Scrolling Pixels is Dean Van Nguyen’s monthly column focusing on retro gaming. Check back on the first Monday of every month for the latest instalment.
To kids who’ve sneakily had a go of their big brother’s copy of open world masterpiece Grand Theft Auto V, the original games must feel as old as the earliest colour films. But I remember the buzz surrounding the first Grand Theft Auto in 1997. Much like the furore that greeted Mortal Kombat and other parental-unfriendly games before it, GTA was violent, it was awesome, and for my 12-year-old friends and I, it was a must-play. Of course we were going to love a game the British Police Federation branded “sick, deluded and beneath contempt”. We were f’ing powerless!
It didn’t matter that this was a PlayStation-era game with Amiga-era graphics. Grand Theft Auto was fun to play, had a wicked sense of humour, and didn’t chain gamers to a linear story line – the sandbox presentation being a relatively rare feature for its day. Half the time we wouldn’t bother attempting missions to push the story forward, and would instead just wreak as much havoc as possible to see how long we could evade police for. I spent afternoons in other kid’s houses, lining up vehicles just so we could jump them on our jacked motorcycles, and I remember a lot of time going into pushing a car off a building with enough accuracy to crush a pedestrian below. This was true gaming freedom.
The guns of Brixton
Riding that wave of success, it’s not surprising that Grand Theft Auto‘s developers, DMA Design (later known as Rockstar North), wanted to get another product under the GTA umbrella on the shelves as quickly as possible. Released in 1999, everything about Grand Theft Auto: London, 1969 screams ‘cash in’. For one, it wasn’t even a game in its own right, but a ‘mission pack’ that utilised the same engine as the original. For PlayStation users, this meant you frustratingly needed to pop the London disc in, then remove it for the original game, before switching back to the London disc. And at first glance everything looked identical – the familiar bird’s eye camera view, artwork, control system and basic gaming structure were all as they were.
Still, GTA London is one of my favourite games in the franchise. I’ve held nothing but happy memories of playing it for these past 16 years and, dusting off my old PS1 copy, I found that this lost none of its enjoyment level today. In fact, this might be the quickest, craziest and downright most frenetic game I play all year, even when compared to its uber-realistic offspring.
Like most games in the series, GTA London sees you play a wrongdoer making his way up the criminal ladder in the big city by taking jobs from local ‘nogoodniks’ like bank robberies, assassinations, and other violent crimes. Each section could be passed by reaching the necessary points talley. Completing missions was the fastest way to get there, but there was no restrictions placed on how you racked up your score. Stealing cars and selling them on or completing bonus features like ‘Kill Frenzies’ (murder enough people in a short amount of time) were all viable methods of navagating your way through the game.
But whereas the first GTA took place in Liberty City, Vice City, and San Andreas – pocket versions of New York City, Miami, and Southern California that would provide the backdrop to just about every game in the series since – this was the only Grand Theft Auto game to take place in a real city, with swinging sixties London proving the perfect backdrop for the wild chaos that enshewed.
Set in a section of old London town that includes the districts of Brixton, Camberwell, Chelsea and Soho, and landmarks like Tower Bridge and Hyde Park, GTA London boasted impressive attention to detail and tons of era-appropriate gags. The dialogue is hilariously on-point, full of cockney rhyming slang and expressions like “as kosher as a sausage synogue” and “I’m the monkey and you’re the cheese grater” (if you know what that means please get at me). There’s a mission that sees you collect your boss’s full English breakfast, complete with Yorkshire pudding, pickled eggs and spotted dick. Another challenges you to destroy a football team’s bus to help rig a match. A James Bond-esque character makes an appearance. And remember Austin Powers? The quintessential sixties Brit spy back at the turn of the millenium? His 1961 Jaguar E Type with the Union Jack paint scheme can be seen on the streets (Here it is in that Madonna video you’d forgotten about).
It’s only rock’n’roll
Grand Theft Auto: London, 1969 was also the first game of the series to feature real-life music from the period. Unlike the more modern games, radio stations weren’t selectable, so the music you heard when jumping in a new vehicle was pretty much random. But what a selection of tunes.On what must have been a limited budget, DMA snapped up a hot stack of reggae cuts – like Harry J Allstars’ The Liquidator and The Upsetters’ Return of Django – and, most impressively, a ton of the music from late sixties Italian movies. The game’s theme song, for instance, is actually Le malizie di Venere Seq. 3 by sibling composers Gianfranco and Gian Piero Reverberi and is taken from the 1969 erotic movie Le malizie di Venere starring Laura Antonelli. Who’d a thunk this stuff would slide so easily into sixties London, but fit the game’s atmosphere it most certainly does.
Rockstar can now go out a secure the license to whatever music they want, but I miss the days when they pieced together soundtracks based on what they could afford. Hell, on GTA 3 they put together a whole radio station just from the Scarface soundtrack!
Tomorrow never dies
A second expansion pack was later released for Windows. Grand Theft Auto: London 1961 was available as a free download and, essentially, is identical to its predecessor, right down to the music (despite the game being set before any of it had been recorded).
There has been some calls to take the series back to dear ol’ Blighty though. What Culture, for instance, have given their ‘7 Reasons Why GTA 6 Should Be Grand Theft Auto London’. The chances seem slim though, with Rockstar’s Dan Houser on-record as saying such a move is unlikely.
I don’t know why that is. Maybe Rockstar are concerned with the extra work creating a real city would be versus creating a fictional one where they have license to take liberties. Maybe they think it would lack the same worldwide appeal. I, though, would be all for it. You could even set it in present day. Taking control of a Danny Dyer-esque character as you ride your push bike around Canary Wharf, gunning down bobbies with twin Walther pistols might just be what’s needed to move the series forward, don’t you think?