Image: Legendary

Grand Theft Auto III was a game-changer that popularized the 3D open-world sandbox, and put its developer Rockstar North (formerly DMA Design) firmly on the map.

But what you might not know is that it actually owes a debt to a never-announced project for Dreamcast –Godzilla Takes America – a cancelled game about a rogue Kaiju rampaging through the streets of a metropolitan city.

According to former DMA producer Gary Penn and former DMA support engineer Alan Jack, after the release of the sci-fi platformer Space Station Silicon Valley in 1999, the future Grand Theft Auto team was looking for a brand-new title to work on.

Elsewhere in the studio, the original Grand Theft Auto team was hard at work on finishing Grand Theft Auto II in 2D, while another team had started development on what would eventually become Manhunt.

There wasn’t much of a plan for what they would do next, until a couple of programmers – led by the future Rockstar producer Leslie Benzies – appeared in the office one day with a 3D tech demo of a city they had been building.

A 3D open-world was something the Grand Theft Auto II team had been struggling to get working at the time, and Rockstar was increasingly putting pressure on the company and its other development partners like Rockstar Toronto to get it done. But now a small team inside DMA had somehow made progress elsewhere, almost by accident, so rather than cause "a bloodbath" by pouring cold water on the efforts of their coworkers, the team started spitballing ideas for other city-based projects instead.

“It had essentially grown out of a combination of Body Harvest's open-world roaming mechanics and Space Station Silicon Valley's final level with a city full of vehicles,” Jack tells us. “They had built a tech demo on a Dreamcast dev kit that demonstrated cars whizzing around in 3D, with beautiful lights and full deformation on the car bodies. I remember that Gary basically didn't want to kill their creativity, [so he] gathered a few of us office loose ends together and said ‘Let's make something that is 3D, uses this city prototype, and is on the Dreamcast’”.

Godzilla Generations
This isn't DMA's Godzilla game – it's the rather less exciting Dreamcast launch title, Godzilla Generations, programmed by General Entertainment. Still, it gives you an idea of what the canned game could have looked like on the console — Image: Sega / General Entertainment

From here, DMA's founder Dave Jones suggested transforming the project from a generic city-based tech demo into a game based on the Godzilla license, with Jones assuring the team he could eventually get the rights. So, with a potential project finally beginning to take shape, Penn and the Silicon Valley team started working on designs.

"I remember Gary being rightly excited about the Dreamcast's analogue controller triggers," says Jack. "He had proposed a system whereby one trigger would control the neck and the other the jaw, which created this little core challenge of carefully picking things up (people/eggs/boxes) and not properly crushing them. We had a few sketched gameplay systems where you had to rescue/defend eggs, or you could pick people up and carry them as hostages."

"It controlled quite nicely," Penn tells us. "You stomped around, you’d eat people and grow, and then you'd destroy even more things. And the idea was as you ate and destroyed, you’d grow and you’d eat and destroy some more. They had got the guts of that working on Dreamcast."

So what happened? And why aren't we all playing Godzilla Takes America V with multiple protagonists and an online playground complete with roleplaying Kaiju? Why did Dreamcast owners instead have to endure the rather average Godzilla Generations and its equally forgettable sequel, Godzilla Generations: Maximum Impact? Well, in September 1999, Take-Two bought DMA from Infogrames for $11 million – plus the assumption of certain debts the developer had accrued – bringing with it a number of sweeping changes to the studio.

Rockstar moved DMA from its historic home in Dundee to a new location in Edinburgh, where it became Rockstar North, and the Silicon Valley and Grand Theft Auto II teams were then consolidated into a single entity to work on the third Grand Theft Auto game.

Godzilla was put on ice, but became somewhat of a missing link in the history of Grand Theft Auto, giving the team the confidence and skills necessary to pull off the living, breathing 3D cities we all know and love today. Still, we can't help but dream.