Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto has become such a behemoth it seems strange the series started out life as an unexpected smash. Driving around the cities in that first top-down crime caper was thrilling and liberating; there was no being forced down dingy first-person corridors here, and you could gleefully ignore the game’s missions and enjoy exploring/causing mayhem in the sprawling urban environment. GTA was often cited as refreshingly original in the games press of the time – yet those of us who had been playing on our ZX Spectrums eleven years earlier thought it all played a little familiar to a multi-city adventure by the name of Turbo Esprit.
But the miracle of Turbo Esprit is not just its innovative gameplay, but the way it presents a real and suitably grim 80s urban landscape for the player to drive around, all within a mere 48k of memory. Traffic lights operate with annoying frequency, pedestrians stroll around, seemingly oblivious to the speeding cars that charge down the narrow streets and stark, angular buildings enshroud every screen. The player, assuming control of the eponymous sports car, can either take on the nefarious drug dealers or buzz around the city, obeying – or disobeying – the Highway Code to their heart’s content. Sound familiar?
The freedom to make this choice was rarely seen in 1986. “I wanted a game where you could drive around a city in real time, with the fantasy of James Bond-like machine guns to blow away the bad guys,” says Robert White, owner and founder of Turbo Esprit’s publisher, Durell Software. “So I took the parallelepiped concept from BDS to make skyscrapers in a way that a whole city block could rapidly be drawn from a surprisingly compact database.” With his experience as a CAD specialist for the Oxford Regional Health Authority, which used an integrated computer modelling system (the aforementioned BDS) to design its hospitals, White fostered the concept of an urban landscape, with the player free to move around within its confines.