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!