[17 November 2004]
Most people are familiar with the Grand Theft Auto franchise with respect to this console generation. The roots of the series, however, extend further back to a top-down perspective PC and PlayStation romp, where the characters spoke in a gibberish language that was translated as text to the screen. After a forgettable add-on pack which transported the series to London in 1969 and an equally ignored sequel, the franchise rose like a phoenix from the ashes to become the superpower of gaming it’s known as today. In an effort to make a portable version, and notably the first iteration of the series to ever be featured on a Nintendo console, Rockstar has released Grand Theft Auto Advance. This game returns to the origins of the series. Set in the Liberty City of Grand Theft Auto 3, Advance offers a top-down version of events and an entirely new storyline.
If I were asked why Grand Theft Auto 3 was such a phenomenal success, I would likely avoid a discussion of freeform gameplay. It was possible to grab rocket launchers and shoot cops from the very beginning of the franchise. I would instead argue that Grand Theft Auto 3 brought the series to life by placing it in three dimensions and making the city seem to be a living, breathing entity unto itself. Further, I would discuss the strong narrative and Hollywood-caliber voice acting. Finally I would touch upon the game’s far-reaching and sardonic sense of humor. The lack of all of these things makes Grand Theft Auto Advance difficult to enjoy in the context of its bigger brothers, and as such it can’t help but feel like a huge step backward.
Although the Grand Theft Auto series has drawn the ire of media watchdog groups in the past, Advance is not likely to register a blip on the radar. If writing underwent the same technological advancements as graphics, we might refer to Grand Theft Auto Advance‘s dialogue as “8-bit”. Although the static character screens are well-drawn, the game stutters in motion, and realistically, some of the graphics are 16-bit at best. That said, it’s hard to be upset about wanton violence and destruction (either conveyed through text or action) in this game when there are others that convey it much more realistically. On another technical note, the top-down perspective coupled with the relatively small size of the GBA screen make driving at any significant speed rather difficult, as the scaling and zooming feature of the game doesn’t always provide for the best possible view of the action.
The real problem with the game is that it seems less like an original entry in the Grand Theft Auto 3 universe (which is essentially how it’s billed) and more of a nostalgia package akin to a Mega Man or Sonic collection. Unfortunately, the top-down Grand Theft Auto games don’t really deserve nostalgia. They were fun for a little while, but never had the strength to pull you into their world. Rockstar has since made great strides with the series, adding untold layers of depth. Without those layers, the experience is a remarkably shallow one. Certainly the limitations of the GBA hardware must be taken into account here. That said, if ever a PSP GTA were released, the grandeur of the home console versions might be adequately transcribed to a portable machine.