collins safe from Forelli hitmen while he performs on stage. How many games ask you to stop Phil Collins from being assassinated? Not enough, frankly.
As Collins plays his hit song In the Air Tonight (which featured in classic '80s TV show Miami Vice), Vic confronts the Forellis atop a lighting rig hanging above the stage. The audio from Collins' performance is taken from No Ticket Required, a 1985 recording of one of his concerts, which adds some extra period authenticity. Vic has to beat the hitmen up before they can cut the ropes suspending the rig. Successfully fight them off and your reward is watching the rest of the performance in peace, including that legendary drum solo.
Rockstar also did a great job with the character model, perfectly capturing his distinctive 1980s look. "They got it all spot on," Collins said in an interview about his time working on the game. "The five o'clock shadow, the suits, and all the other stuff that was so embarrassingly prevalent in my '80s wardrobe." Collins has always had a self-aware sense of humour, which is a must for a satirical series like GTA. You can tell he's having fun playing an exaggerated version of his younger self in the game's cutscenes.
If you don't manage to stop the Forellis, the lighting rig falls on Collins, crushing him to death, and the mission failed message reads: "Phil definitely felt it coming in the air tonight." Complete it, however, and for $6,000 you can rewatch his performance anytime you want at the stadium. Were ticket prices really that high in the '80s? This is ultimately a very simple mission, involving little more than punching a few mafia goons in the head. But the setup, imaginative premise, and the atmosphere of the concert makes it a Grand Theft Auto classic. This is how you do a celebrity cameo in a video game.
I also appreciate that Rockstar didn't use his appearance as an opportunity to take the piss, showing appropriate reverence to his music. It's a celebration of his work, which is refreshing when it's often used as a punchline. Phil Collins' music kicks ass, and Vice City Stories is a fitting tribute to his '80s heyday. This could have been just another cameo to score some retro kitsch points, but the fact Collins actually plays a role in the story, including doing his own voice acting in cutscenes, makes this easily gaming's greatest celebrity appearance. If you're gonna hire a big name, you might as well get your money's worth.
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