It's Grand Theft Auto 5 day: Any of you kids remember GTA the First?
Top-down car takin’, money makin’ action from the late 1990s
Antique Code Show Grand Theft Auto 5 – one of the most keenly anticipated video games ever – was officially released today, although a few people apparently got their packages a few days ago.
The preview videos show it to be stunningly accomplished, and no doubt it will sell phenomenally well. Yet many of the young adults who make an excited purchase of GTA5 won’t realise that the title’s foundations were laid back 16 years ago in 1997, when DMA Design released the inaugural title of this groundbreaking but always controversial series.
GTA: Top-down racey action
Utilising the more limited PC capabilities of the time, GTA went for a top-down view of the criminal action, with people and Matchbox-style cars represented as rotating bitmaps. The impact of arcade originals such as Bally Midway’s Spy Hunter (1983) and Atari’s police-themed APB (1987) was obvious.
Buildings were simplistic polygon structures covered in bitmap textures, so scaling and movement retained a good degree of 3D realism – though full polygon use would have to wait until GTA3. While the graphics were impressive enough, with silky smooth scrolling accompanying the fast-paced, multi-sprite action, GTA was always more about style rather than pushing the boundaries of cutting-edge visuals.
Plenty of Grand Theft Auto gameplay staples were introduced. Your chosen gangster gleans his criminal jobs from public payphones, or a jacked car may come with its own sub-job to keep you busy. Sometimes a fast and furious approach is best, sometimes creeping around back streets to avoid the cops is better.
Steal a school bus if you dare
When the cops do get a sniff of you, dealing with them leads to more decisions: do you run away so the heat disperses, or gun them down – even run them over – before they radio for backup?
Cult flick Death Race 2000 was clearly inspirational, for just like Carmageddon, also released in '97, GTA encouraged players to win points for road kill, criminal damage and immoral activity generally. Your aim is to gain enough points – money, basically – to reach the next level, though you may wish to part with some cash for a spray-paint job on your latest get-away vehicle – which will also fool the cops.
Or how about added munitions? Pistol, machine gun, rocket-launcher or flame-thrower – each has its own pros and cons – with the humble fist quite practical for short-term knockouts. There was even a hidden burp and fart option befitting the humorous, cartoon-grossness found throughout.
Even fire engines are fair game
The inclusion of wide-ranging player choices made GTA a key forerunner to today’s "sandbox" free-reign gaming experiences. On first playing, the temptation to experiment by running people down – or car-jacking the most outrageous vehicle possible – seemed so gloriously immoral that it just had to be done.
Even when back on criminal track, the three distinct, sizeable cities you could explore contained such a wealth of fascinating back streets and sub-plots that at times you lost confidence in the concept of being on the right road for gangster success.
No matter: the backbone of the major jobs would bring you back in line eventually. No doubt console role-playing and PC god games had been inspirational, but it was still a fantastic way to structure the action. It’s no surprise that GTA5 takes the idea of an explorable world many levels higher than the original, but the beginnings were certainly there in GTA.
Pursued by Hare Krishnas shouting ‘Dickwad!’ True next-level gaming
GTA’s network support was a worthwhile feature, albeit over a LAN or using a null-modem cable to link two machines together. You had to wait for GTA2 before you could play internet-linked games. Again, the chance to maliciously interfere or double-cross a friend’s game progress was such a temptation it was pretty much a given that it would occur. Smiles all round indeed.
Will someone think of the children?
The way Grand Theft Auto reversed the moral compass of good versus bad in a game was clearly going to appeal, and it was perhaps DMA Design’s trump card for marketing. Plenty of media hoo-ha was generated with many a stern columnist condemning the violent, bloodthirsty action – and PR supremo Max Clifford was apparently employed to stir the gossip pot further.
Only firearms offences? Must try harder
What such media attention didn’t reveal, of course, was that the violence was slapstick cartoon humour and that numerous semi-intelligent twists were included, elevating GTA out of the bloody gutter it was accused of occupying. DMA must have been pleased when the game ended up with a "content advisory" label – while it obviously sold like hotcakes – and video games in general were one step closer to the PEGI advisories of today.
Another burgeoning coup for the developer was the use of radio stations to create a rolling background soundtrack: steal a different car, a different radio station plays. The police band was worthy of a useful listen too. The music was all original, commissioned especially for GTA, and was another way in which the title could present itself as an older person’s gaming experience. No doubt the brilliantly ironic, sarcastic radio adverts and commentary of later titles was given its first glimpse of life here.
DMA Design tried to prolong the success of GTA, releasing two expansion pack titles in 1999, London 1969 and London 1961, complete with historically themed buildings, vehicles and missions. Cars now drove on the left, of course, with plenty of authentic cockney slang included and a James Bond-style character thrown in for good measure.
GTA 2: Fun while it lasted...
For any northerners who felt left out, 1961 also featured a death-match map of Manchester, for use in multi-player battles.
Hot Shots! Part Deux
A proper sequel was released later that year, with some worthwhile gameplay adjustments and more polished graphics. This time the action was set in the future – unfortunately a bit of a bland setting overall really, that DMA, in its later guise of Rockstar Games, would seek to rectify in later GTAs with their popular 1970s and 1980s setups.
The sprawling levels of GTA2 contained a total of seven different gangs to fight against and amongst, including the Hare Krishna, making a return appearance from GTA, this time with a huge camper van that they sneakily use to front criminal activity.
Phone boxes now came in three different colours, depending on criminal job difficulty, and "respect" had to be earned to unlock the hardest missions. A well-needed save option was also included, as long as you could find the church and pay $50,000 for the privilege – don’t worry, if you steal an ice-cream van you’ll be pointed in the right direction, of course!
It’s clear that the 2D days of Grand Theft Auto are held in fond regard by Rockstar, with their place in the line-up still proclaimed on its website. And were it not for the canny marketing and controversy of these first titles, no doubt the series wouldn’t have flourished in the way it has.
Yet to my mind these early GTA titles should occupy a more important slot in video-game history. For these slick games were some of the first to deliver that same familiar blend of quick-witted, comedy violence as the blockbuster movies that inspired them.
So while today’s video-game players are all too familiar with witty, black humour and "character" gangsters, it wasn’t always the case. GTA and its successors were the first to show that this new, conveniently controversial arena was now very much open for business. ®
Developer DMA Design
Publisher BMG Interactive
Platforms DOS, Playstation, Game Boy Colour, Windows
Developer Rockstar Games
Publisher Take-Two Interactive
Platforms Playstation, Dreamcast, Game Boy Colour, Windows