Unplayable: Grand Theft Auto

Some titles stand the test of time. Some titles 10 years later are still fun to play to this day. Sure, they may have aged and may pale in comparison to their newer iterations but they are still enjoyable and playable despite all that. Some are even better than their modern counterparts. However, other titles have not stood the test of time. Some titles years after their release are rude awakenings, especially to those with nostalgic glasses on. Their modern iterations are light years beyond the original concept and make you wonder how the series was allowed to proceed from its atrocious beginnings. The original Grand Theft Auto is unplayable.

I started playing the Grand Theft Auto series the way a lot of people started the series: GTA III. Since then, I’ve played all the games released on the PS2 and enjoyed them all, San Andreas being my favorite. Although I’ve never completed Vice City or San Andreas - mostly due to me obsessively trying to complete the games 100% - I did fully complete GTA III and I will complete the other two someday. Being a fan of those three games, I thought to try the first and second games. I’ve owned them both on Steam for awhile now (acquired from a sale of the whole series minus the fourth game and its expansions) and I finally decided to actually try them out. For this article, I’ll be talking about my experience with the first game with a piece about the second game coming later.

I loaded up the first game to begin with and I tried to navigate the menu with my gamepad. Nothing. So I use my keyboard’s arrow keys and get to what I guess is the first level. I try to use my gamepad here and it works…sort of. My character is constantly turning in different directions. I struggle with the movement controls for a few minutes until I decide that I simply can’t get my character to move in a straight line. So I exit the game and pull up the options so I can configure the gamepad. I try to map the movement to the d-pad instead of the analog stick but it doesn’t recognize my gamepad’s d-pad. After a quick search online, I come to find that movement in this game was actually done with the face buttons. So I go back to the button configuration, adjust it to fit this configuration and load up the game again.

I’m able to get my character to move better but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s just awkward to control my character. So I exit out again, and adjust the controls to use the keyboard instead. It feels a bit better, as I can now move my character reasonably. However, when I got into a car, I’m swerving, hitting cars, and running over pedestrians. I have almost no control over the car and can’t steer the thing to save my life. I fumble around with various control ideas using both the keyboard and the gamepad trying to find something that works but to no avail. So I just use the keyboard with an altered button layout.

I restart the game and feebly attempt to get to wherever the objective arrow is telling me to get to. I finally get there, which turns out to be a row of payphones. I see the text and then it vanishes almost immediately. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing but there’s an arrow to follow so I do that, driving like a drunk the entire way. I get there and I figure out that I’m supposed to drive a big truck with explosives in it. However, I’m not supposed to hit cars and stuff or else it’ll blow. Easier said than done. The controls fight me the entire way until the truck finally blows up a minute or so later. I manage to jump out of the truck before it does but I’ve already seen enough.

So these games did give a good first impression. Perhaps I should spend more time with these games. So I tried them again. I tried just running around and causing various amounts of mayhem. Shooting has no real aiming system so you just run forward rocking left and right in an attempt to hit someone and cops can bust you with little to no effort. So then I tried getting my game face on and real attempting to complete the missions. I changed the text speed to slow in the options menu and now I could read my mission statements. I manage to complete one that asked me to steal a bike but failed at another. I also came to the horrible fact that if I die too many times, I have to start the level from scratch. No saving available.

So what’s the major issue here? The controls. There is no tutorial of the controls and you are never given a clear understanding of how you should control your character on foot or while driving. Subtle movements are never an option to you, though the game may be asking that from you. Never do the controls feel natural or intuitive to you. While I did manage to actually get a mission done in which I ran over some guys coming after me, jump a half completed suspension bridge, and drive to several locations, I never felt like I was actually doing what was on the screen. I felt like I was just getting lucky.

Even if you are a fan of these games, you must’ve had to train your brain to adapt to the control scheme, either on the PC or the original PlayStation version. Furthermore, doing things like hitting cars or killing pedestrians give any kind of enjoyment. If anything, they make you feel like you’re playing the game wrong or that you’re losing. When you drive down the road and sideswipe a car next to you, I felt like was screwing up. In GTA III, I would pull out an Uzi and finish the job. Again, while I completed that one mission, I was constantly running into cars, scraping by buildings, and running on foot in the wrong direction until I corrected myself. The camera, which is constantly pulling in and out, is a part of this as well, as it’s very disorienting.

