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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