Have You Played… Grand Theft Auto?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

Y’know, the original one. Before 3D. Before Rockstar. Before the world changed.

I had played games – or seen games played – in front of a crowd before. Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat in the arcade, primarily, and occasional early-teenage house parties which were primarily framed around taking turns to play Streets of Rage. Grand Theft Auto (not GTA yet, and not for a long time still) was nonetheless a first. A guy I didn’t even like (the feeling very mutual), a drunken, bullying idiot, unexpectedly knocked on my door in university halls, brandishing a CD. The dynamic: he was the guy with the controversial videogame, I was the only guy he knew with a PC. I had to install it. I had to be the gateway to what, even for this career lout, was a whole new breed of misanthropy.

He brought a crowd with him: almost every one on our floor of the halls, male and female. All had heard about this ultra-modern bete noir, this next generation of video nasty, and all wished to see what it was. I was treated as if some kind of magician as I installed and configured it. Breath was held then exhaled with mingled horror and delight as I drove over the first pedestrian.

The fool took control soon, and giggled cruelly as he mowed down civilian after civilian, as we all did. His interest waned soon enough, for despite all the headlines, this was just another videogame, a passing distracting compared to booze and pills girls and setting off fire alarms and smashing doors and shouting racist insults at Welsh people. Most of the crowd filtered out before long too, because really what this was was a little toy car speeding around a little pretend city, making pixels turn another colour.

But a few remained, and they became my friends, because we had a shared wonder at this thing. Not at the killing, though we continued to hoot at new feats of comic murder, but at the size of the space it offered, how far we could drive, how much we were allowed to do, how unpredictable each willing foray into chaos was. This was not just some throwaway exercise in sadism: it was a furthering of what we believed games could do.

I hesitate to in any way describe GTA as a formative game, because I am increasingly uncomfortable about its ongoing shift from barrier-pushing to unabashed mean-spiritedness, but I suppose it was. It seemed like a jump. A world rather than a level. After GTA, games and I seemed to become intertwined in a way they never had before. And here I am.

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64 Comments

  1. Eight Rooks says:

    I have! My experience wasn’t quite that dramatic, but it was close. I can still remember me, my then girlfriend and two of her best friends all crowding round my ailing Pentium 75 and taking turns to play, giggling like crazy people. Yeah, it was just a videogame – and yet it plainly wasn’t. Even in that mundane setting you could tell something was different.

  2. Bullfrog says:

    It had a song about hairy women too.

    • deiseach says:

      You know, that was so good, I reckon I’ll play it again.

      • Jay Load says:

        Awwwww, that soundtrack. Gimme Head Radio anytime; I still have a couple of the tracks kicking around my PC somewhere. I struggle to think of a more fitting soundtrack to any game since, and certainly one that’s as plain fun to listen to.

        Interestingly I heard a story that said DMA royally screwed over the bands and musicians on this one, paying them a pittance, but I took it with a massive pinch of salt coming as it did via the rumour mills at the time.

  3. Plake says:

    GTA1’s Kivlov is still my profile picture, wherever possible. This game introduced me to games for grown ups back then and didn’t disappoint… ^^

  4. BobbyDylan says:

    I keep hoping for a GTA London remake, in 3D.

  5. DarkMalice says:

    Most memorable thing about it, for me, was this;

  6. djvecchitto says:

    One thing everyone forgot about the original GTA: it had multiplayer! And really good multiplayer at that! This was a fast game — the fastest cars and bikes moved so quickly that you basically couldn’t avoid slamming into traffic all over the place. Chasing your friends around was a blast, and since there was no health mechanic (it’s just one shot = one kill) the fights were really tense and fast.

    • somnolentsurfer says:

      In my year out before uni, working at a rapidly-failing subscription dial-up ISP in the era of Freeserve, most of our lunchtimes were taken up with this. And most of our afternoons too, when our boss was too drunk to notice.

    • CdrJameson says:

      Yeah, I played it first on the Playstation where it ran just that bit slower that the sports cars were actually controllable.

      The PC version was a bit of a shock.

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      ComicSansMS says:

      We actually nuked our school’s server machine once as part of our efforts to get GTA to run in the computer room. Our teacher was not amused, but it was so worth it when we managed to get it running in the end.

      Never liked any of the later GTAs as much as this one.

  7. Bahumat says:

    “DAAAAAAAAAMNATION!

    NO DONATION, NO SALVATION!”

    To this day that sound clip is indelibly inked into my brain because of this game.

  8. HeavyStorm says:

    This was the real GTA game!I still have the disc. It’s wonderful (that’s not to say that the current ones are anything but a marvel – just that they don’t really feel like GTA). People who need a more polished (and less arcadeish) experience can play China Wars, which is much like a tribute for the first and second titles.

