Boots’ Top 10 Video Games of All-Time #7: The PlayStation 2 Era of Grand Theft Auto

The following is a part of my list of my Top 10 All-Time Favorite Games. There may be spoilers ahead, so read with caution. Please make note that I rated these games not out of quality relative to other titles but in the order of how much fun I had with each of them and how important they are to my personal gaming history.

Blood fills my character’s eyes as I’m shot from point blank by my partner in this bank job. She runs off with the money and leaves me for dead, calling me “small time” as she turns away. Tried and convicted for the robbery, I’m being transported to the penitentiary to serve my time. This never happens, however, as a group of people attack the convoy that is moving myself and two other prisoners. They take one of the others with them and leave the remaining convict and I to fend for ourselves. A bomb goes off, destroying the bridge and creating an escape diversion. My new friend tells me of a place we can go to get changed and rest. I steal a nearby car and drive to the apartment, ditch my prison orange jumpsuit for a black jacket and green cargo pants, and we head off to get some work with a man named Luigi. Thus began my time in Liberty City…

It’s amazing how such a short and seemingly insignificant moment is the genesis of a franchise’s popularity. I had previously played Grand Theft Auto 2 and, while a great game with some interesting concepts, I was interested to see how it would translate from its top-down 2D look to a full 3D setting. It’s pretty safe to say that almost no one was disappointed with the result. Grand Theft Auto 3 became the benchmark for many games that tried to emulate the open-world genre, and that tradition carried on with its sequels, GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas.

Ambulance

Don’t mess up, don’t mess up, don’t mess up…

There was almost no way for me to get bored in these games. While there were a HUGE number of activities to take part in, the one I truly remember best from each game – possibly due to its annoyance level – is the Ambulance Missions. I’d go around picking up injured patients and bring them to the hospital, but holy crap, one slip-up and all that work for extra health would be lost. This happened on many occasions and I can vividly remember the rage. Of course, there were also the fun things. Story missions were almost always entertaining if not interesting, and I absolutely LOVED looking for all of the unique stunt jumps in each of these titles, especially after finding the superbikes.

Characters in the franchise are colorful and varied, and I had many favorites. The writing in these three games was top-notch and I enjoyed every minute of dialogue. Developer Rockstar Games even managed to land big name Hollywood actors for many of the roles, giving the games some outstanding performances.

Tenpenny Meets His Fate

Samuel L. Jackson plays the corrupt Vinewood cop, Officer Frank Tenpenny. SPOILER: He doesn’t win.

But it’s not even those things that stand out to me the most. It was the chance happenings, the unscripted events that occurred just by way of being in the perfect place at an opportune time, that made these games some of the most fun and memorable that I’d ever played. It could be a well-timed explosion, or a sweet maneuver from the cops, or even something as simple as discovering a dirtbike race on a mountain.

My clearest memory of the entire franchise comes from Vice City. I was doing a mission where I had to break a needed ally out of jail and, upon exiting the station, my wanted level was sitting at a nice four-star level. I ran to the street, eliminated a couple cops, and hopped into the nearest sports car. Being the rock fan that I am, I was happy to see that the preset station was for V-Rock.

Love Fist

The hottest Scottish metal and in all the land. From left to right: Willy, Percy, Jezz, and Dick.

As any GTA fan knows, the radio stations that are in the games make up some of the gaming’s most immersive experiences complete with original programming and full-fledged commercials. This specific occasion had Anthrax’s Madhouse on as I attempted to evade the police. The song was entering its final few beats as I just managed to get clear of the initial blockade, turning it into a legit high-speed chase. That’s when I heard a familiar series of notes…

There are famous guitar lines in heavy metal, and then there are riffs that reached a sort of god-like status. As I sped toward more open roads with the law on my tail, the opening riff of Slayer’s Raining Blood filled my ears and gave me instant goosebumps. I was already familiar with the song, but it had been a while since I’d last heard it. At this moment, blazing through traffic in hopes of finding a Pay-N-Spray quickly, the power of that riff combined with the intensity of the situation melded to form a perfect synergy. My adrenaline surged to a level I didn’t think was possible from a video game. In my head, the only expression I could muster was an excited “OH SHIT, OH FUCK!” I couldn’t form any other words. It was downright magical.

