With over 370 million units shipped since the inception of the series in 1997, Grand Theft Auto is effortlessly one of the biggest video game franchises on the planet – heck, it's one of the biggest entertainment franchises ever made, too – and it's now a staggering 25 years old.
When the first game arrived back in the '90s, few could have predicted that the series would grow to such mammoth proportions; nowadays, GTA ranks alongside Call of Duty, Mario, Pokémon and FIFA in terms of commercial clout – and its popularity shows absolutely no sign of wavering.
GTA is somewhat unique as a series because most fans will agree that (almost) every single entry is worth playing; there are precious few turkeys in the GTA lineage, and that makes picking the 'best' one a little harder than you might expect. We've tried to take some of the effort out of things by compiling this handy list.
While the technological gulf between handheld consoles and home consoles has closed over the years, once upon a time, it was so huge that you have to wonder why publishers and developers even bothered to try and bridge it. The promise of bumper sales is the obvious answer, but titles like Grand Theft Auto on the Game Boy Color could only have done damage to the brand at the time of release. While you'd think that transferring the top-down gameplay of the PlayStation original to the humble Nintendo handheld would have been pretty straightforward, this version (handled by Tarantula Studios) is saddled with poor controls, terrible audio and vast, empty streets – all of which conspire to make it feel like a very pale imitation of the groundbreaking original. A noble attempt, but one that ultimately fails.
Tarantula Studios was once again involved in the development of this Game Boy Color sequel, based on the full-fat Grand Theft Auto 2 that appeared on PC and PlayStation. The same key issues remain – the hardware simply isn't up to the task of replicating what was possible on more powerful home systems. While a few nips and tucks have been made to make this sequel a little more bearable, it's still one of the worst in the entire series.
It might seem silly to have a collection of the first three 3D GTA titles as one of the worst games in the series, but hear us out. Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy is a flat-out mess of a collection that simply doesn't do these amazing titles justice. Ported by Grove Street Games rather than Rockstar itself, The Trilogy is plagued by problems, including technical hiccups, ropey character models and some unintentionally hilarious bugs. Rockstar has stated that it will attempt to fix the game with updates, but the damage has already been done here; this was one of 2021's lowest-scoring releases and represents the worst way to experience these genre-defining titles.
While its name might suggest that it's another handheld port of the original PlayStation outing, this is, in fact, a prequel to Grand Theft Auto III. Set one year before the events of that game, it focuses on Mike's quest for revenge after his partner's death. With Digital Eclipse on development duties, you'd think this would be the recipe for success, but unfortunately, Grand Theft Auto Advance is something of a mess. It's certainly a step up from the Game Boy Color games and does a moderately decent job of replicating the look of the PlayStation original, but the camera is zoomed in too much, making it hard to see where you're driving. A nice try, all the same.
Released as a free expansion for the PC version of Grand Theft Auto: London 1969, this title is one that even many hardcore GTA fans overlook – and it's hard to blame them when you consider that you need both the original game and the London expansion to even play it. It showcases eight new missions as well as a multiplayer map for the game's 'Deathmatch' mode. A nice addition to GTA London, but hardly essential.
Grand Theft Auto: London 1969 was, ironically enough, developed in Canada and not the UK, like other entries in the series. It takes the basic gameplay of the original game and places it in '60s London, complete with a swinging soundtrack to match. The resultant game is just as much fun as the original, but it's fair to say that, given the improvements made in the franchise since, it can't really compete with later instalments. Still, that music is amazing, and we love the fact that the game includes British slang terms for various things, too. A free expansion – GTA London 1961 – was released for PC.
While the original GTA blazed a trail, its direct sequel felt a little bit like it was simply going over the same ground again. Like the first outing, the game is viewed from a top-down perspective using a 2.5D engine. While new features – such as the gang loyalty system, storyline and soundtrack – came in for praise upon release and would arguably lay the foundations for future entries, most people agreed that GTA 2 didn't do quite enough to improve on its forerunner. Having said that, it's still a wonderfully enjoyable game, and if you're a fan of the 'classic' top-down GTA instalments, you'll love it.
Granted, titles like Grand Theft Auto 2 and GTA London arguably improved on the 1997 original, but we'd still rank this one higher than those titles purely due to the fact that it was such a groundbreaking release for its time. GTA didn't really do anything out of the ordinary in terms of visuals, but what made it so compelling was the way it presented a living, breathing open world for the player to explore. Of course, the ability to steal cars was also a killer hook, but GTA's sense of humour shines through, even today, and presents a solid bedrock for subsequent entries in the franchise. It's rough around the edges now, but this is still a blast to play – and without this, there would be no GTA V.