The first indication that GTA wasn’t like other games came when you splattered your first procession of Hare Krishnas – mow down every last orange-robed tambourine-banger and you’d be rewarded with an onscreen message saying "GOURANGA!", lots of points and a slight feeling of guilt. It was a statement of intent from DMA Design, Rockstar’s old name – the gleefully anarchic Grand Theft Auto was here, and it didn’t care who it offended.
From 2D to 3D
With 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III, GTA made the jump into 3D – and the GTA franchise suddenly sprang into life. No longer a faceless blob seen from on high, you were a living, breathing character. And so was Liberty City – walking the streets, you could see Rockstar’s attention to detail from up close. Each neighbourhood was different, from the grit and grime of Portland’s red light district to the high rises of Staunton Island.
One of the most controversial moments in Grand Theft Auto history came when modders unlocked an unfinished minigame that Rockstar had left buried in the code for GTA: San Andreas.
The reason for the hoo-ha? The minigame put you in control of hero CJ as he got intimate with his girlfriend. Legislators – notably Rockstar’s bête noire Jack Thompson – and tabloid papers predictably blew a gasket. Rockstar found that Hot Coffee meant it was in very hot water indeed – the game was slapped with an Adults Only rating, and Rockstar paying out US$20m in a settlement.
Swearing for the first time
Admit it, back when the PlayStation first came around you would've found swearing funny, especially when it wasn't exactly commonplace in video games. Nearly killing an innocent bystander in a high-performance sports car and then being called an "asshole" ─ it was pure video game bliss and somehow all these years on it still raises a smile among us juveniles.
In GTA Online (part of GTA V, available two weeks later), you’ll be able to pick from a selection of filthy gestures to mock passersby – we can hardly wait.
Nobody does gangsters like the Brits, which is why the London 1969 mission pack for the original Grand Theft Auto was a right bubble bath. There were 30 new vehicles, 32 new missions, a fictional London capital in which to wreak havoc, British cars aplenty, rozzers shouting “You’re nicked,” and Cockney rhyming slang. We can but hope that Rockstar eventually revisits this forgotten gem.
Okay, Bigfoot never actually appeared in the GTA games – but a persistent urban myth held that if you ventured into the woods around GTA: San Andreas’ Mount Chiliad, you’d encounter the cryptozoological creature.
Rockstar finally obliged by putting the Sasquatch in Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare – unlocking an achievement titled “Six Years in the Making” that poked fun at the long wait since San Andreas.
Welcome to the Jungle
From the outset, Grand Theft Auto’s radio stations have been masterpieces, with satirical DJs and adverts peppered throughout note-perfect playlists. San Andreas’ rock station K-DST was a particular highlight, featuring as it did Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose as DJ Tommy “The Nightmare” Smith. At the time – and with the long-gestating Chinese Democracy album still in production – Axl’s in-game appearance was the first time we’d heard his voice since 1999.
"There are no Easter Eggs up here"
The GTA games are littered with Easter Eggs, from the dead body out at sea in Vice City, to the Heart of the City in GTA IV’s Statue of Happiness. But our favourite is in GTA: San Andreas – a plaque reading "There are no Easter Eggs up here Go Away," found on top of a bridge only accessible by jetpack. Oh, the irony.
Rockstar dialled up the firepower to ludicrous levels with The Ballad of Gay Tony’s AA12 explosive shotgun, which could pump out explosive shells at a rate of knots. A couple of well-placed shots could bring down a helicopter or blast a car apart – who needs rocket launchers, eh?
GTA 2's intro movie
Forget CGI visuals, when players first loaded up Grand Theft Auto 2 they were treated to a live-action intro with real actors. Back then, it was a perfect scene-setter – though these days, the horrible '90s look and feel is hard to stomach.
It's still oddly compelling, though, and evidence of Rockstar’s ambitions – indeed, given that budget limitations meant it had to be set in the present day rather than the cyberpunk near-future of GTA 2, it actually pre-empts much of the look and feel of Grand Theft Auto III.
One of GTA: London 1969’s more memorable missions finds you escorting one “Lucan” to a plastic surgeon after some “trouble with the nanny.” On the surface, it seemed like a typical off-the-wall mission request. However, it was actually a reference to John Bingham - aka Lord Lucan - who disappeared on the 8th of November, 1974, after murdering the family nanny.
Snagging a Beast GTS the moment you start a game
Usually, video games make you wait for the best cars, but not GTA, oh no. By immediately running across the road at the very start of the first game you could snag the digital equivalent of a Dodge Viper. Every time.
More after the break...
Trying to fly the Dodo
Before we were able to take to the air in a helicopter, Grand Theft Auto III teased us with the infamous stubby-winged Dodo.
Getting this baby off the ground and flying it for anything more than a few seconds took the reactions of a warrior, the dexterity of a samurai and the patience of a saint. And yet, we all kept going back for more punishment in the hope of taming what was very obviously meant to be a flightless bird.