That’s what this newly-dubbed “sandbox” genre is all about. Exploring the world, finding those little gems of gameplay, discovering the in-jokes and easter eggs that the developers threw into the landscape. You can camp on a rooftop and fire at everyone, bet on horse races, fly a fighter jet (YES, A FREAKING FIGHTER JET!), deliver pizzas, or do like I did and just hop on motorcycle and travel around the entirety of San Andreas in one giant loop in about 12 minutes or so on all of its main highways. It seemed as if you could just live a life inside of Rockstar’s worlds, and I’ll be damned if some of us didn’t actually wish it were possible.

Looking back, it is way too difficult to decide which of the trio of PS2 titles is best. Each of them have a unique flavor that works perfectly. The Mafia-inspired tone of GTA3, the cocaine-fueled drug ring tale in Vice City, the early-90s Southern California Gang-like vibe of San Andreas; every game had something for me to connect with. All three had great storytelling, kickass characters, super fun gameplay mechanics, endless nods to pop culture from my childhood, and all of them heavily drew me into their worlds. For these reasons, it is only fitting they are all included as one entity, make the PS2-era of Grand Theft Auto my #7 favorite game(s) of all-time.

Fighter Jets!

I need a wingman. Where’s Goose?

PS – Grand Theft Auto IV? Not even close to living up to these games. Here’s hoping GTA V is as great as it appears to be.

Hey Everyone, It’s Tuesday…

Those four words were the official start of what quickly became my favorite gaming podcast in a matter of weeks. Led by Ryan Davis, the Bombcast over at giantbomb.com was not only hilarious but super informative about everything you wanted to know when it comes to video games.

Joined by a cast of friends and cohorts, Ryan guided the conversations to anything and everything. They’ve talked lawn darts, ham radios, pizza, hummingbird feeder masks, and just about anything else you’ve ever thought of. Oh, and also video games.

But make no mistake, these guys know their stuff. Ryan and Jeff, being the senior leads of the site, have had their hands in almost every facet of games since their inception. To hear them talk is to hear them not just give their opinions on things, but to know and understand that they had the knowledge to back up their views.

Listening to the Bombcast every Tuesday was a ritual I’ve had for at least 2 years. Every week, I look forward to Davis’ voice bellowing out those words that would kick off 3+ hours of zaniness.

After today, everything will be different…

Ryan Davis passed away on July 3rd, 2013. He was 34 years old.

As much as I looked up to the man and wanted to meet him and chat with him and pick his brain, that is the least of my concerns. What I keep witnessing as the news spreads through the web is how almost everyone loved him so. The knowledge he shared, the laughs he inspired, the joy he gave to everyone he knew… all of it just proves that he was a special person with an indescribable energy.

It is an energy that partly made Giantbomb what it has become. A vibe that permeates the Bombcast with hilarity. A presence that made all of their PAX panels an event that had to be seen and made you upset when you missed out, as I did back in 2011.

And now, I can only feel regret over that, since the man is no longer a part of this world. Where my heart is at, however, is with the numerous friends that he had in the biz – not to mention his wife, who he had only just recently wed – and seeing them all express their deepest love for the man. They are the ones truly at a loss.

There was a recent time when I wanted to cover games as a career. If anyone had ever asked me which people within the industry were the ones I looked up to the most, Mr. Davis would have certainly been at the top of that SHORT list. As a gaming podcast host, I am also influenced by the way he performed in almost every way. He never once upset me in how he handled his role as a part of video game coverage.

