I Recently Replayed GTA: San Andreas and I Don’t Think it Holds Up

I’m constantly aware of the effect nostalgia has on our perception of a game. We remember the games of our childhoods through a rose tinted lens and sometimes it skews our perspectives of modern games.

Four of my top five games are from my childhood. I say four out of five because, very recently, I had an old game that I loved (and still love) bumped off the list to make way for one of its sequels. Now of course you’ve read the title of this post already (if you haven’t then why the fuck are you even here?), and you know exactly what I’m talking about. Before you start frothing at the mouth and try to burn me at the stake for crimes against Gamerdom, let me explain.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, until recently, was my favourite GTA. When I first managed to get my hands on it (late, because I wasn’t a wealthy child), I fell in love. I couldn’t tell you the amount of hours I have invested in that game, I really couldn’t. For a long time, even during the Xbox 360 and PS3 era, I only had my PS2 for games, and San Andreas was a game I constantly went back to. I write about this love mostly to soften the blow and stay the crowd.

Recently I had the idea to play some of the games on my top five list again, to see how well they held up. I had already played Hitman: Blood Money (Yes), and Final Fantasy VI (Fuck yes), and I was on such a roll that I decided that San Andreas would be next. I didn’t play it on my PS2, because I’ve actually lost that copy somehow so I decided to play it on PC.

At first load, while the graphics weren’t what is on display in GTA 5 (of course), they were fine. I know some people probably expected me to rail on that shit. I’m not that petty. Rockstar worked with the limitations they had at the time and actually made a damn good looking game, considering the circumstances. However, in line with the graphics, the actual design of the city is lackluster. If you take a step back and really pay attention, San Andreas doesn’t look much like a city at all. I mean, it does, if you’ve only seen a city inside a video game. It’s a video game city, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but if we ignore graphics, and based our comparisons solely on design, GTA 5 absolutely comes out on top.

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The story still holds up well. While a little campy at times, it is the same scathing satire that Rockstar has refined over the years. Characters like the Truth and OG Loc provide just as good comic relief in San Andreas as Lamar or Jimmy do in GTA 5. Where the game fails. Where it produces a lot more frustration than fun, are its controls.

I played with a controller, as I always have with GTA games. I even play GTA: Online with a controller (with occasional switches to mouse and keyboard if I need some precision shooting). And after a few tweaks in controls, including remapping the acceleration and the brakes to the triggers, things were looking up. But everything about San Andreas is clunky. The shooting is frustrating at best, especially from a car. The camera controls like shit, and more than once I’ve found myself having to car jump because the cars are more fragile than my grandfather’s hip. Now I know some would say this adds to the difficulty. I’ve seen no end of comments bitching about the player’s ability to flip cars back over in GTA 5 being unrealistic and pandering, but since when was GTA supposed to be realistic? It’s also not realistic to wake up in front of a hospital shortly after going down in a blaze of glory, being shredded by a hail of bullets because you accidently ran over a cop.

Now I love GTA: SA, I really do. I still love it. I will forever regard it as a classic in gaming. But I went into San Andreas with a mindset that I would be critical. I went in looking to compare GTA 5 with SA and as much as it pains me to say it, GTA 5 came out on top. Five still has the great satire story that Rockstar is famous for. The attention to detail in Los Santos is superb and makes the city come alive, and the gameplay is polished and fun. It’s everything I love in a game, and a Grand Theft Auto, and that’s why it bumped San Andreas off my top five list.