Reach for the skies
Grand Theft Auto III’s 3D environments teased us with the promise of flight – with police helicopters circling above us, we fantasised about taking to the skies and flying among the skyscrapers of Staunton Island.
In Vice City, that promise was finally realised, with the introduction of helicopters – and the game world opened up. In many ways, this was the point at which “Grand Theft Auto” became a slightly inadequate title for the game. We’d moved beyond just hijacking cars – soaring above a living city in our whirlybird, the extent of Rockstar’s ambitions became clear. Plus you could rain missiles down on unsuspecting motorists with the Hunter attack 'copter. Death from above, baby.
The jetpack in San Andreas
Breaking into the Area 69 facility in the Black Project mission yielded up San Andreas’ most ridiculous form of transport – a jetpack.
Amass a king’s ransom – US$60 million of in-game money – and you could net one of your very own – making for aerial hit and run shenanigans and unparalleled opportunities for exploration. It had better put in an appearance in Grand Theft Auto 5, is all we’re saying.
On yer bike
The opening of San Andreas saw hero CJ pedaling away furiously on a BMX bike – not exactly the supercars we’re used to from GTA. But the addition of the pedal-powered pushbike was one of Rockstar's finest moments.
Using one to escape the police was suicidal, but for cruising around the streets, pulling tricks and harassing pedestrians it was a fan favourite. Trials were also a great way to pass the time – and if you were at peak fitness levels, you could motor along.
Three Leaf Clover
This spectacular heist mission was one of the highlights of GTA IV – and it made such an impact that Rockstar’s made intricate heists one of the centrepieces of Grand Theft Auto 5.
Taking obvious inspiration from Michael Mann's 1995 film Heat, a simple raid on the Bank of Liberty escalates first into a running gun battle with the cops, a frantic escape through the subways, and finally an epic car chase. Brilliantly tense stuff.
After the dour GTA IV and Lost and the Damned, Rockstar decided to take GTA back to its sublimely daft roots with The Ballad of Gay Tony DLC. And the game’s second mission was a statement of intent: smacking golf balls at a luckless mob victim, before making a frantic getaway in a golf cart. Suddenly, Grand Theft Auto was fun again.
The swing glitch
One of GTA IV's most entertaining moments came about quite by accident - park a car next to the swing set in Firefly Projects and the vehicle will take off like a rocket, catapulted halfway across the map. Is it a glitch in the Matrix? Is it possessed? Who knows.
Drug dealing on the DS
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars may be the one everyone forgets about – overshadowed by GTA IV’s lush 3D graphics and The Ballad of Gay Tony’s abject lunacy – but it does have one trick up its sleeve.
The drug dealing minigame, in which you trade narcotics in different areas to take advantage of changing prices, was worth the price of admission on its own. GTA Online’s set to feature similar market economics – buy shares in a car company, and manipulate the market – by blowing up vehicles.
Driving like a 60s super-spy
Everyone either wanted to be James Bond or Austin Powers. Or perhaps both. And GTA London 1969 let you realise your dreams, tooling around in the “James Bomb” and “Jub Swinger” cars – or the Aston Martin DB5 and Austin Powers’ Union Jack-emblazoned “Shaguar,” to those in the know.
World of Tanks
From the original game’s Kill Frenzy in a pixelated 2D tank, to The Ballad of Gay Tony’s nimble NOOSE APC, there’s nothing quite so satisfying as taking to the streets in a bona fide war machine. The cops can’t touch you, and you can blast their flimsy cars to pieces with explosive shells. Good times.
Way back when in the very first Grand Theft Auto, the police were relatively easy to dodge – they’d keep their cars on the road. So imagine our surprise when, taking to the streets in GTA 2, the fuzz were suddenly no longer confined to the streets and would cheerfully pursue you to the ends of the earth. Curse their sudden spatial awareness!
You may not realise it, but the first time Tommy Vercetti opens his big trap and the voice of Ray Liotta issues forth is kind of a big deal. Following three games in which you’d played a faceless cypher, the protagonist was suddenly blessed with an actual personality – and you could develop that character over the course of the game. Imagine GTA: San Andreas without CJ, or GTA IV without Niko – it just isn’t the same. And with GTA 5, Rockstar’s upping the ante with not one but three main characters that you can flit between at will.
Okay, these are entirely subjective, being the result of organic gameplay rather than scripted story moments. But they’re what make GTA special – shared experiences that no-one else will ever have.
Like Stuff staffer Stephen Graves, who used to play the original Grand Theft Auto over a LAN: “There was this dramatic Hollywood climax where we both needed one kill to win, and my mate was barrelling towards me in a school bus, me backing away machine-gunning it – and it exploded just before the wreck hit me in the face. But I got the kill."
Multiplayer rarely gets more fun than this – and it’s only set to get more immersive with the mind-boggling scope of Grand Theft Auto Online. We can't wait.