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The DNA of GTA: The Games That Inspired Grand Theft Auto

The Grand Theft Auto series is one of the most popular franchises of all time. The games come with huge budgets, sell in their millions and are regularly featured on best-ever game lists. But where did these games come from? What inspired them? And who influenced their evolution? GameSpew looks at five games that answer some of these questions.

The original Grand Theft Auto was released for the PC in October 1997 and later ported to the Sony PlayStation (a planned Sega Saturn port was programmed but never released). Programmed by DMA Design (the people behind Lemmings and Blood Money on the Amiga and Atari ST), it was released to both a huge fanfare from gamers and huge controversy from the media, due to its adult themes. The basic idea of the game was to steal cars, complete missions (that usually involved criminal activities) and not get caught by the police. It used a huge open world that allowed you to drive around as you wished with very little restriction on how to play the game. Many people actually forget that the original games (GTA, GTA: London and GTA 2) were 2D affairs with a top-down view; the game didn’t turn 3D until the arrival of Grand Theft Auto 3 on PlayStation 2 in 2001. The games are often praised for their originality, but delve a bit deeper and you will find more than a passing nod to many earlier video games. We look at five of these below. . .

Death Race (1976)

Death Race GTA-min

This arcade game by American company Exidy is often referred to as the very first “video game nasty”. The controversy it caused on release led to it being featured on the national news and banned in several states. But controversy over its adult themes and extreme violence are not the only things it has in common with the GTA series: Death Race is also a free-roaming driving game that allows you run over and kill people! The objection to people being mowed down led to Exidy changing the game’s description to highlight the foes as gremlins instead, but the visuals remained the same. The simple aim of the game was to kill as many gremlins as possible using the wheels of your car while avoiding the gravestones left in their place. Given that some people play the GTA games just to terrorise the roadside pedestrians the similarity is clear to see, despite Death Race’s simple nature.

Turbo Esprit (1986)

Turbo Esprit GTA-min

First released on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum by Durell and later converted to the Amstrad CPC and Commodore 64, Turbo Esprit is a game that you quite often see cited as a major influence on the GTA franchise. In the game you play as a special agent driving around four different cities, using a first person behind-the-wheel viewpoint, in a high-powered Lotus Esprit sports car. The defined object of the game is to hunt down the drug dealers and then either ram or shoot them off the road. But this is where the game gets really interesting: there is nothing to actually stop you turning rogue and ignoring your mission. If being a goodie bores you then just start destroying the other road users, running the lights and even mowing down innocent pedestrians! Sounds an awful lot like GTA now doesn’t it? Programmer Mike Richardson even intended this to be a feature, with separate high score tables for both good people and bad ones too!


A.P.B. (1987)


A.P.B. (or All Points Bulletin, to give the game its full title) was an arcade game released by Atari Games in 1987 and later converted to the Atari Lynx and numerous home micros. In the game you play Officer Bob, a cop who is tasked with cleaning up the streets of his city. You start off by just busting road users for minor crimes like littering and fender benders but when an A.P.B. is issued you must chase and apprehend a wanted felon. Other aspects of the game include grabbing doughnuts for a bonus, finding stolen loot and even picking up hitchhikers. The game may not sound a great deal like GTA from this description but there are certain similarities to the original 2D games, especially the overhead viewpoint and fairly open nature of the game. Like GTA, in A.P.B. you can pretty much follow the roads as you like with no set path, unlike other driving games of the time. A.P.B. holds up really well to this day and is still a great deal of fun to play too!

Black Ice/White Noise (1996)

Black Ice White Noise GTA-min

Easily the most obscure title on this list, Black Ice/White Noise is also different from the others in that it bares a striking resemblance in many ways to the 3D GTA games, rather than the original 2D affairs. This Atari Jaguar CD game is also interesting in that it was never actually finished and was cancelled before release due to the early demise of Atari’s 64-bit system, but was later released and sold as an unfinished prototype by the original authors. BIWN is set in a futuristic cyberpunk version of San Francisco that is all modelled using texture-mapped polygons. The game allows you to pick different characters and then travel around the city using different forms of transport to complete various missions. Does it sound much like GTA? You bet it does! In fact the key man behind this, B.J. West, has even said many times in interviews that the game would have been very similar to GTA 3 in the way it looked and played, albeit in a very different kind of setting. There is every chance the GTA team could have played the beta version of BIWN before coming up with GTA 3 in 2001.


Crime Wave (1997)

Crimewave GTA-min

This might seem a strange choice for inclusion given that it was released the exact same year as the original Grand Theft Auto, but there is a bit more to it than that. This game for the Sega Saturn eventually hit the market in June 1997 after numerous delays, some four months before the first GTA game. But the game was first shown to the media in 1996, with several demos being released and early versions shown off at various expos. So did the guys behind GTA play Crime Wave prior to the development of the first game in the series? It’s certainly possible, especially as several members of the GTA team have admitted the game went through numerous changes and revisions before they came up with the final product. In Crime Wave you play a bounty hunter trying to apprehend and take down various targets across a vast city, earning you money which be used to progress in the game. The game certainly contains many elements that are similar to the original GTA game in terms of the way the game feels and plays as well the way it’s structured.

Kieren Hawken is from England and is a well known figure in gaming circles. As a writer he is probably best known for his work on the award-winning Retro Gamer magazine, and over the years he has written for numerous other publications and websites. Along with being a keen collector of games himself, Kieren is also the organiser of several UK-based gaming events and has a strong presence on social media.