As this blog clearly displays, I am not that eloquent of a man. When it comes to serious matters such as this, I am even less so. But there was no way I was going to let the day pass by without letting the universe know in some fashion how much I respected this wonderful person and everything that he did to entertain and inform us on whatever subject he’d chosen. I may not have known him personally, but it’s easy to see that his light brightened the lives of those around him. Hopefully, his family, friends, and fans will keep that light shining forever.

Thank you, Ryan Davis, for sharing yourself with all of us. You were one of the great ones, and will truly be missed on this Earth.

Rest in Peace, good sir.

Boots’ Top 10 Video Games of All-Time #8: NHL 94

The following is a part of my list of my Top 10 All-Time Favorite Games. There may be spoilers ahead, so read with caution. Please make note that I rated these games not out of quality relative to other titles but in the order of how much fun I had with each of them and how important they are to my personal gaming history.

When I was but a wee lad of 13 years, my brother kicked me off of the SNES one afternoon to play goalie for him and his friends in a game of street hockey. They had bought a small net and I guess it wasn’t enough for them to shoot balls into an unguarded cage. I begrudgingly turned off the console and assumed the role of netminder, unknowing to the effect this would have on my life.

The sport of hockey grabbed me like nothing ever had since video games way back at age 4. There was a certain satisfaction in making mind-boggling saves and leaving my opponents befuddled. Of course, it was only inevitable that I would also get into hockey video games as I tried to combine my two biggest loves.

I had played both Ice Hockey and Blades of Steel on the NES, and while I had known of the greatness of NHL Hockey 91 on the Sega Genesis and NHLPA Hockey 93 on the SNES, it was NHL 94 that became the proverbial “nail in the coffin” for me and video hockey.

Let’s. Play. HOCKEY!!!

My brother and our two best friends – who are also brothers – were obsessed with the sport by late 1993, and this game only served to further our addiction. After playing NHLPA 93 for so long, the next year’s installment was a huge step up in quality. Players seemed to maneuver far better than previous EA NHL games, and even the smallest touch of having both licensed players AND teams added a huge dimension to the game overall.

In terms of new features, NHL 94 hit it out of the park. This was the first of the franchise to feature one-timers; a quick shot taken directly off of a pass from a teammate. This new tactic opened up a whole new set of scoring possibilities and gave the game a more realistic feel to what you’d see in real life. Playoffs and Shootout modes were also added for variety, but perhaps the most important addition was the inclusion of a few team-specific goal songs. You don’t know real hockey history until you’ve heard a digital representation of Brass Bonanza after scoring with the Hartford Whalers.

While the game kept a basic set of stats on its virtual scoreboard, we took it to a whole new level by keeping track of goals for each player, goalie GAA, and a few other numbers. In the summer of 1994, since these games were yet to feature a “season mode,” we even went as far as to find a copy of the upcoming NHL schedule and create our own “league” play in which we each chose a team and played out the schedule they were given. I fail to remember how far into the playoffs I took my Buffalo Sabres, but I know I enjoyed every second of it. Well, that’s not entirely true.

You see, my brother had discovered a gamebreaker. At first, it seemed to be a fluke. After repeated usage, it became a nuisance. We simply called it “The Spot.”

Basically, you could take just about any player with a decent ranking, skate him just over the blue line slightly off-center, and hold Down on the D-pad while ripping a full power slapshot to score almost eighty percent of the time. Some players in the game were more successful at the technique and, since my brother had discovered this, he was the first to employ it liberally with said players. At one point, he was not against using Sergio Momesso of the Vancouver Canucks repeatedly for this very purpose. Every time the puck would slide through the goalie, he would assuredly scream out “MOMESSO POWER” in honor of the event.

Eventually, we had to take action and create limitations to using this tactic, especially while playing head-to-head games. Future years’ titles would have their own bugs to govern, but “The Spot” would always remain the one that none of us would ever forget. Even to this day, whenever we see a real NHL goal of similar fashion, we all either yell out “THE SPOT” or “MOMESSO POWER” in tribute.