The graphics, even by late 90s standards, are terrible. The first game looks like something that was created on MS Paint and resembles a low budget Super Nintendo title rather than something running on the disc based PlayStation. Your character is literally just eight or nine pixels and it’s downright pathetic. The sound is just a random assortment of beeps, bloops, and other various annoying sounds meant to give the feeling of “city life”. Music is decent enough. I highly recommend changing the music in the options menu from Radio to Constant. It drowns out the constant clutter of sound effects, making the game much more tolerable to listen to.

The following GTA games completely reinvented its gameplay for the better and are why Rockstar is the company it is today. However, the original game is an unplayable mess. Grand Theft Auto was never a critical darling but there is a fan base for this game and the London mission packs. Now to be clear, this is not a review. I don’t think it very fair to give a review of a game I played for only an hour or so. This is just a first and last impression of a game I have no intention of visiting again. If you are a fan of this game, is there something in this game that I’m missing? Is the PC version inferior to the PS1 version? My research says the two are identical but is that wrong? Is there some way of getting the controls to work a bit better? Is there a configuration that makes using a gamepad playable? Present your case in the comments below.

17 Comments
17 Comments
Posted by Colorwind

Some titles stand the test of time. Some titles 10 years later are still fun to play to this day. Sure, they may have aged and may pale in comparison to their newer iterations but they are still enjoyable and playable despite all that. Some are even better than their modern counterparts. However, other titles have not stood the test of time. Some titles years after their release are rude awakenings, especially to those with nostalgic glasses on. Their modern iterations are light years beyond the original concept and make you wonder how the series was allowed to proceed from its atrocious beginnings. The original Grand Theft Auto is unplayable.

I started playing the Grand Theft Auto series the way a lot of people started the series: GTA III. Since then, I’ve played all the games released on the PS2 and enjoyed them all, San Andreas being my favorite. Although I’ve never completed Vice City or San Andreas - mostly due to me obsessively trying to complete the games 100% - I did fully complete GTA III and I will complete the other two someday. Being a fan of those three games, I thought to try the first and second games. I’ve owned them both on Steam for awhile now (acquired from a sale of the whole series minus the fourth game and its expansions) and I finally decided to actually try them out. For this article, I’ll be talking about my experience with the first game with a piece about the second game coming later.

I loaded up the first game to begin with and I tried to navigate the menu with my gamepad. Nothing. So I use my keyboard’s arrow keys and get to what I guess is the first level. I try to use my gamepad here and it works…sort of. My character is constantly turning in different directions. I struggle with the movement controls for a few minutes until I decide that I simply can’t get my character to move in a straight line. So I exit the game and pull up the options so I can configure the gamepad. I try to map the movement to the d-pad instead of the analog stick but it doesn’t recognize my gamepad’s d-pad. After a quick search online, I come to find that movement in this game was actually done with the face buttons. So I go back to the button configuration, adjust it to fit this configuration and load up the game again.

I’m able to get my character to move better but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s just awkward to control my character. So I exit out again, and adjust the controls to use the keyboard instead. It feels a bit better, as I can now move my character reasonably. However, when I got into a car, I’m swerving, hitting cars, and running over pedestrians. I have almost no control over the car and can’t steer the thing to save my life. I fumble around with various control ideas using both the keyboard and the gamepad trying to find something that works but to no avail. So I just use the keyboard with an altered button layout.

I restart the game and feebly attempt to get to wherever the objective arrow is telling me to get to. I finally get there, which turns out to be a row of payphones. I see the text and then it vanishes almost immediately. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing but there’s an arrow to follow so I do that, driving like a drunk the entire way. I get there and I figure out that I’m supposed to drive a big truck with explosives in it. However, I’m not supposed to hit cars and stuff or else it’ll blow. Easier said than done. The controls fight me the entire way until the truck finally blows up a minute or so later. I manage to jump out of the truck before it does but I’ve already seen enough.

