- Grand Theft Auto (GTA) is one of the most popular video game franchises in the world, with a long history and a legacy status.
- The franchise revolutionized open-world gameplay and brought innovations to the world of 3D gaming.
- The first GTA game had a top-down, 2D perspective, while later installments introduced a third-person, 3D perspective.
- GTA III was a major milestone for the series, with an immersive open world, superior graphics, and the introduction of a third-person perspective.
- GTA V is the most recent major installment, offering an expansive open world, a diverse online community, and constant updates and expansions.
Grand Theft Auto (known as “GTA”) is one of the most popular video game franchises in the entire world. First debuted in 1997, the franchise has skyrocketed to legacy status, with people across the globe playing solo or with friends. There is even a Fall Out Boy song title that is a play on the game’s name, “Grand Theft Autumn/Where Is Your Boy” and it is one of the band’s biggest hits!
So, how did the GTA series get so popular that it is being referenced in pop songs? Well, the franchise has a long history. It changed the world of gaming forever, thanks to its fresh take on open-world gameplay. Plus, it brought many innovations to the world of 3D gaming with its unique graphics.
GTA has been coming out with new versions for over two decades, so it can be a bit complicated to keep up with every single one. We’ve compiled an organized list of each GTA release since its 1997 debut, paired with a bit of lore about each game. Let’s get into it!
1. Grand Theft Auto (1997)
The debut Grand Theft Auto installment sparked joy among fans and criticism among skeptics alike. This series was controversial from the start; using taboo language, as well as topics, concerned parents of young impressionable teens who had heard of the game via friends who lived in less-strict households.
Developed by DMA Design and published by BMG Interactive, the game enables players to take control of a criminal. Slightly off-center versions of real US cities are the game’s setting, and you explore them while creating mayhem along the way.
You can really do whatever you want in GTA. Seriously, anything you choose to do on a whim will be applauded in this world. If you want to go up to a guy on the street and deck him, you can! One of my favorite bonus features you’ll find in this GTA game but not in newer ones is the burp/fart button. Hitting the O button on your controller will make your character rip one, scaring off anyone in the vicinity.
The zany, larger-than-life alternate reality is part of what helped skyrocket the game to mainstream success. It’s difficult to picture a world without GTA in it. But the earliest iteration of the series looked vastly different from today. Instead of a 3D world, you looked at your character from a top-down, 2D perspective.
2. Grand Theft Auto: London, 1969 (1999)
This update to the initial megahit GTA installment paved the way for the game’s format for the foreseeable future. Now developed by Rockstar Games, this expansion let players explore London in the 1960s.
It aims to be relatively historically accurate, with a few creative liberties, of course. Crime in that area, during that period, was largely taken over by gangsters, not completely unlike America’s mob boss era. Their crimes included smuggling, theft, and drug trafficking, making for an interesting landscape for GTA.
The main criticisms of this expansion were due to the creative liberties taken by developers. They were relatively historically accurate, but they stretched the truth a bit too far for some people’s liking. Still, it’s an engaging game that gives a lot of insight into the future of GTA as we know it to be today.
3. Grand Theft Auto: London, 1961 (1999)
This expansion came in two installments, with this one being the latter of the two. The freeware mission pack requires players to have the original GTA debut as well as the first iteration of the expansion.
Unsurprisingly, this version is less popular than the other two, which are hailed as the “original” GTA. It’s a bit harder to access since you need the other two titles to play it. Plus, it comes with just a few extras like missions, new vehicles, and an extra cutscene.
It’s still worth the effort for diehard GTA fans, though! Expansions like this give you a comprehensive look at GTA lore. Any GTA expert should download the expansion!
4. Grand Theft Auto 2 (1999)
1999 was an amazing year for GTA fans. GMA Design and Tarantula Studios came together with Rockstar Games and Microsoft Windows for the second major installment of the series. The game got a bit of pushback from critics since the graphics hadn’t updated much since the initial debut. Still, it gathered major commercial success, selling hundreds of thousands of copies upon release.
5. Grand Theft Auto III (2001)
Two years later, the same developers released the third major installment in the hit GTA franchise. The latest fictional setting for the game, Liberty City, is evidently based on the real-life New York City. This installment seemingly learned from the criticisms of its predecessor, earning itself the title of the best-selling videogame of 2001.
To this day, many GTA diehards consider this to be their favorite in the entire franchise. It’s really where you begin to see growth where there formally was only potential. Unlike earlier games, which gave you a top-down view of the character and the open world, GTA III gave you a third-person 3D perspective, positioning the camera right behind the player.
Its popularity soared thanks to the immersive open world and superior graphics. This was also the first installment in the GTA series to be available on the original Xbox console, in addition to the PlayStation 2 and PC.
6. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)
This installment showcases a lot of the technological growth of the time period in which it was released. Sony’s PlayStation 2 was groundbreaking, changing the game for developers in terms of graphics and overall gameplay options.
Here, players explore the fictional Vice City — which is based on Miami, not Las Vegas, as the name might imply. Players act as Tommy Vercetti, a mobster freshly released from prison, as he reigns terror upon the city by building his criminal empire. The game was also 2002’s best-seller.
7. Grand Theft Auto: Advance (2004)
Moving more towards technological pivots, this GTA release was made for the Gameboy Advance, as suggested by the name. Portable gaming was becoming a huge staple at the time, after the initial success of Nintendo’s breakthrough Gameboy handheld systems.
