GAMING GREATS: Grand Theft Auto (1997)

Rockstar get their game on in this classic first instalment of robbery and driving. 

Who made it?: DMA Design/Rockstar (Developer – PC), Visual Sciences (Developer – PlayStation), Tarantula Studios (Developer – Game Boy Color), BMG Interactive/ASC Games (Publishers).

Genre: Action-Adventure/Sandbox.

Platform: PC MS-DOS, PlayStation, Game Boy Color.

Format: CD-ROM, Cartridge.

Released: October, 1997.

It’s almost impossible to remember a time without Rockstar Games, and their rise to success was due to the delightfully amoral Grand Theft Auto, another in a long line of nineties video games that became instantly iconic. The popularity of Tomb Raider and Resident Evil (both 1996) has gone through cycles over the years, but this open-world crime franchise has been an evergreen in terms of critical and commercial success (well, except for the second perhaps). Even if the masterful Grand Theft Auto V is the saga’s magnum opus to date, then there’s still room for the quaint original; a thoroughly playable classic that laid the blueprint for a gaming dynasty in its top-down simplicity.

There was nothing simple about GTA at the time, though, of course. A victim of press hysteria due to its mean-spirited universe of criminality and wildly destructive driving, it had a hook no self-respecting gamer could deny. Sandbox titles were rare at the time, and the notion that you could walk and drive around the expanse of three cities – Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas – was an incredible element on its own. The fact you could unleash wanton violence and evade the police only helped to make it instantly appealing to teenagers. Grand Theft Auto was a watershed game for me on the PC, and although the console release on the PlayStation might be more well-known, it remains the way I revisit the game (as well as its expansion pack sequel, Grand Theft Auto: London). Dated though it is, this is still sterling work by Rockstar North who were known as DMA Design back then. The premise by Dan and Sam Houser (originally called Race’n’Chase) is as addictive as it ever was.

The basic set-up of GTA should be familiar to all of you by now. There’s a key difference with the original, however, in that there aren’t extensive cutscenes and you get to choose a character (eight on the PC and only four on the PlayStation). Without any sort of intro, you’re thrown right onto the mean streets with a ringing telephone to provide instructions. The player controls a chosen hoodlum through various city zones, doing tasks for the local crime element. Missions will give the player points, leading to higher “multipliers” and more intricate assignments (my favourite being the transportation of a bomb to a city hospital, which you just wouldn’t get in a game today). But the real joy here is not necessarily playing the missions, although they are integral to moving the game forward. No, GTA was revolutionary because you can do whatever you want within the game’s limitations. You will claim points for killing helpless citizens and stealing vehicles, as well as selling cars on to shady buyers. This is risky, however, as without body armour just one bullet from a police pistol can take you down. The first Grand Theft Auto is arguably harder than any of them to come since.

Besides the gameplay, which is still as tight as a drum, I find the antiquated visuals perfectly adequate for today’s gamers. The 3D third-person affair we have now is superior, of course, but I love the godly bird’s-eye-view perspective just as much. Not only did it make it easier for DMA to map the cities featured in the game with their limited budget and technology, but it brought an energy to the endless police pursuits that might not have existed otherwise. The overhead viewpoint makes everything clear and coherent, and there really wasn’t a need for more sophisticated graphics. GTA has always been a fun experience because it provides wonderful stress relief. Have a bad day at work? Just go and kill a load of assholes in a sports car. The spare visual look isn’t as off-putting as you’d expect in 2015 because the core mechanics still work so well.

While the gloss wouldn’t come until later, DMA did manage to give their fictional cities a sense of character. Every time you steal a car in the game, you will be greeted with whatever radio station the unlucky owner was listening to at the time. The PC version had seven stations which provided a fair range of wacky music, whilst the PlayStation only had two, confirming that Sony’s port was vastly inferior. The music and radio broadcasts have always been a valued comedic aspect of the franchise, but they weren’t always composed of popular chart hits. The soundtrack for the original was created completely by Colin Anderson, Craig Conner and Grant Middleton, and they did a fantastic job of making a universe from music. I remember the tracks sticking in my head for days, and that was only exacerbated when I realised that putting the CD-ROM into my stereo would play the score. The importance of GTA‘s sound-scape in making it all work cannot be underestimated.

Sixteen years later, it’s difficult for me to assess whether or not nostalgia plays a part in my appreciation of Grand Theft Auto. Younger gamers might not be able to see the attraction, but its retro charms are heightened by just how damn influential it is. We have this to thank for every sandbox game since in many respects, and its impossible to list the amount of games inspired by Rockstar’s effort. The love for GTA isn’t misplaced… this has been a gold standard since day one.

Useless Trivia

(Via Wikipedia)
  • Grand Theft Auto was originally planned to release on PC DOS, PC Windows 95, PlayStation, Sega Saturn and the “Ultra 64.” However, it was never released for the Ultra 64 (ultimately renamed the Nintendo 64) or the Saturn.
  • The three fictional cities would later become the settings used in the Grand Theft Auto III and IV games to follow, but not in the Grand Theft Auto: London mission packs nor in Grand Theft Auto 2.
  • The original Grand Theft Auto was developed in DOS, and then later ported to Microsoft Windows (using SciTech MGL), Sony PlayStation (developed by Visual Sciences using their “ViSOS” framework), and Game Boy Color. The Game Boy Color version was technologically unabridged, which was quite a technical achievement due to the sheer size of the cities, converted tile-for-tile from the PC original, making them many times larger than most Game Boy Color game worlds were because of the handheld’s limited hardware. To cater for the target younger generation, however, the game was heavily censored, with gore and swearing removed.
  • The cover art for Grand Theft Auto is a photograph of a New York Police Department 1980s Plymouth Gran Fury rushing through the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 56th Street, with Trump Tower in the background of the picture. The same cover art was also an alternative cover for Grand Theft Auto 2 in selected markets.
  • PC players can remove the CD once the game is loaded and replace it with an audio CD. The next time the character enters a vehicle, a song from the CD will randomly play. This can also be done in the PlayStation port.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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  1. castingcouch says:

    Good game, and a seed for gaming greatness later on. GTA III was that moment of greatness.

    • Dave James says:

      GTA III was undoubtedly the start of something better, but it wasn’t until Vice City – in my opinion – that it really started to fly.

      • castingcouch says:

        GTA III was the wow moment. But I agree, VC was something special. I can’t say how many days, weeks, months I spent in that game world. And then San Andreas was released and years flew by :)

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