    Oh, and this never left my mind:

    “I got a warning for you from bold man sonneti (or something): cross him again, I stick a gun up your ass and blow your xxxxxx eyeballs out ”

    Never quite understood who that guy was (or sonneti, for that matter)

  9. bee says:

    The original is still the best one IMO.

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    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    GOURANGA!

  11. BananaMan3000 says:

    I must have played that 300 second demo, taking turns with my friends, at least 150 times.

    GOURANGA!

    • rasko1nikov says:

      ahh man, just hit ctrl-f to see if anyone was gonna wax lyrical about that demo! at a time when you couldn’t get your hands on the full game (and even if I’d asked, I think my Mum would’ve slapped me down), those 8 minutes were everything! loved it to death. plus, with the nature of the timer, it was perfect for games of Last Man Standing/Most Stars etc with mates.

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      Skabooga says:

      Ooo, and what a great demo. At one point, I went to a warez website to download a crack that would disable the timer for the demo. After that, I played the demo until I was sick of it.

    • somnolentsurfer says:

      I played the demo for ages. Then I pirated the game off a mate and discovered there was a second city. Blew my mind.

  12. Laurentius says:

    Oh yes, loved it! Also a formative game, along with Syndicate it really brang home that I love this city snadbox type of games, watching city before my eyes, being pedestrian, driver, i love it to this very day and GTA5.
    It all started with the demo, it absolutely sold me GTA, I played it obsessivly, this 5 minutes, over and over. I also so loved how contemporary gam felt, and tbh still feels. Then full game, if it could run with decent framerates I would still be playing it.
    PS. Fun fact, I was learning Englidh at that time and GTA was introducing me to whole slew of new words and phrases,I still remember looking up in dictionary what “banging” means, thx GTA.

  13. deiseach says:

    Hey pretty boy! You done real good for me. Now it’s time for you to find out why they call me The Donkey!

    It had the best demo I have ever seen. You only had ten minutes to play it. God know who many times I tried to eke some more game out of it before eventually cobbling together my coppers for the real thing.

  14. Nesty says:

    I liked the pinball style scoring system… increasing your multiplier each time a mission was completed. Very arcadey and enjoyable. The MP was a bit annoying from my experience – lots of desynching! Fantastic soundtrack and loved how it moved on to a completely new city as you progressed through the story.

  15. DEspresso says:

    This is the Game that taught me it is not good to drive only over one Hare Krishna, you need to drive over all Hare Krishnas.

    • Jay Load says:

      Can’t believe it’s never come back in the series since (although were there Elvises (Elvii?) in the London version?).

      We could leave the Hare Krishnas out of it next time, even. I’d pay good money to see a line of Scientologists in a GTA game.

  16. Freud says:

    It was old school in that you had lives and no checkpoints. When you ran out of lives the game was over and you had to start over again.

    • Zekiel says:

      Yeah. Amazing really. If you wanted to complete the level and unlock the next one you had to do it all in one sitting! What we put up with in those days…

  17. RedMattis says:

    Grand Theft Auto was developed by DMA Design, today known as Rockstar North. Rockstar North is basically the main studio behind the main GTA Games. So… basically they kept doing what they were doing before the re-branding I guess? :)

  18. Bowak says:

    I had to cycle 8 miles to our nearest Game to buy GTA as I was the oldest looking of my friends. I was only 15, so was massively amused that they point blank refused to sell it to my 16 year old mate.

    We’d played the time limited demo to death so not buying the full version just wasn’t an option.

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    Thirith says:

    Perhaps I’m in denial, but I don’t actually see the “unabashed mean-spiritedness” you describe, Alec. I’d absolutely say that GTA has a strong streak of adolescent “Let’s make fun of *everything*!” that is entirely lacking in wit, but there are things in all of them that are more complicated and richer. E.g. GTA IV has that ridiculous gay character – yet his camp histrionics aren’t really made fun of by the game itself, and Niko actually defends the guy risking his own life. I’m not a big fan of Trevor in GTA V, but I do think he has moments of successfully holding up a mirror to players, foregrounding what it is they’re doing for a lark. There’s generally more self-awareness to GTA V’s characters than you’d expect of a game that’s just mean-spirited.

    I do wish they’d write a game that focuses on the more interesting, less adolescent elements as consistently and as interestingly as Red Dead Redemption, because they can do it when they want. They don’t need to go po-faced, but RDR wasn’t po-faced either – it just didn’t veer as wildly from commenting on its world, characters and violence to dick jokes as GTA V does.

    • rasko1nikov says:

      Yeah, I dunno. I always think the change in tone is most reflected in how crappy the comedy in the radio stations becomes. In GTA III, for example, it’s relatively subtle (still ridiculous, obviously), mocking the thing by mimicing the thing (like, that straight-faced Colbert type mockery), but in later GTA’s, the irony has kind of given way to a sneering obviousness (like, I dunno, John Stewart or somebody screaming “look at how THIS is funny!”).

