San Andreas is one of those rare games which can be attributed to the category of a cultural phenomenon. It’s a game so impactful that it transcends time and any current definition of “cool”. And no matter how much you love Grand Theft Auto 3 or Vice City, some of your fondest memories likely stem from playing San Andreas. At least that’s how it is for me.
It’s been over 15 years and I still remember events from San Andreas so vividly as if they happened a week ago. I don’t necessarily remember specific missions or narrative paths, but certain scenes and phrases occasionally pop into my mind. Phrases like: “I’m blind, Carl, not stupid” or “I’ll have two number 9s…”. These phrases don’t mean much when taken out of context, but if you remember the scenes they’re part of, you can’t help but chuckle.
It’s a game that doesn’t cease to amaze even now, and deserves an honorary place in the video game hall of fame. Let’s go back to 2005 and take a look at the revolutionary sandbox wonder that is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
Lean, Mean and Green
Enter the story of Carl “CJ” Johnson, who comes out of prison to attend the funeral of his mother, only to find out that his family is in utter disarray. His neighbourhood is under the threat of a rival gang and two corrupt cops want nothing more than to get him back behind the bars. It’s now up to CJ to restore Grove Street Families back to its former glory.
It starts out with relatively mundane tasks: change your hairstyle, get new clothes, spray paint over a rival gang’s graffiti. At most you might get into a fistfight with a random taxi driver. But as the story ramps up, CJ must work with dangerous and even unusual individuals, including the Triads, the FBI and a hippie by the name of The Truth. One of these relationships leads CJ into burning down a cannabis farm in order to get rid of evidence. I reckon you can guess which one.
While you don’t necessarily play GTA for the plot, San Andreas is among the best in the series. Some characters from previous GTA games make surprising cameos, like Claude, the main protagonist of GTA 3. But the beauty of any GTA game lies in the fact that everyone’s experience is different. Stepping out onto the streets of San Andreas, you never knew what you’re going to get involved with.
That’s the mindset I got into whenever I booted up the game. While I could carry on with the story and complete missions, I was also prepared for any random activity to divert my attention. And that came as a side effect of how big the new environment was.
Bigger is Better
I loved every inch of Liberty City and especially Vice City. But as beautiful and enticing as they were, both exhausted their options fairly quickly. By the time I completed the main storyline, I was already familiar with most of the city’s layout. With San Andreas, however, I felt like I was only just getting started. San Andreas was bigger than both of the previous GTA maps combined, and was absolutely packed with content. It featured three distinctly different cities along with vast countryside and desert environments.
Starting out in CJ’s neighbourhood, we have Los Santos. This area takes after the real-world Los Angeles and many of its landmarks are later expanded upon in GTA 5. Based on San Francisco with its steep slopes, we have San Fierro to the west. And finally, Las Venturas up north is a beautifully recreated version of the sin city – Las Vegas – which featured a number of casinos and even the pyramid-shaped hotel – that same pyramid from which people were sliding down in Fear Factor.
Next to Las Venturas, there’s a desert area with various landmarks and a ghost town. Dividing the cities of Los Santos and San Fierro is an expansive countryside, home to the Bigfoot legend. And just south of San Fierro is the equally humongous Mount Chiliad.
No matter which part of San Andreas you were in, something would distract you from the main plot. One of my favourite activities was to parachute onto the peak of Mount Chiliad and then rush down its entwining roads on a mountain bike. In the desert, it was almost mandatory to jetpack into the army base and steal one of their vehicles. Who would say no to a personal tank or assault aircraft?
I’m a Player, Not a Payer
If you were in Las Venturas, a visit to one of the casinos was a must. I used to frequent The Four Dragons and bet $1M on roulette, on a specific number. Winning, as unlikely as it was, would multiply the sum by the total amount of numbers, which meant I could walk away with $35M on a good day. If I lost too much, I would simply reload the game and try again. Alas, as hard as I tried to convince them, none of my friends believed that I wasn’t using cheats to amass a fortune of over $500M.
During another sinful visit to Las Venturas, a small plane suddenly crashed into the ground from out of nowhere. It crashed into a taxi, prompting both vehicles to explode. Unfortunately I was right next to the explosion, and while the explosion itself didn’t get to me, the charred carcass of the plane began rolling toward me. Holding the camera button to see what was going on behind me, I began sprinting away as fast as I could. Let me tell you, those hours spent at the gym and doing triathlon certainly paid off.
I managed to outrun the plane and hide behind a corner. As ridiculous as it was, from my perspective this looked like a scene from an action movie. And best of all, any escapade into San Andreas could turn into your own adventure. Even if it’s just running from a plane.
Remember, Nice Guys Finish Last
Grand Theft Auto as a series was notorious for featuring violent and otherwise mature content. Every new entry pushed the envelope further and San Andreas was no exception. With the newest entry, Rockstar Games introduced a dating system into the series. Throughout the city, you could meet and date girls, and if you impressed them enough, you had the chance of getting invited for a steamy cup of coffee.
A really, really hot cup of coffee, as it resulted in moaning and the camera shaking, possibly simulating CJ wiping the beverage off his shirt. Jokes aside, developers introduced heavily censored sexual intercourse. But when has censorship ever stopped PC players?
Mods came along with the PC release of San Andreas and among them was the Hot Coffee mod. It didn’t do much apart from unlocking a minigame that was already part of the game’s code. Interestingly enough, it was also part of the PS2 and Xbox versions. This minigame portrayed the sexual act in more detail, stirring controversy from news outlets and attention-hungry politicians. And for no good reason, as even in their uncensored state these scenes were no more graphic than those later portrayed in Mass Effect.
Nonetheless, much like with Manhunt, this prompted San Andreas to receive an “Adults Only” rating, temporarily removing it from store shelves. Understandably, it led developers to reprogram the game, preventing anyone from accessing this particular content.
To this day, I don’t know of many games with a world so densely packed with content. Beyond the main story and the obvious side activities, you never knew what else might distract you. Would you partake in illegal street races or awaken your inner entrepreneur by purchasing various properties? Perhaps you would hunt for collectable underwater oysters? San Andreas had it all. It also formed my music playlist by introducing my teenage self to artists like Faith No More and Rage Against the Machine.
I’m happy with how much time I managed to invest in it. And one of these days, I’ll find an excuse to invest a few hundred more hours. That said, I’ve probably missed a lot, so feel free to share your favourite San Andreas memory in the comments below.