Grand Theft Auto on Nintendo 64: The Daily Mail Headline That Nearly Happened


A quick visit to the Switch eShop can show you just how far Nintendo has come with the sort of content you can put in a game they’re willing to release. From hentai games (and a lot of them) to gory titles in the Resident Evil and Doom franchises, it’s hard to imagine that at one time, Nintendo’s content guidelines were so strict, the mere thought of something like Grand Theft Auto appearing on the Nintendo 64 was ludicrous. This is the company that got squeamish about blood in Mortal Kombat and was more than willing to butcher amazing games like Maniac Mansion on the NES.

Would the 1997 release of Grand Theft Auto have even had a chance in the heyday of the Nintendo 64, which itself hit stores in 1996? Shockingly, yes, it did get very close to being a reality. What’s more is that while the game’s build is seemingly gone forever, we do know enough to have at least a rough idea of what GTA on the N64 would have been like.

While several Grand Theft Auto games are currently available for the Switch, the story of Nintendo putting Rockstar Games’ most successful franchise on their mainline console goes all the way back to 1995. Originally known by the silly-but-technically-accurate name Race‘n’Chase, we can look at an early design document for Grand Theft Auto from DMA Design, who worked on the series until the third entry, eventually becoming Rockstar North. Even in those early stages, the intention was to release the game for not only PCs, but also the top consoles of the day. This included the PS1, which did actually happen, but also the Sega Saturn and the Nintendo 64, still known at that time as the Ultra 64. Neither of those ports ever materialized.

While very little, if anything, seems to have come of a Saturn version of GTA, the N64 version seemingly got pretty far into development. Shown at E3 1999 in a fairly rough form, with around 50% of the game actually completed, the impending release soon disappeared without a trace. For a long time, it was thought that the N64 version of Grand Theft Auto never existed in any form at all.

But thanks to a discovery of a preview of the game in the Spanish version of Nintendo Power, we can see for ourselves that the game really did exist. Somewhere in the universe there is a presumably unfinished copy of Grand Theft Auto 64. The odds of seeing that game are about as good as the odds of Konami not botching a beloved franchise in the modern era, but we can at least guess at what might have been. There are a few screenshots to check out, seemingly for the N64 version, and we also know a bit about what the game would have entailed.

Credit: Lost Media Wiki

Had the game come to Nintendo’s console, we know a scant few details on what we could have expected. Early previews for the game indicated that Grand Theft Auto on the N64 would have “enhanced graphics,” new levels, and even “new characteristics.”

On the same scanned pages, you can also check out the magazine’s preview for the N64 Mother/Earthbound game we never got, in case you want to be depressed about that, too.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the video game landscape at the end of the decade. By 1999, Grand Theft Auto was a franchise that sold nicely and reviewed, well, basically just fine. It was a known commodity by then, but not the groundbreaking open world blockbuster series these games would eventually become. An N64 version made sense, as the game had done relatively well with the release of both Grand Theft Auto and Grand Theft Auto II for the PlayStation 1. There were even ports of those games for the Game Boy Color in 1999 and 2000 respectively.

Furthermore, by 1999, Nintendo had come a long way from their prudish stance on sex and violence in video games in the 80s and early 90s. The game wouldn’t need to tone down very much, if anything, to join a console that included a port of Quake and several South Park titles. The Nintendo 64 had a long list of M-rated games three years into its lifespan, and Grand Theft Auto wouldn’t have stuck out all that much.

What would those new characteristics be exactly? We have no idea. The next Grand Theft Auto game was still a couple of years off, with Grand Theft Auto III being the one that transformed the series forever. This N64 port would have no doubt stuck to the style of the first two games, with the top-down view, linear, mission-based progression, and the relative freedom to unleash as much mayhem in one of three cities as the game will allow.

Grand Theft Auto London 1961
Grand Theft Auto London 1961

Obviously, we’ll never know for sure because the game was never released. Rockstar and to a lesser extent Nintendo have never offered anything along the lines of an explanation. Perhaps the developers wanted to focus on the third entry, which would make the most sense as it was an absolute industry-changer. Perhaps Nintendo demanded changes to the game’s more adult elements, although given what the N64 was releasing by that point, this seems highly unlikely.  We can’t even be certain that the screenshots found in that Spanish Nintendo Power issue are specifically from the N64 build, although some believe that the game visually resembles what it would have looked like on Nintendo’s console. But these are just a handful of blurry images that really can’t tell us anything for certain.

Grand Theft Auto to this day doesn’t have a huge presence in the Nintendo library. The biggest entry for any Nintendo system arguably would have to be the 2009 cult favorite Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, which was briefly exclusive to the DS. Beyond that, not much. While the Switch did get Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition in 2021, in addition to a Game Boy Advance exclusive (and not very good) entry called Grand Theft Auto Advance in 2004, Rockstar’s license to print money hasn’t seen much action on Nintendo systems. That’s too bad.

There’s no telling whether or not Grand Theft Auto on the N64 would have been a hit, although financially it would have no doubt done just fine. However, it could be argued that it was better in the long run for Rockstar to shift focus to putting every resource they had into making Grand Theft Auto III one of the most important releases in the PS2 library. There’s no version of a successful N64 release of Grand Theft Auto that would have been more significant than what GTA III achieved.

Still, there’s no telling what would have happened, and with a lost game like GTA 64, the speculation is endlessly interesting.

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