      Not gonna, pretend they were ever satirical masters or anything though; just my two cents. Just think they went from showing to telling a lot more.

      • WHS says:

        I think there are a few things going on. I think it’s true that the comedy has gone downhill – now, everything in GTA has to be this clear parody of some real-life entity or person, and feels a bit try-hard, to be honest. And lazy – it’s just too easy to say “Hey, isn’t Mark Zuckerberg an irritating dope?” and act as if this is a joke in full. Previously, the whole universe was broadly comic, and the ridiculous characters could grow and breathe a little, and that allowed for jokes that could stand alone and weren’t premised on reflecting real life through the writers’ own “worldly” cynicism. Now, the universe is half-comic, half-serious, the zaniness is gone, and only the parody remains.

        And that last point goes to the other thing that’s happened: Rockstar has, more and more, turned GTA into a series of worlds in bottles, increasingly perfect imitations of real places in digital form. A lot of people complain about how much time Rockstar spends building its worlds – “It’s just a game, focus on the gameplay” – but I think it’s an incredible and admirable project. It really gets to what was amazing about the early games: the ability to just keep driving in any direction and find all sorts of unexpected things; the idea that you could go to the horizon, and beyond, and the world would be there waiting for you to find it (the figurative horizon, of course, before III).

        But that’s wreaked all sorts of havoc with the tone of the writing and, honestly, a lot of what people term “gameplay.” Where before, Rockstar could write goofy stereotypes and handwave it away as satire, now those stereotypes feel wildly out of place in a world that otherwise looks and feels incredibly real. You get the sense that maybe the writers are hanging on to “humor” as an excuse – that they doubt their ability to write a character or a story that seems as real as the cities in which they’re immersed, and hoping that, if they keeping pitching elements of the universe as comedic, they won’t ever have to.

        Same goes for the missions and so forth. “Here is a world that feels perfectly real – now go shoot 200 people.” It feels out of place, and like an anachronism. It’s a little sad – even more than the humor, “being a shooter” is really central to GTA’s commercial identity, and it’s likely to be the core of the series forever. But imagine what kind of experiences would be possible if you had a world that was as large and carefully designed as GTA’s recent offerings, and the primary way of interacting with it wasn’t killing the inhabitants.

        • purpledoggames says:

          “But imagine what kind of experiences would be possible if you had a world that was as large and carefully designed as GTA’s recent offerings, and the primary way of interacting with it wasn’t killing the inhabitants.” This is my dream.

      • WHS says:

        (This is my really long-winded way of saying “For the love of god, can you, just once, make a GTA that’s the Bourne Identity or Zodiac instead of Scarface?”)

    • poliovaccine says:

      I donno man, I think indulging yourself in the limited adolescent mindset of “let’s make fun of everything!” is basically the textbook definition of mean-spirited… it doesn’t really excuse it at all that it’s so equivocal.

      Also, describing it as mean-spirited doesnt need to be a referendum on the game or its morals. If anything, mean-spirited themes are gonna be pretty much native to any game that is even a little bit about contemporary urban and/or organized crime… but I mean, just cus Goodfellas is a movie about some fundamentally awful people, that doesn’t for a minute extend to say it’s a bad *movie.* Or an unenjoyable one. Or even unfunny..!

      Anyway, Aristotle once said, “in art, man seeks representation,” which is truest when you consider “representation” in both senses of the word – both depiction, and defense. Cus frankly, sometimes us antisocial types are a little bored with the standard hero’s journey… the reason Morrowind was the first RPG that ever grabbed me was cus it was the first I’d ever played that didn’t lift a finger to discourage me from playing as an unrepentant, inveterate thief. If a thing can be *plainly* mean-spirited, not as part of some moralistic transmogrification of character or anything, but rather just cus that’s the type of people it’s about, man oh man is that a welcome change. In many games, good behavior is rewarded with some kind of points, gold, karma, unlocked NPCs or items, etc… but in reality, alas, there is no guarantee of instant (or any) reward for your good deeds, which is why taking the moral high ground, in the real world, is not always the most obvious choice, nor is it ever the end of the story. To go back to Goodfellas, “if crime didnt pay there would be no crime.” I guess I find the experience validating in the way good, decent folk are validated by happy endings where the good guys win… but some stories are *proscriptive* of our world while others are simply *descriptive,* and while neither is any “better” than the other one, I do know which I tend to prefer…

      …all this cus I just wanted to say, “You say that like being mean-spirited is necessarily a bad thing..!” but I knew if I were to express that in earnest it’d warrant a little explanation.

