Niche Game: Grand Theft Auto

Niche games: Âwe’ve all played them. ÂThey’re the games that you remember for a long time because they’re so unique. ÂSometimes they’re the only ones ever made like them. ÂOther times they were trailblazers for their kind of gameplay. ÂBut what they have in common is the bravery to try something new, allowing them to rise above the imitators. ÂEven though there might be newer games with shinier graphics, these games are still worth playing mecause they’re something different, something special.

The original Grand Theft Auto, the game that started the memorable series, was released by DMA Design, now known as Rockstar North. This is just one in the long list of ingenius games this company is capable of, with such varied gameplay that you never get bored. This game is similar in some ways to its descendents, but has many unique traits of its own.

The game is mostly 2-D. Technically it’s 3-D, because the height of buildings is clear as you drive by them, but the game rarely involves interacting with anything that’s not strictly on the ground. The view is top-down only. This view works pretty well for the most part, but isn’t very helpful when you are beneath something opaque like an overpass.

The plot moves through three cities, which will sound familiar to fans of the later games. You start in Liberty City (New York), move on to Vice City (Miami), and the last level is in San Andreas (California). The game starts out with your character in Liberty City, near a bunch of ringing telephones on the edge of Central Park. Each telephone kicks off a different mission, which you then try to complete. When you pass or fail, you return to the phones if you want more missions. Or, like the sequels, you can just choose to rampage.

Completing missions is important, but in this version is not required to advance through the game. Advancement in this game depends on the points, though missions are an integral way of rapidly increasing your points, and succeeding in missions tends to open up more missions. Besides getting a huge point bonus for completing a mission, doing so also increases your points multiplier by one. The multiplier is applied to every point you receive. The points are labeled as dollars on-screen, but it’s not really clear who is paying you $10 for every pedestrian you run over, so I tend to think of them as points. You can use the points to purchase things, such as a paint job to lose cops or planting a bomb in a car.

Missions vary widely. Sometimes you’re the driver for a bank job, evading pursuit with a high police level, or other times you’re sent on an assassination mission. One mission re-enacts the premise of speed. Once you get in this bus, you must maintain a minimum speed or the bus will explode. So you have to drive on sidewalks and swerve in and out of traffic to pull this off, keeping it up until someone can disable the bomb while you’re driving.

You do get points for pretty much anything, including running over people with your car, shooting people. You get lots of extra points for mass carnage. For instance, if you steal many cars and parks them side by side, then blow them all up with a shot from the rocket launcher. This works with people too, which is especially noticeable when you see a line of Hare Krishna walking in single file. If you can run over the whole line without missing a single one of them, then you get a huge bonus, along with the word “GOURANGA” filling the screen. Another way to cause carnage is to scare people onto the third rail of the city trains. Fire a gun or a flamethrower at no one in particular at a train station and people will flee in every direction, even if they zap themselves to do it.

Of course, the more visible crimes you commit, the more your police wanted level goes up. With one star, you’re usually only pursued by one or two cops who don’t try to kill you, only to arrest you. As your wanted level increases, so does the level of pursuit. A little higher and cops set up road blocks with their cars blocking the road. It escalates up to the point where the military gets involved, sending tanks barreling down the street. If you get “BUSTED” or “WASTED” (both of which come with their own awesome sound clip), you will come to at the nearest police station or hospital without weapons and with your multiplier reduced. This is very disappointing when it happens, because those multiplier values are everything.

Besides the phone missions, there are also missions you begin by jumping into abandoned cars parked in various places in the city. And sometimes you get important mission information via your beeper which scrolls messages up on the top of the screen. It’s all open-ended, so you can do any of these missions, or not. it’s really up to you.

There is a wide array of cars in this game, most modeled after real cars, though using different false names than the 3-D GTA games. For instance, the Dodge Viper is a “Beast” in this game as opposed to the “Banshee” used in later games. Each car has its own attributes, and of course stealing cop cars is one of the most fun things to do. Turning on the sirens increases the cop car’s top speed.

Just like GTA3, this game has radio stations with made up songs on them. This was one of my favorite parts of the game, just driving around and listening to the fake music. There are several radio stations, and not every one is available in every car. For a laugh, grab a pickup truck, which has just one possible station. It’s a country station and it plays just the one song–which is a hilarious country parody. After the song, the DJ comes on for a few moments and says “In fact, I liked the song so much, I reckon I’ll play it again.”

Once you reach the minimum point level to pass the level, then you are given a special mission. If you pass that mission, then you pass the level and are allowed to move on. Personally I’ve passed the first two levels, but did not make it through San Andreas. I just wasn’t very good at gun play in this top down game and tended to get smeared across the landscape. Some time I should pick up the game and try again, to see if I have any better luck now.