Hockey games have become more realistic over the course of time, and have certainly taken on a more authentic feel, but in terms of fun and satisfaction, I don’t think any of them can compare to this one. It had all the makings of a great game that was easy to pick up and play, and the memories I created with my friends will never leave me. I have yet to have as much fun in a sports game – or any other competitive game – since, and it is those factors that put NHL 94 at the number eight slot in my Top 10 of All-Time.

The greatest hockey game ever

PS – To this day, I continue to play hockey. It’s probably right beneath video games amongst my interests. It is also the source of my nickname of “Boots,” but that’s a story for another time.

Boots’ Top 10 Video Games of All-Time #9: WCW/nWo Revenge

WCW/nWo Revenge

The following is a part of my list of my Top 10 All-Time Favorite Games. There may be spoilers ahead, so read with caution. Please make note that I rated these games not out of quality relative to other titles but in the order of how much fun I had with each of them and how important they are to my personal gaming history.

Wrestling games were always hit-or-miss back in the day. Too many different developers worked on the many iterations of World Wrestling Federation-licensed games and most of them presented the combat more in the vein of fighters or brawlers. Sure, it worked fine, but it never really captured the right feel of what I was seeing on the television.

See, I was a on again/off again fan of “sports entertainment” for a long time in my childhood. I was maybe seven or eight years old when I saw my first wrestling Pay-Per-View, and I remember loving every minute of it. A couple years later, The Undertaker debuted at a Survivor Series and I was captivated. The guy had presence, mystique, and he somehow instilled a fear in me that nothing had at the time. It was a turning point in my interest level, for sure.

Fast forward to the late 90s, when the nWo storyline began in World Championship Wrestling. Former WWF greats were leaving that company and heading over to Ted Turner’s promotion, but the angle was that they were intending to overthrow everything that WCW was. They cut promos like they were truly rebellious of the system, pissed off the right “good guys,” and even turned a few over to their cause. The movement was infectious.

The nWo

These guys were just…too…SWEEEEEET!

The WWF also began what is know as “The Attitude Era” during this time in response to the competition. This saw the beginning of Degeneration X, the growth of Stone Cold Steve Austin, and the rocket-like rise to power of Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock. It was a grand time, and I grew to appreciate the medium for what it is; a display of charisma mixed with physical prowess.

But the games never reflected this, and it was difficult to deal with. There were a couple titles that got close, but didn’t quite get it right. Then, out of nowhere, a miracle happened…

The Nintendo 64 ushered in a new era of wrestling game thanks to publisher THQ; one that was unmatched in quality and customization while doing a wonderful job of capturing the atmosphere. Graphically, not very impressive, but it was the wrestler creators in the latter titles that I fell in love with. After setting up the basics, diving into the move list was worth the effort. So many of the roster’s signature moves were available and I loved being able to pick the best that fit my character. Nothing was better than beating my opponents down and putting them out with the Outsider’s Edge; a move pioneered by the great Scott Hall.

Hey, yo.

There were a few games made of this type. The original was WCW/nWo World Tour which was great, but featured a roster filled with fictional characters. It would be its follow-up, WCW/nWo Revenge, where the games found their stride. A roster consisting entirely of real grapplers, the ability to build custom characters, real theme songs… everything just came together perfectly to make for the greatest games to feature the wars within the squared circle.

Which takes us to the in-ring action. The devs of these games did such a fine job of making them easy to pick up and play. Reversals were a simple button press as long as you timed it just right, and the grappling system was perfectly designed. Press A for light, hold for strong, and then a direction plus A or B to execute a move. This gave each wrestler 16 basic grappling moves, not to mention strikes, turnbuckle, and special moves. I had many a battle against friends and never hated a second of it.

When the WWF regained their supremacy among the companies, THQ moved over to them for the final two games of this style, but Revenge will always be the one that I consider my favorite. If you have an N64 and any interest in the “sport,” I implore you to check out this game. It’s a total blast and, as Diamond Dallas Page would say, you’ll certainly feel…the…BANG!!!

