Retrospective: Grand Theft Auto

No, probably not the Grand Theft Auto you’re thinking of. Today’s GTA games feature massive, realistic 3D urban environments and all kinds of missions and tasks. Today’s GTA is amazing, even despite the mostly well-deserved complaints about more recent titles in the series.

Forget all that. Right now we’re talking about the GTA of yesterday – specifically, of the late 90s, when Rockstar put out the original Grand Theft Auto and its sequel (which are, for the most part, essentially the same game.)

GTA2 has a great cover, but the publisher's logo (lower right) kind of kills the atmosphere, doesn't it?

GTA2 has a great cover, but the publisher’s logo (lower right) kind of kills the atmosphere, doesn’t it?

GTA and GTA2, released in 1997 and 1999 respectively, were not 3D – although 3D games were being developed at the time, the technology didn’t yet exist to depict large, decent-looking 3D environments in an action context. Thus, they were 2D top-down games. The idea behind both is pretty much the same as it has been ever since – drive around, shoot people, cause mayhem. You can also take missions, much as you do in GTA III and beyond, although there aren’t really any storylines connected to the missions as there are in the 3D games. So most of your time will probably consist of driving around town and smashing into things.

One of the unsatisfying things about GTA and GTA2 is that some of the missions are pretty fucking stupid.  Some of the missions in later GTA games are stupid too, though.

One of the unsatisfying things about GTA and GTA2 is that some of the missions are pretty fucking stupid. Some of the missions in later GTA games are stupid too, though.

Speaking of smashing into things, there was a pretty serious problem with GTA and GTA2 that, in my mind, more or less wrecked them gameplay-wise. Much like GTA III and on, these first two titles encourage the player to steal the fastest cars and jet around the city without regard for traffic laws or human life (in fact, some of the games’ timed missions demand that you do this.) However, this style of play only works if you can see what’s coming towards you. In a 3D game, this isn’t a problem. In a 2D top-down game, it most definitely is. Unless you have the city map memorized, chances are you will spend a lot of your driving time crashing into buildings and getting stuck in frustratingly tight spots.

PHFLHPHLPHLPHLPFLHLHPLHP is the best way to describe the gameplay in GTA and GTA2

PHFLHPHLPHLPHLPFLHLHPLHP is the best way to describe the gameplay in GTA and GTA2

Add to this the fact that efficient routes are nearly impossible to map out unless, again, you’ve got the city layout memorized, and your 2D GTA experience becomes aggravating to the point that you may just want to quit playing. GTA and GTA2 are cases where the quality of the games really are affected by their technological capabilities, sad to say. It’s clear that Rockstar only truly realized their vision with GTA III.

Wow, that was a pretentious fucking paragraph! I have to watch myself.

Still, that doesn’t mean these games are worthless or anything. They were a lot of fun in the late 90s, perhaps because they more or less invented the all-around crime simulator genre. Sending the police on a wild chase across the city was one of the best parts of the game, even despite the good chance that you’d smash into buildings and run into dead ends because of the top-down view.

The city at night

The city at night

So it’s kind of hard to say whether these games are still worth playing. You can certainly have fun with them, but if you’ve played any other GTA game from GTA III to V, you’ll probably just be pining to play those instead. Still, it’s worth checking out the origins of the series. Unfortunately, Steam seems to have stopped selling them, and although Rockstar had a page where you could download them for free, they’ve deactivated that service. I can’t imagine why – it’s not like they’re wanting for money. If that page ever is active again, though, you may as well download GTA and GTA2 – they’re well worth playing for free.

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Caffeine mints have become my #2 energy source

For the curious, #1 is coffee. There is no #3. The natural joy of being alive and waking up in the morning gives me 0 units of energy. In fact, I think it might give me negative energy.

As a long-time reader of this blog, you know that I don’t like making personal blog posts. This is not a personal blog for the reason that I don’t find my life that interesting and don’t think that anyone else cares to hear about it. I also think this is true of 99%+ of people, and thus that personal blogs are generally pretty worthless outside of a small circle of family and friends around the author. Hence I try to make my writing have broad appeal with the game and travel posts and the lack of “here’s what I did today” type stuff.

However, this post has broad appeal too despite being a somewhat personal one, because who doesn’t like caffeine? As the most widely used drug in the world, caffeine is a staple of societies throughout the world and has proven benefits in productivity and creativity when used moderately. And if you like caffeine, you will probably also like caffeine mints.

Penguin_Peppermint_04

A few weeks ago, I ordered two types of caffeinated mints online. My plan was to buy energy cheaply and in a convenient form (meaning one I can take to the library and not worry about spilling all over the place.) The first I bought were several tins of Penguin mints. Each of these have 7 mg of caffeine. For reference, a typical cup of brewed coffee has about 100 mg of caffeine. These Penguin mints have apparently been around for a long time (20/30 years?) and are sweetened with aspartame, which maybe isn’t so great. That’s not going to stop me from eating them. They taste pretty much like regular mints, come in nice tins like Altoids and give you a kick if you eat enough of them (10+).