The 3-D sequels are well known, so I won’t list those, but there some a couple of lesser known sequels to the game. Grand Theft Auto: London takes place in 1969 in London, with different music, different kinds of cars, and of course in London itself. It’s not as big a game as the original, but can be sort of fun if you’re craving more. Grand Theft Auto 2 is done in the same top-down style, but with a gang war system added. In each level there are 2 or 3 major gangs fighting for contention over the city, and you have a reputation with each of them (measured by meters on the heads-up display). Completing missions for one gang will increase that gang’s like for you, but will decrease other gangs’ like for you. The higher your reputation with a gang, the more of their missions are offered to you, and the lower, the more hostile they become. This game was hard for me because I have a tendency to want to complete every mission for everybody, which isn’t really possible for this game as you’d just end up with a neutral reputation with everybody instead of really gaining something. Grand Theft Auto 2 added a new feature, an evangelist hut that says “Jesus Saves!”. And he does save. Your game that is.

If you want to find a copy of the game, you’re in luck! Rockstar offers a free download of Grand Theft Auto and Grand Theft Auto 2 on their website. So you have no excuse not to play it. See where the carnage began. Enjoy!

Niche Game: Space Station Silicon Valley

Niche games: Âwe’ve all played them. ÂThey’re the games that you remember for a long time because they’re so unique. ÂSometimes they’re the only ones ever made like them. ÂOther times they were trailblazers for their kind of gameplay. ÂBut what they have in common is the bravery to try something new, allowing them to rise above the imitators. ÂEven though there might be newer games with shinier graphics, these games are still worth playing because they’re something different, something special.

If you look at a list of my favorite games, they tend to be the ones where gameplay is ever-changing, where you either have multiple characters with different abilities, or you can newly acquire vehicles throughout the plot. Space Station Silicon Valley is a prime example, as you spent the game constantly hopping from host to host, each with its own unique abilities. DMA Design (which later became Rockstar North) created this game back in 1998–they seem to have a particular talent for making games with a variety of gameplay, which may be one of the reasons they’ve been so successful. I honestly can’t believe this game has received so little attention, it is simply great but I’ve met very few people who know about it at all.

In the plot of the game, a space station was put into orbit around earth filled with animals. It was intended to be a high-tech amusement park. But the station disappeared shortly thereafter. Everyone thought it had disappeared forever but in the year 3000 it reappears on a collision course for Earth. “Heroes for hire” Danger Dan and his robot partner Evo are sent to investigate and to prevent the collision.

As they’re flying their ship to the station, they’re arguing over the choice of radio station and they manage to crash into the station as a result. Evo is shattered into many pieces, scattered into various areas of the station, and the game starts as you take control of the only remaining functioning piece, his CPU chip. The control chip itself crawls around like an insect, using its pins for legs, and it takes damage quickly with nothing to protect it from environmental factors.

Before the ship crashes, we see a scene showing Flossy the sheep and Roger their dog finally admitting their love for each. The spaceship lands and kills the dog instantly. This is typical of the fun and weird sense of humor this game has. It’s also convenient, because the Evo chip has a convenient host in the dead (dormant) dog-bot.

Strange things have been happening on the ship over the course of a millenium. The animals have evolved and merged with mechanical components on the ship, creating a diverse array of robo-animals. Some of them look like real animals, others are obvious hybrids, such as a polar bear with tank treads instead of legs, or a camel with a turret cannon in place of his hump. Each and every one of them can be taken over and controlled, but there’s a catch. Evo can only take over a host that is already dormant, which means that he has to defeat the animal first.

Each type of animal has its own set of abilities which must be used to solve environmental puzzles in the game. The sheep is one of the first animals you encounter. It has no attack, but it can glide slowly down, floating like the little puffy cloud that it resembles, which lets it cross long gaps easily. Also in the early stages you can become a dog which can jump and bite. Hyenas have contagious laughter which causes area-of-effect damaging hysteria. Pigeons can grip dormant robots and carry them from place to place. You get the point.

The space station is split into four environments, a European zone (foxes, dogs, sheep, and the like), an ice zone (polar bears, penguins, and others), jungle zone (hyenas, lions,…), and the desert zone (vultures, camels,…). As you progress through the game you are always coming across new animals that you must take over and use each animal’s abilities to progress through the game.

Danger Dan does not play an active role in the game, as the crash has trapped him inside the ship, but he is the one that hands down missions to Evo. Before the exit teleporter will activate, you have to complete your objectives, which are different for every stage. A few examples of missions. Some of the missions make sense, such as opening a security door into the next area, and some of them don’t. For instance, some of them say things like “Bring me something fluffy”. But Dan’s the boss-man, so you’ve gotta do what he says. In addition to the main objectives, you can also find souvenirs in some levels, gold objects that commemorate your time there. They help add some replay value if you want to go back and collect them.

The humor of the game is great. The interaction between Danger Dan and Evo in particular. Some of the animals just look and act really funny. The sheep in particular has the most stupid look on its face it just makes me laugh, and Dan’s mission objectives, though sometimes random and nonsensical, add some variety to a mission-based game.