So these games did give a good first impression. Perhaps I should spend more time with these games. So I tried them again. I tried just running around and causing various amounts of mayhem. Shooting has no real aiming system so you just run forward rocking left and right in an attempt to hit someone and cops can bust you with little to no effort. So then I tried getting my game face on and real attempting to complete the missions. I changed the text speed to slow in the options menu and now I could read my mission statements. I manage to complete one that asked me to steal a bike but failed at another. I also came to the horrible fact that if I die too many times, I have to start the level from scratch. No saving available.

So what’s the major issue here? The controls. There is no tutorial of the controls and you are never given a clear understanding of how you should control your character on foot or while driving. Subtle movements are never an option to you, though the game may be asking that from you. Never do the controls feel natural or intuitive to you. While I did manage to actually get a mission done in which I ran over some guys coming after me, jump a half completed suspension bridge, and drive to several locations, I never felt like I was actually doing what was on the screen. I felt like I was just getting lucky.

Even if you are a fan of these games, you must’ve had to train your brain to adapt to the control scheme, either on the PC or the original PlayStation version. Furthermore, doing things like hitting cars or killing pedestrians give any kind of enjoyment. If anything, they make you feel like you’re playing the game wrong or that you’re losing. When you drive down the road and sideswipe a car next to you, I felt like was screwing up. In GTA III, I would pull out an Uzi and finish the job. Again, while I completed that one mission, I was constantly running into cars, scraping by buildings, and running on foot in the wrong direction until I corrected myself. The camera, which is constantly pulling in and out, is a part of this as well, as it’s very disorienting.

The graphics, even by late 90s standards, are terrible. The first game looks like something that was created on MS Paint and resembles a low budget Super Nintendo title rather than something running on the disc based PlayStation. Your character is literally just eight or nine pixels and it’s downright pathetic. The sound is just a random assortment of beeps, bloops, and other various annoying sounds meant to give the feeling of “city life”. Music is decent enough. I highly recommend changing the music in the options menu from Radio to Constant. It drowns out the constant clutter of sound effects, making the game much more tolerable to listen to.

The following GTA games completely reinvented its gameplay for the better and are why Rockstar is the company it is today. However, the original game is an unplayable mess. Grand Theft Auto was never a critical darling but there is a fan base for this game and the London mission packs. Now to be clear, this is not a review. I don’t think it very fair to give a review of a game I played for only an hour or so. This is just a first and last impression of a game I have no intention of visiting again. If you are a fan of this game, is there something in this game that I’m missing? Is the PC version inferior to the PS1 version? My research says the two are identical but is that wrong? Is there some way of getting the controls to work a bit better? Is there a configuration that makes using a gamepad playable? Present your case in the comments below.

Posted by laserbolts

Unplayable seems a bit harsh to me. I remember playing it years ago and enjoying it. I'd like to think I am better at games now than when I was a kid too.

Posted by Ben_H

It is playable, it just kinda sucks now. I played tons of GTA2 when I was younger but when I went back to it when I got it on Steam I couldn't stand to play it for more than a couple minutes.

Posted by mandude

I played this as a six year old and never had any trouble with it. Sure, GTAIII makes it look like absolute bollocks in every single way, but it's not unplayable.

Posted by KingPossum

GTA: Chinatown wars is essentially the old formula but updated in a few ways. If the game mechanics were considered to be unplayable by today's standards then this version of the game also wouldn't work, and it clearly does.

Posted by GreggD

@KingPossum said:

GTA: Chinatown wars is essentially the old formula but updated in a few ways. If the game mechanics were considered to be unplayable by today's standards then this version of the game also wouldn't work, and it clearly does.

Posted by Sin4profit

Was a huge fan of the original GTA, never had these problems you're having with it.

Posted by Colorwind

@KingPossum: I thought about Chinatown Wars when writing this. I know it uses this formula and it makes me nervous to play that. To be clear, it's not like this format couldn't work. It's just wrecked by horrible controls. Sure the premise sounds like fun but in execution this was in my opinion a fail in practically every respect.

Posted by Colorwind

@Sin4profit: Well, do you have a case to make? Like I said, "If you are a fan of this game, is there something in this game that I’m missing? Is the PC version inferior to the PS1 version? My research says the two are identical but is that wrong? Is there some way of getting the controls to work a bit better? Is there a configuration that makes using a gamepad playable?" You got something to advise so I can enjoy the game better? Tell me.