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    Thulsa Hex says:

    I was going to recount my first encounter with the demo as an 11-year-old, but I’m sure everyone has a similar story. It was indeed an important phenomenon! But for me it turned out to be even more important as a form of currency. I never ended-up owning the disc, but a friend with more trusting and monied parents got it and lent it to me. I technically shouldn’t have done this, but I brought it over to my new next door neighbours’ house – two teenage boys who were too old to be my friends but had an AMAZING PC game collection – and offered it up. This turned out to be the golden ticket. Perhaps their parents had refused to buy it for them, I don’t know, but a handful of weeks with my friend’s copy granted me unlimited access to their entire library, essentially forever.

    I walked out of there with X-Wing, TIE-Fighter, Mechwarrior 2: Mercs, Command & Conquer, C&C Red Alert, that Westwood Bladerunner game – and many more. I had access to Tiberian Sun when that came out. When I was done with one game, I went back for another. This was a real God-send for a young teen from a family like mine that had a tiny budget for things like games. I got in a little bit of trouble with my friend when he found out is lent it but I never regretted it.

  21. Emeraude says:

    I’m thinking the older games in the series worked better because they were more abstract and arcade-like both in their workings and presentations, if I make sense.

    They’ve certainly lost me along the way.

  22. syllopsium says:

    GTA? Good, but not great.
    GTA London? Now you’re talking – that’s excellent.

    Never really got on with GTA 3, and didn’t bother playing any of the later ones. GTA 2 was too slow and annoying, but GTA London got it just right.

    An honourable mention goes to GTA Chinatown on the DS, which although at times a tiny bit tricky to control, looks and plays brilliantly.

  23. Sin Vega says:

    Played it again recently and it’s still jolly good fun, although following the missions is as tedious and infuriating as ever. It’s quite sad that despite everything Rockstar have done with the series, every single one of them has the exact same straightjacket mission structure as the very first.

    What I’d completely forgotten was that you could choose a player avatar, half of which were women and half again (or thereabouts) weren’t white.

    • April March says:

      And all of which looked like a balding orange bloke in a green jumpsuit once the game started, wasn’t it?

      • Sin Vega says:

        Yeah, it made no difference to anything, just what picture was by the high score screen (it had high scores! Even the series that went on to obsess over “respect” instead was originally a high score chaser). But it was a mildly interesting surprise to me.

  24. Zekiel says:

    Yes I have. Played it, played GTA2, and never played any of the newfangled 3D ones.

    I remember having to show ID to buy this. I don’t really remember it feeling tremendously transgressive (though I guess it probably did at the time), but I do remember it being tremenously fun. San Andreas was just awesome fun to drive around, ignoring the missions, listening the music and seeing how long I could last before being busted.

    Never finished it – Vice City was just too dang difficult.

  25. Umberto Bongo says:

    I still sometimes wonder how Grand Theft Auto would have evolved had it not become the real-world apeing behemoth it is today. Probably something like Saints Row 2. To me it was always a kinda silly crime caper, not some huge satire on current real-world goings on. It’s funny how quaint it now seems 20 years later given how naughty the game seemed at the time.

  26. Spacewalk says:

    Don’t do missions, just do stuff long enough until cars stop spawning then quit and do it all over again and get no homework done so your grades starts dropping. Parent-teacher nights were something to dread.

  27. dorobo says:

    Yes. The best gta game.

  28. WJonathan says:

    GTA I and II were very, VERY difficult games. The camera always seemed out-of-adjustment while driving, offscreen on-foot enemies could insta-kill you, and I remember in GTA II you had to pay a huge sum of money to save the game. I did enjoy exploring the cities, though, as finding rooftop entrances and “secret” areas was a rewarding challenge from the top-down perspective. Never could get the hang of the driving on PC, and consequently never finished either.

  29. April March says:

    Liberty City was brilliant level design (if you can use that term to describe open-world levels – I think it’s fitting). I remeber how amazing it was to realize that the square world actually had a Manhattan-style island in the center, and it wasn actually at an angle on the river.

    But I actually liked 2 better, and the enormous dam blew my mind.

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    alms says:

    I loved that little Porsche and kept sliding it around.

  31. Bootsy81 says:

    My main memory of original GTA was, apart from loving it of course, repeatedly saying to my brother/friends/anyone who’d listen that it would be an amazing game in 3D. It seemed like something that would likely never happen in our lifetimes. That running over sprites from high above would be as good as it got for us.

    AND THEN IT ACTUALLY HAPPENED.

    Original GTA was great. But it was GTA3 that really made the dreams come true for me. Who’d have thought the series would take us where it is now. And where’s it going to be in ten, twenty years from now?

  32. Sonntam says:

    My favorite part was driving the trains. No other game since then let me do it. It was awesome.

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