The graphics aren’t spectacular by today’s standards (duh), and many of the animals are blocky. But that’s okay, they’re robots, so maybe the robots really are blocky.

Getting your hands on this game shouldn’t be a problem. A quick eBay search turns up 11 entries, with Buy It Now prices as low as $15 (for a “very good” condition cartridge with no manual) to $70 (factory sealed). In addition, it’s very possible you could find a ROM for this on the net, though I can’t vouch for that–I’ve never dabbled in N64 ROMs.

If you like gameplay with variety, you can’t go wrong with this game and it’s menagerie of mechanical critters. Enjoy!

Niche Game: Body Harvest

Niche games: Âwe’ve all played them. ÂThey’re the games that you remember for a long time because they’re so unique. ÂSometimes they’re the only ones ever made like them. ÂOther times they were trailblazers for their kind of gameplay. ÂBut what they have in common is the bravery to try something new, allowing them to rise above the imitators. ÂEven though there might be newer games with shinier graphics, these games are still worth playing because they’re something different, something special.

Body Harvest was released in 1998 by DMA Design, the company that later became Rockstar North, the makers of Grand Theft Auto III. This isn’t at all surprising if you play the game as the style is very similar with a wide open world, open-ended game play, a large collection of weapons, and the ability to acquire any vehicle you see. The graphics weren’t terribly impressive, even for the time, which might explain why this awesome game has been overlooked by so many.

The story begins in 2016, and humanity is on the brink of extinction, at war with an insect-like alien race. Every 25 years for the last century aliens have returned to Earth for one day and sealed off an area of the Earth behind an impenetrable shield which prevented any outside help from entering the area. The poor humans outside watch helplessly as the humans within are slaughtered, every single one.

Now, in 2016, the aliens are back again, poised to wipe out the last remnants of the human race. The human race has finally perfected time travel technology, and they’re able to send one soldier back in time to single-handedly take on the alien threat.

First stop, Greece in 1916. Shortly after you arrive, you receive an alert of suspicious alien activity in the area. Hordes of helpless local civilians are being dragged kicking and screaming out of their houses by bloblike aliens which are carrying them towards a bug the size of a tank to have their bodies harvested for unknown reasons. Many other aliens are defending the big “harvester” bug. Your job is to destroy the big bug as soon as possible, the more humans it harvests, the closer the aliens are to reaching their agenda. There’s a meter on the screen that keeps track of casualties. If you let too many people die, game over.

In each time period the vehicles and weapons are at least a semblance of era-appropriate, which gives a nice excuse for increasing the firepower of weapons and quality of vehicles as time goes on. Besides stopping Harvester waves, you also must defeat a major boss at several stages in each year. This will drop a teleport beacon to make transport easier as well as opening a hole in the shield to progress to the next level.

When this game first came out the ability to switch between such a multitude of vehicles had never been seen before. From normal cars, to tanks, helicopters, various boats, airplanes. There’s even an alien UFO. Weapons all have a variety of different stats. Most of the weapons are pretty standard fare, machine guns, shotguns, rifles, all with their strengths and weaknesses. My favorite weapon by far is the sun shield, a mythological weapon stripped from a Greek statue. It reflects and focuses the light of the sun into a powerful weapon. It requires no ammo, can cause damage as far as the eye can see, and makes quick work of even boss characters.

Besides the action component, there is also some degree of puzzle element. From time to time obstacles will block your progress and you must find a way through or around them, such as finding dynamite to blast a path through a rockslide, or to find a rifle to blast an alien sitting on the distantly perched tram car to free it to move. You can move indoors in certain places, sometimes finding people to talk to, or having to find switches to secret passageways inside. These challenges aren’t terribly difficult but they lend some welcome variety to the gameplay.

Most of the game has a reasonable challenge level. The progression of difficulty of the enemies escalates well with the progression of weapons and vehicles. The boss battles are epic struggles, but not impossible. But, alas, I never finished the game. There was a challenge in the 4th world that proved too much for my then-teenage gaming skills. It involved hauling a heavy explosive on the back of slow and unmaneuverable vehicle. I was given ample time to clear the path before driving it, but somehow new aliens ‘ported in and detonated the explosive no matter what I did. I would like to retry it now to see if I can overcome it now.

Getting your hands on this game won’t take much effort. Unfortunately, it is not available for a Nintendo Wii’s Virtual Console download. At least not yet. Finding a copy used shouldn’t be difficult at all. A quick eBay search comes up with many results, some of them with “Buy it Now” prices of about $7, so if you have an N64 console, you’re set. If you don’t have the console, you might be able to find an N64 emulator and a ROM for the game.

Especially considering the low price tag buying this game used, if a lover of a good action shoot-’em-up with bug-eyed aliens, you can’t go wrong. Enjoy!