Dutch Gyroids
Image: Nintendo Life

The wider gaming internet is currently in a funk of bitter disappointment due to the launch state of GTA The Trilogy - The Definitive Edition, an anniversary package which, unfortunately, isn't so definitive. For Nintendo gamers who have waited years to be able to play a fully-3D Grand Theft Auto of any sort, it's infinitely sad to see these classics arrive on Switch like this. We're not talking about a tiny indie dev struggling to find the time, budget and resources to make ends meet here; Rockstar built an empire on this franchise and has the resources to make something special, something worthy of the 'Definitive Edition' label. That the studio would release this collection — one that encapsulates such a significant portion of its legacy — in a state anything less than nigh-on perfect is baffling.

Despite the negativity (and perhaps a little because of it) I thought about dipping into GTA over the weekend and seeing the game firsthand. However, my time was limited, so I used the 90 minutes I had to potter around my Animal Crossing island instead. The 2.0 update has got me hooked again, and I haven't even got around to trying Happy Home Paradise DLC, which launched just a week prior to GTA.

Oddly, this coincidental scheduling got me thinking back to 2012 when I was playing the then-new Animal Crossing: New Leaf and had GTA on the brain. The release of GTA V was scheduled for the following year and my young(er) gamer brain was bouncing between these two very different video games at the time, franchises that seemed on the very opposite ends of some spectrum or other.

Pondering the digital spaces presented in both, I reached the conclusion then that Bell Air — my New Leaf village — was infinitely more fun than any GTA city. GTA IV was the most recent entry I'd played, but the slow life relaxation of my tiny Animal Crossing town felt so much more engaging.

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Bell-Air Vinewood — Image: Rockstar

For me, Liberty City’s problem was never one of escalating crime but escalating boredom. As the tech improved between the PS2 and PS3 generations, the lack of engaging systems in those ever-expanding environments made them feel more empty than ever, even as I marvelled at the scale of Rockstar's sandbox. I felt I was being handed the same old bucket and spade in a bigger sandpit and it left me cold. I liked pigeon shooting best in GTA IV. Brewster wouldn't approve.

For me, Liberty City’s problem was never one of escalating crime but escalating boredom... I liked pigeon shooting best in GTA IV. Brewster wouldn't approve

Both series have evolved over time, of course, with the latest entries offering more ambition, sophistication and content than ever before, and GTA Online is another beast entirely. Their respective core loops, however, are surprisingly close to what they've always been. The lineage of the mainline games in both series is plain to trace back, and even if we magically had a Switch port of GTA V here rather than a crusty presentation of PS2 classics, Animal Crossing still win the battle for my attention.

GTA's sprawling maps have always been a technical triumph, but Rockstar does other things well beyond sheer scale. The cars are fun to throw around, the radio stations provide banging tunes and the talk shows hit a perfect satirical sweet spot. The lumpen gunplay of the older entries — a huge mark against a series in which cars and combat are the meat and potatoes of the gameplay — was tightened up in V to the satisfaction of many, and there's more to do nowadays than tired fetch quests and whack-a-guy missions. Personally, though, the feeling of emptiness persists; the possibility space of GTA feels minuscule despite the unprecedented scale and freedom of movement.

My little deserted island is far less imposing than Los Santos or Liberty. I can run the perimeter in a minute and there are only a handful of houses dotted around the place, but it offers incredible variety. I can pick fruit, plant trees, go fishing, collect fossils, hunt bugs, go in all the houses and much more.

Image: Nintendo Life

Animal Crossing isn’t tethered by a bloated narrative, either. There’s no real story, no ending besides paying off your mortgage and filling out your Critterpedia. The whole game is just a routine you get into. You’ve got to water your flowers and complete your gyroid collection and call on K.K. Slider every Saturday night. The explicit reason you do so becomes vague in the day-to-day of it. It starts mirroring your real-life family interactions. Just as in real-life, you’re not really just dropping off a card or watering the plants or having a cup of coffee; you’re keeping in touch — checking up on your favourite residents and making sure they aren’t planning on leaving anytime soon.

you’re not really just dropping off a card or watering the plants or having a cup of coffee; you’re keeping in touch — checking up on your favourite residents and making sure they aren’t planning on leaving anytime soon

Back in 2012, the tiny village on my 3DS cartridge offered more choice and more opportunity for self-expression and meaningful connection than anything Rockstar had cooked up, and that still holds true now. Every season brings new festivals and accessories, visitors and opportunities. I could shoot balloons out of the sky or go beachcombing or send letters or buy wallpaper or breed rare flowers or design clothes or make Jay say S’up Holmes? when we meet or visit other towns to trade fruit and make a killing on the turnip market. No, Nintendo might not offer polygonal interactions with sex workers, nor can I head to a strip joint in Animal Crossing... and let's not dwell on what that would entail — an innocent search for 'Animal Crossing fan art' last year with Safe Search off left us with scars that have yet to heal, thank-you-very-much. To its credit, GTA does a fabulous job of recreating that uncomfortable err-why-am-I-here feeling you might experience in such an establishment. And it’s cheaper.

Despite all this, GTA's environmental ambition has always impressed me and still attracts me. I wrote a while ago about having 'a moment' when first seeing the morning mist hanging over Lake Hylia, and had a similar epiphanic moment when driving out of the city in San Andreas on PS2. The game... didn't stop! The world just carried on. That I could just keep driving felt incredible. Make no mistake, I'll be tinkering with San Andreas on Switch at some point just to try and recapture that memory.

Don't shoot the pigeon
HmmImage: Nintendo Life

And yet. The nature of GTA's incidental details — 'bolted-on' workmanlike to the framework rather than integrated naturally — made them feel artificial and lifeless to me, even when Rockstar try something novel. I remember saying to friends in complete seriousness that I'd take Dr. Shrunk's standup comedy over Ricky Gervais' turn in GTA IV any day of the week. I can grab a hot dog and a beer in GTA, but why can’t I plant a tree or go inside every building in this epic urban world?

Advancing technology has made filling video game environments with engaging systems and detail easier in recent years, though even back in the PS3 era games like The Last Of Us had worlds filled with breathtaking detail. Creating a traversable photo-realistic cityscape is almost the easy part now — practically a given for a AAA studio — but there’s little point expanding the playground if you’re only going to fill it with the same old swings and roundabouts; the ambition of the minutiae must be similarly grand.

I'm fascinated to see what Rockstar can achieve in a GTA that didn't originally launch two generations ago. And GTA Trilogy's embarrassing launch aside, I'll still be dipping back into GTAs 3, Vice City, and San Andreas at some point. Those titles are towering landmarks in the gaming landscape and, if nothing else, morbid curiosity will likely get the better of me before long. But with free time tight and Animal Crossing offering so much more variety, I doubt Tommy, CJ and company will ever have what it takes to keep my attention for long.

Not when I've got balloons to shoot, and crops — and gyroids — to sow.