DDP

He teaches yoga, now. I’m not kidding.

I just wish they had made a proper kickass Extreme Championship Wrestling game. That would’ve been sweet.

Podcast: BlankShowCast Episode 81 – X-Wing Fighter

Remember that movie Groundhog Day? Remember how the dude just couldn’t seem to get beyond that fateful day until he realized that he should just appreciate being alive?

Well, me and the others got stuck in a similar loop.

It’s all good, though. We talked about the crappy Toronto Maple Leafs, Zelda: Wind Waker HD, and Star Wars tattoos.

Personally, this was one of the funnest shows we’ve ever recorded. Hope you enjoy!

Click here to listen!

Game Log – The Walking Dead: Episode 1

WARNING: This is a game log. I will be talking about key plot points that I find in games as I play them, so consider this a SPOILER WARNING of the highest intensity.

I’m in the back of a police car. The cop seems to think that I might not have committed my crime. He asked such, but I told him it didn’t really matter since I was on the way to prison, anyhow. He began regaling stories of past passengers and how a number of them would just kick and scream like infants crying to their mamas, trying anything to convince the man of their innocence.

I listened with half of my attention; the other half was listening to the police radio chirping up like a nest of newborns. Other cop cars sped in the opposite direction past us on the other side of the highway. When I asked about the chatter, the officer explained that sometimes he just would ignore it or he’d go crazy. He continued with more stories of criminals he drove around. As he was deep into the worst of the bunch, he turned his head back toward me to make a point. That’s when I noticed the man on the road.

“LOOK OUT,” I exclaimed, but it was far too late. The car sent him flying and the officer panicked, overcorrecting hard on the wheel and sending us through the guardrail and over a short cliff. I awoke hours later and kicked out the window of the now toppled car to get out. I stood up and noticed the sharp pain in my leg. It was badly hurt. The officer was lying unconscious on the ground a good 15 feet away. I figured getting out of my cuffs would help so I reached for his set and used them. I fumbled the keys and had to pick them up again, but I was free of the restraints.

The cuffs hit the ground. That’s when I hear a groan. The cop is alive. He moves a little but then lunges at me hard, pushing me to the ground. He’s… not alive! I back away all the way to the car in a frenzy and grab the shotgun and try to load the shell I had picked up before, but it slips from my hands. I have to rush to grab it again and slide it into the gun. “Don’t make me do this,” I yell as my attacker approaches. He’s not stopping. I have to do this. I squeeze the trigger. The policeman’s head is gone. His body lies motionless.

Don’t miss!

This is my introduction to The Walking Dead: The Game. It’s more of a point-and-click adventure than anything. I’m one episode in and I’m digging what I’ve played. It’s got some great characters and seems to be very faithful to the comic’s tone, which I am a huge fan of. After that initial scene, there’s some time spent on a farm. Things seem calm but they ramp up very quickly. I was faced with a choice to either save a young boy or the son of the farm’s owner. I chose the boy because he had no other way to defend himself. The other victim died. His father was NOT happy.

Oops…

Choices like that make this game special. That feeling of consequence weighs heavily when you have to choose and it brings you into the world more than most games can, especially having to look after a young girl. Later on, I let a guy punch out another for being a prick and I showed mercy to a woman by allowing her to shoot herself after being bitten by walkers. It felt like the right thing to do. I also died a couple of gruesome deaths because I wasn’t paying attention, so I like that it forces you to focus.

I’m only one episode in, but I can already tell that I’m going to love this game. Some people criticized it for not being a true game, but whatever. I enjoyed my time with it and feel that it will stay immersive and fun. Sure, it has its adventure game-like faults, but that’s ok. I’m also playing with all of the indicators off, so it’s expected a bit.

Anybody know where the lightswitch is?

Next week, I tackle Episode 2. I just hope I don’t look as tasty then.