November 1997: I'm playing Revolution X, an unspeakably bad on-rails shooter based on the dangerous lives of, erm, Aerosmith, as part of a feature about the worst games on the SNES. Turns out there's a lot of contenders.
After I'm done with that, I move on to the Spider-Man and Venom double-header Separation Anxiety, a little remembered (for good reason) side-scroller in the Final Fight mould. Day three, and my eyes are bleeding at the sight of Cutthroat Island, a game-of-the-film so bad it's like being groinpunched by Jesse Ventura. In all honesty, still being relatively new to games journalism, this isn't the brave new world I'd dreamed of stepping into, dazzled and delirious, while failing my French GCSE.
But then, on day four, everything changed. Across the other side of the office, GamesMaster were playing the new outing from DMA, creators of Lemmings. At first glance, it looked like a cross between Super Sprint and Carmageddon but then - as I watched the carnage unfold - it was clear this was something far more ambitious. Because in Grand Theft Auto, the car was just the start. Not only could you get out and walk around, you could wreak as much havoc on foot as you could behind the wheel.
It was a game where missions were more a suggestion than a rule; where you might be directed to a certain area of the game's three cities (in a nod to the future, they were Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas) but, how you got there, and what you did along the way, was entirely up to you.
Outside of the missions, there were no restrictions: you could steal, sell, shoot and kill any and everything you laid eyes on, and the plot never asked to be moved forward. If you spent the first five hours just clowning around with the game world, Grand Theft Auto never judged you. It was the brave new world I'd expected: an action game, unlike any other, built on the whims of the player.
It took two years for the sequel to arrive. Grand Theft Auto 2, or plain old GTA 2 as it had by then been shortened to, made a whole raft of improvements that would go on to define the series: a pseudoday/ night cycle (you could play the game at noon or dusk - or, on Dreamcast, just dusk, and PS1, just noon); there were different gangs now, each of which would pass work your way; there was more than one level of police - go on a Kill Frenzy (a precursor to the Rampages of later GTAs) and you'd meet the full force of, not just beat cops, but SWAT teams and even the army; it was the first time side-missions like the taxi objectives and hidden packages were introduced; and, most notably, proper 'ambient' gameplay - how pedestrians the things they did and said, and how they reacted to you - became a full, working part of the series. The latter, especially, went on to become one of the key tenets of the GTA experience.
"GTA 2 introduced a whole raft of improvements that went on to define the series"
At this point you're screaming "you missed out GTA London!" - and you'd be right. GTA London is my Kryptonite. I never played it, partly out of choice (the mockney stylings never really appealed to me), but mostly because, by the time the expansion packs landed, GTA 2 was just five months away, and I'd been lucky enough to see it (and play it) at DMA already, and I could see what a massive sea change it was for the series. The irony, of course, was that the real sea change was yet to come.
GTA III, the story goes, came out of nowhere. Except it didn't. Not really. Arguably, what came out of nowhere was its success. The previous titles had done well - but GTA III did amazingly. It was the top selling game of 2001, and kickstarted a chain of events that would eventually lead to GTA IV shifting 20 million. Central to its success: the all-new 3D engine. Running under their new title of Rockstar North, DMA already had previous with Body Harvest, a not-altogether-successful attempt at fusing third-person shooting, driving and exploration on the N64 - but, in GTA III, they took the formula and they perfected it.