I also bought a can of mints on the cheap from a certain website that sells a lot of weird nerd stuff. These have 20 mg of caffeine each, are chalky and taste like ass. Strange, because the label says they have sugar in them. In any case, they’re good enough as an inexpensive boost. I’m a 2L on a law journal now, so I really need them.

This is the face of evil.

This is the face of evil.

If you are a law student like me, or are in any other kind of program or job that requires long nights, I highly recommend caffeine mints. But be careful. Some guy in England died after eating a lot of them last year and now his daughter is afraid of coffee.

Retrospective: Grandia II

The Dreamcast had a sadly short life, doomed as it was to be SEGA’s last shot effort at staying in the console-making game. Unlike its disastrous predecessor Saturn, however, the Dreamcast is still more or less beloved among a lot of gamers now in their 20s. Maybe it’s because everyone knew it was SEGA’s last shot, or because some of its games were actually pretty good.

Grandia II was one of these. Released in 2000, Grandia II was in many ways a typical JRPG – lots of battles, boss fights, traveling, dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, and all in the context of an epic quest to save the world. Your hero is Ryudo, a young mercenary who runs around the countryside looking for work with his pet (?) talking falcon (???) Skye (no, the game never explains this. Especially confusing because Skye is the only talking/intelligent animal in the game; the rest don’t say a word. Also, in the English dub Skye sounds like George Takei.) Ryudo is kind of a dick, and although Skye tries to keep him in line it doesn’t always work.

One of Ryudo's many quips

One of Ryudo’s many quips

The gist of Grandia II is that you, as Ryudo, have to take a job from the church that controls your country to seal an ancient evil together with a nun who is the key to sealing that evil, because of a reason I can’t remember. You travel to see the pope while meeting people who have serious problems you have to fix, after which a few of them will join your party as permanent members. ……..

Right, so in terms of setting, plot and basic character layout, it’s a generic JRPG. Painfully generic, and as stale as a week-old baguette. The hero is a jaded sarcastic guy, the main female lead is a nice girl who wants to help everybody. There’s also a kid, a warrior furry lion sort-of guy and a robot girl. And if you’ve played even a few JRPGs of this kind, you’ll see the plot twists coming several hours before they hit. Hell, you might be able to figure out everything that’s going on, all the way to the very end of the game, after finishing just about a third of it. Really, that’s not right at all.

FINE Elena we'll fucking save the townspeople already

FINE Elena we’ll fucking save the townspeople already

Despite that, Grandia II is a good game if only for its gameplay, and namely for its battle system. It’s a mix of turn-based and real-time battle. Each of your members has his or her turn along with each of the enemies. However, the order of everyone’s turns is determined by their speed stats and whether your party was able to catch the enemy off guard or was ambushed by the enemy. Each turn, represented by the character’s face, moves along the initiative bar to the blue COM threshold, where you can input a command for that character. Once they hit the ACT line, that character will carry out their inputted action. Both you and your enemies’ actions can be cancelled, however, if they’re attacked before carrying said action out. Getting canceled flings the affected actor’s icon way to the left (i.e. the beginning) of the initiative bar again.

Your characters also get a whole crapload of moves and spells to learn, some of which do various amounts of area damage. A few moves are great for canceling imminent enemy attacks.

Grandia II's battle system is its best asset.

Grandia II’s battle system is its best asset.

This system might sound complicated, but it’s really easy to pick up and a lot of fun once you’ve gotten the hang of it. Battles in Grandia II are a lot more than simple point-and-click or run-around-the-field-swinging-your-sword deals as they are in many other JRPGs, and that adds a lot of value to the game.

Another nice addition to Grandia II is this bit that comes up maybe six or eight times throughout the game where you get to sit in on a dinner conservation with your party. It’s not especially substantive or anything, but it adds some flavor to the game, and the characters’ interactions can be amusing sometimes. In fact, most of Grandia II‘s dialogue is pretty well-written, even in the context of its stale plot.

Is he being sarcastic?  Who can tell.

Is he being sarcastic? Who can tell.

Grandia II is a nice JRPG that’s well worth playing if you live in 2000 and own a Dreamcast. And though it hasn’t aged all that well, really, even today it’s fun. I played it a couple of times as a kid, and returning to the game, I can still enjoy it.

Sadly, it’s kind of hard to track down today in its original form – copies of the Dreamcast version are on sale for $150 on Amazon (it’s the same with Skies of Arcadia, actually – what is it with Dreamcast RPGs being expensive as hell now?) The PS2 version might be cheaper, though I’ve never played it – it could also be a horribly broken port for all I know. And the PC (!) version is probably damn near impossible to play on a Windows 7/8 machine. Still, if you can track this game down for a decent price, it’s well worth a play. I don’t know if it’s necessarily $150 worth of it, but it’s certainly worth something.