This story follows Liberty’s Mike working different jobs throughout his world — all of his bosses are criminals, of course! The real lore begins as Mike explores the sudden death of his partner. As players complete sidequests, they eventually unlock Mike’s whole story.
8. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)
In this Playstation 2 installment, the main character, Carl “CJ” Johnson, returns to San Andreas upon finding out his mother passed. He’d just cleaned up his act, abandoning his life as a gangster before coming back to San Andreas.
Of course, that doesn’t last long for him; the game’s story would be nothing if CJ is forced to complete a long series of missions, ultimately getting suckered back into his old ways.
This is one of the highest-rated Playstation 2 games in existence. And with good reason — it’s a serious statement of growth for the series, showcasing its place in gaming as a certified classic. For its time, the game gave you an immense amount of interactivity and things to do: drive, fly, swim, boat, work out, get a haircut, and even have an in-game girlfriend.
Besides the story missions, you could go on to collect all sorts of extra hidden items. Side missions and in-game puzzles and tasks abound, and it is one of those games you can play and play without getting bored. Drive around passengers in a taxi, fight fires in a fire truck, stop criminals in a police car — you can take on any odd job you want. Personally, it’s one of my favorite games of all time.
9. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories (2006)
The PlayStation Portable (PSP) was a criminally underrated console. Sony took the basic concepts of a handheld, portable gaming device like a Gameboy and added their own twist to it. GTA’s contribution to the console was a major draw to it, peaking customer interest with the promise of new GTA lore.
This installment was a prequel to the original Vice City from a few years prior. In this one, Victor and Lance aim to create their own mega crime empire, taking over the city. There are several unlocked areas to explore that weren’t available in the first Vice City installment. Plus, the soundtrack is amazing, earning awards and critical acclaim.
10. Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
Finally, GTA fans got a major installment after open-world games like Vice City Stories. Set in Liberty, the fourth major GTA game follows the story of war vet Niko Bellic. A common theme for GTA’s main characters is guiding them through their future as they attempt to escape their past.
Bellic had such good intentions — allegedly — but got sucked into the wrong crowd. And, selfishly, we’re a little glad because we wouldn’t have all of the game’s fun missions if he didn’t. You also have more freedom in GTA IV, since you’re allowed to roam the entire city in an open-world format.
11. Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost And Damned (2009)
This expansion pack unlocks a ton of useful and entertaining lore. You follow the story of Johnny Klebitz, president of the Alderney chapter of a motorcycle club. Known as “The Lost MC,” this club takes center stage in this expansion pack’s missions. Ultimately, your goal as Johnny is to keep the club going with minimal scuffs to your reputation.
However, opponents always seem to get in the way, causing friction and creating unnecessary rivals. The Lost And Damned is a fan-favorite expansion pack, largely due to the Johnny’s story and The Lost MC missions.
12. Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad Of Gay Tony (2009)
GTA got a few expansion packs, and The Ballad Of Gay Tony is a big hit. You follow an ex-drug dealer, Fernando Lopez, as he tries to solve complex issues with other criminals. These are hard-hitting problems like debt and run-ins with the Mafia. And, of course… drugs. The Ballad Of Gay Tony was so popular that it got a Robot Chicken segment, voiced by singer Patrick Stump.
13. Grand Theft Auto: China Town Wars (2009)
Another testament to technological development, China Town Wars was released for Nintendo’s amazingly successful Nintendo DS handheld console. Protagonist Huang Lee explores Liberty City in the hope of recovering a lost ancient artifact. Unfortunately (or fortunately for the player), Lee gets stuck in the middle of conflict, accidentally entering a drug game. Other Triads compete with Lee for total power over Liberty City.
14. Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
This is the most recent major installment for GTA, which is shocking since it’s been over 10 years since it was released! Fans have eagerly awaited GTA VI, and we’re all extremely hopeful that it’ll show up in our holiday wishlists sooner rather than later.
The open-world format allows players to take a first or third-person perspective, giving lots of room to explore. You can really get the most out of a game with these capabilities. Set in the state of San Andreas, GTA V provides a new take on the old map. While many players argue it’s not as big as the original GTA San Andreas map, it does offer substantially more detail and things to do.
Starting off in story mode, three tough criminals try to get away with ruthless antics while on the run from the government. Run around the map, wreaking havoc, as Trevor, Franklin, or Michael. And once you’re done, you can enjoy the fruits of your labor in a lavish mansion with every supercar, bike, boat, or plane you can think of.
But where GTA V really shines is the online community. Since the game came out in 2013, Rockstar has kept up with a ridiculous amount of updates, new gear, expansion packs, stories, games, and missions. There is enough to keep you busy for quite a while in the diverse online landscape. You can completely customize your own character, join gangs, start businesses, and make money however you want. It really is one of the most versatile online platforms.
Grand Theft Auto has become a staple in gaming, with many gamers getting their start by receiving the first game as a holiday or birthday gift. There are currently rumors circulating that we can expect the next major GTA game in 2024-2025, but nothing has been confirmed just yet. The anticipation for new GTA games only grows more each year — over two decades after the first GTA was released in the 90s!
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Miguel Lagoa/Shutterstock.com.