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Even if the GTA trilogy were perfect, I’d rather shoot balloons and bury gyroids

Dutch roundabout
Image: Nintendo Life

The broader gaming internet is currently in bitter disappointment due to the launch status of GTA The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition, an anniversary package that is sadly not that final. For Nintendo gamers who have been waiting for years to be able to play a full 3D Grand Theft Auto of any kind, it’s infinitely sad to see these classics arrive on Switch like this. We’re not talking about a tiny indie developer struggling to find the time, budget, and resources to make ends meet here; Rockstar has built an empire with this franchise and has the resources to create something special worthy of the Definitive Edition label. That the studio would release this collection – one that embodies such a significant part of its legacy – in a condition far from near-perfect is astounding.

Despite the negativity (and maybe a little there of that) I was thinking about diving into GTA over the weekend and seeing the game firsthand. However, my time was limited so I used the 90 minutes I had to explore my Animal Crossing island. The 2.0 update got me hooked again and I didn’t even get around to trying the Happy Home Paradise DLC, which was released just a week before GTA.

Oddly enough, that random planning made me think back to 2012 when I was playing the then-new Animal Crossing: New Leaf and had GTA in my mind. The release of GTA V was slated for the following year, and my young gamer brain was bouncing back and forth between these two very different video games at the time, franchises that seemed on very opposite ends of one spectrum or the other.

As I thought about the digital rooms featured in both, I concluded that Bell Air – my New Leaf village – was infinitely more fun than any GTA town. GTA IV was the last entry I played, but the slow relaxation of my little Animal Crossing town felt so much more exciting.

Bell Air wine wood
Bell Air Grapevines (Image: Rockstar)

For me, the Liberty City problem has never been escalating crime, but escalating boredom. As tech improved between the PS2 and PS3 generations, the lack of engaging systems in these ever-expanding environments made them feel emptier than ever, even as I marveled at the size of Rockstar’s Sandbox. I felt like I was given the same old bucket and spade in a larger sandpit, and it left me cold. I loved the pigeon shooting in GTA IV. Brewster wouldn’t agree.

For me, the problem with Liberty City was never escalating crime, it was escalating boredom … I liked the pigeon shooting in GTA IV best. Brewster wouldn’t agree

Both series have evolved over time, of course, with the latest entries offering more ambition, sophistication, and content than ever, and GTA Online is another beast. Their respective core loops, however, are surprisingly close to what they always have been. The lineage of the mainline games in both series can be clearly traced, and even if we magically had a Switch port of GTA V instead of a crispy presentation of PS2 classics, Animal Crossing is still winning the battle for my attention.

GTA’s sprawling maps have always been a technical triumph, but Rockstar does other things that go way beyond pure scale. The cars are fun tossing around, the radio stations deliver gaudy tunes, and the talk shows hit a perfect satirical sweet spot. The ratty gunplay of the older entries – a big sign against a series where cars and combat are the meat and potatoes of gameplay – has been tightened up in V to the satisfaction of many, and there’s more to do these days than tired fetch quests and whack -a-guy missions. Personally, however, the feeling of emptiness persists; the probability GTA’s space feels tiny despite the unprecedented size and freedom of movement.

My little lonely island is far less impressive than Los Santos or Liberty. I can drive the perimeter in a minute and there are only a handful of houses scattered around the place, but it is incredibly diverse. I can pick fruit, plant trees, fish, collect fossils, hunt bugs, go to all houses and much more.

Image: Nintendo Life

Animal Crossing isn’t tied to a bloated narrative, either. There is no real story, no ending, other than paying off your mortgage and filling out your critterpedia. The whole game is just a routine to get into. You have have to Water your flowers and complete your spinning top collection and bring up KK Slider every Saturday night. The explicit reason why you do this becomes vague on a day-to-day basis. It starts to mirror your real-world family interactions. As in real life, you don’t just hand in a card, water the plants or drink a cup of coffee; You keep in touch – check out your favorite residents and make sure they aren’t planning on leaving anytime soon.

You don’t really just hand in a card, water the plants, or have a cup of coffee; You keep in touch – check out your favorite residents and make sure they aren’t planning on leaving anytime soon

In 2012, the little village on my 3DS cartridge offered more choice and more opportunities for self-expression and meaningful connection than anything Rockstar had come up with, and that is still true today. Each season brings new festivals and accessories, visitors and opportunities. I could shoot balloons or collect the beach or send letters or buy wallpaper or grow rare flowers or design clothes or have Jay say it Swallow holmes? when we meet or visit other cities to trade fruit and kill in the beet market. No, Nintendo may not offer polygonal interactions with sex workers, nor can I go to a strip shop in Animal Crossing … the search has left us with scars that have yet to be healed, Thank you very much. To his credit, GTA does a fabulous job recreating this inconvenient uh-why-am-I-here Feeling that you might experience in such a facility. And it’s cheaper.

Despite all of this, GTA’s environmental ambition has always impressed me and still attracts me. I wrote about a while ago that I had a moment when I first saw the morning mist over Lake Hylia and had a similar epiphany moment while driving out of town in San Andreas on PS2. The game … didn’t stop! The world just went on. I could just keep going felt amazing. Make no mistake, I’ll be tinkering with San Andreas on Switch at some point just to try and recapture that memory.

Hmm (Image: Nintendo Life)

And yet. The nature of GTA’s casual details – “bolted on” expertly built into the framework and not naturally integrated – made it feel artificial and lifeless to me, even when Rockstar tried something new. I remember telling my friends in all seriousness that I was Dr. Shrunk’s standup comedy would take place any day of the week across from Ricky Gervais’ appearance on GTA IV. I can get myself a hot dog and a beer in GTA, but why can’t I plant a tree or go inside? every Building in this epic urban world?

Advancing technology in recent years has made it easier to fill video game environments with engaging systems and detail, even though games like The Last Of Us had worlds full of stunning detail as early as the PS3 era. Creating a traversable photorealistic cityscape is almost the easy part now – practically a given for an AAA studio – but there’s little point in expanding the playground if you just fill it with the same old swings and roundabouts; the ambition of the minutiae must be similar.

I’m intrigued to see what Rockstar can accomplish in a GTA that wasn’t originally launched two generations ago. Aside from the embarrassing start of GTA Trilogy, I’ll still be delving into GTAs 3, Vice City, and San Andreas at some point. These titles are outstanding milestones in the gaming landscape and at least the morbid curiosity will probably soon overwhelm me. But since free time is tight and Animal Crossing offers so much more variety, I doubt that Tommy, CJ and Co. will ever have what it takes to hold my attention for long.

Not when I have balloons to shoot and crops – and tops – to sow.


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