Posted by nintendoeats

I tried to play GTA 2 on the PSX a couple years ago and it was pretty nasty. I didn't really care for Chinatown Wars either. Obviously somebody liked it though, so I guess the formula isn't without some kind of merit.

Posted by mosespippy

I only played about 10 minutes of the orignal GTA at a friends so I can't really comment on how it plays. I'm interested to see your thoughts on GTA2 though since I do play it every year (along with Vice City and GTA III). I do feel like the PC version of GTA2 is the best version and I never had any trouble with the controls until I played the PS1 version. I don't know how it works in GTA but in GTA2 you can save if you earn enough money and go to the church. Maybe you just didn't earn enough money.

I figure that the default keyboard controls are going to be what works best. The idea of changing them before even trying them seems foolish to me.

It always amuses me when people say they got these on steam. They have been free from the Rockstar website for 6 or 7 years now.

@Colorwind: @KingPossum: The most important improvement I think they made in Chinatown Wars was the movement speed. You spend more time on foot in the top down games and it takes like six steps to cover a city block in Chinatown Wars. The same block covered in GTA IV would take nearly twice as long to run past.

Posted by HadesTimes

I wouldn't say unplayable but it certainly isn't fun. I too tried playing it recently.

Posted by Sin4profit

@Colorwind: Don't force yourself to like it. I played it on the PC, controls on Default, and can't really remember the controls enough to help you with them, i just don't remember having a problem with them. At the time there was nothing else like it so you got use to learning the controls you were dealt. Only thing i remember being an issue at the time is the frame rate, the game played too fast on lower resolutions...outside of that i don't understand the problems your having with the controls, sounds to me more like a defective copy then anything else.

Today, the game just crashes on me when loading into the game so i can't give you any advice at this point.

Like said, Chinatown Wars is a great example of the original GTA gameplay style adapted to modern design so if you're aching to play GTA the old fashioned way you're probably better off just playing that.

Posted by Colorwind

@mosespippy: Well, I got it in a bundle for GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas so it's like they were free anyways.

Posted by JJWeatherman

You come out and say that this should not be considered a review due to the short amount of time you spent playing the game, but then it's perfectly acceptable to condemn it and declare it unplayable? I dunno, man. I mean, I get that these are supposed to be your impressions, but then what you write ends up being (or at least seeming) quite definitive.

Also, this can be attached to the GTA page; it's not off-topic at all.

Posted by Fearbeard

I had the game from some Steam bundle I bought

The controls seem like typical tank controls (which make since in the car, but can less so on foot). Definitely not good controls, but certainly playable. A lot of games used tank controls back then though (Resident Evil 1 - 3 for example) so the concept isn't really that unusual for me. The car turn controls did seem a little over-sensitive and the constant zooming in and out depending on speed was a bit distracting.

When I loaded up the game on Steam I was able to choose the button layout I wanted. I chose the default which was having the arrow keys for navigation (left for left, up for forward, etc...) though one of the options was for "Classic" which had like Z and X for left and right, and U and I for forward and back. If those were the controls you were using then yeah, I can see the confusion with them. I didn't try a controller with it.

The only real issue I had, and it might just be a button I didn't try, but I didn't see any sort of map which made navigation pretty difficult since we've become so accustomed to having a mini-map to aid in navigation.

Anyways, you should try out Chinatown Wars. It proves that the top-down concept can still work well in this day and age. GTA just doesn't age that well. I wouldn't call it unplayable, but it does have a learning curve.

Posted by Colorwind

@Fearbeard: I tried the default keyboard configuration already and it wasn't great. I currently have it with the movements being mapped to WASD, enter in and out of cars mapped to F, special to spacebar, change weapons to left and right arrows, attack to down arrow and brake to up arrow. That's the best I can get it. This game does use tank controls like in Resident Evil but it isn't as stiff. The car is too sensitive and the camera is real disorienting.

I'm going to play this game a bit more and I may do a follow up blog on this and my upcoming article on GTA2.