GTA Chronicles: Exploring 30+ Iconic Moments In Grand Theft Auto Games

By Stuart W January 8, 2024

This article was originally published on gamerslifedaily

After debuting in November 1997, Grand Theft Auto has been wowing enthusiasts, consistently breaking boundaries and pushing the envelope of what is possible in a video game. The phenomenal and massively popular series has left an indelible mark on popular culture and changed how people see and consume video games. They have provided hours upon hours of exciting and cinematic gameplay, and each new release has built upon the previous in ever more spectacular ways. Suffice it to say that there’s nothing quite like it. GTA is one of the highest-grossing media franchises, making close to $10 billion ten years after its initial release, a feat only a handful of games have managed to achieve. With the new installment now tantalizingly close, it’s time to walk down memory lane and look at some of the most epic and iconic moments in the franchise’s history.

First Heist GTA III

GTA III marked a pivotal moment in the franchise when it developed from a top-down arcade novelty game into the sprawling 3D crime simulator that would rule the gaming world for years. And it didn’t take long for the first daring heist to happen.

Shred N Slash/gta.fandom.com

After being instructed to obtain heavily armored security, it’s a case of locating it and repeatedly ramming it until it stops. There is carnage galore, and it was an early indicator that GTA had gone to the next level and fans were in for bigger things.

Bank Robbery, Vice City

Vice City is the game that began to explore the possibilities of the ground broken by GTA III. The graphics and playability were finessed, the storylines deepened, and the sense of freedom expanded. It is a true classic of the genre.

SK Gowrob/YouTube

It’s a pivotal moment in Tommy Vercetti’s rise to the top of the crime game. It’s tense and exciting and features some epic confrontations with the SWAT team, who turn up in a vain attempt to foil the bank robbery, but there was no chance of that!

CJ’s Homecoming, San Andreas

If you thought Vice City was impressive, San Andreas raised the bar even higher and blew people’s minds away. The size of the game map alone was mind-blowing, and at the time, the freedom to do what you wanted was genuinely awe-inspiring. There was nothing quite like it.

Kenny Paas/YouTube

The protagonist in this entry is CJ Johnson, a guy returning to his hometown of Los Santos, a fictionalized version of Los Angeles. The characters and depth of the storyline were unlike anything that came before it, and it drew fans in.

Niko Bellic Arrives in Liberty City, GTA IV

The arrival of a new generation of game consoles meant that when GTA IV dropped, it built a world deeper and more spectacular than anything gamers had ever seen, and protagonist Niko Bellic was our way into this crazy town. He grew up in Yugoslavia, fought during the war, and was voiced by Michael Hollick.

GameModding,com

Very early in the game, the player is given a sense of the type of cinematic experience that is in store. The combination of a deep and immersive storyline and state-of-the-art graphics was unrivaled during that time. Liberty City was also more detailed than previous versions and had many places based on known landmarks.

Three Different Protagonists! GTA V

The Grand Theft Auto franchise has consistently been able to raise the bar in terms of what a video game can be, and in GTA V, they went to town and held nothing back. The innovation in this iteration was being able to play multiple protagonists simultaneously.

tn.com

Previously, the player could only control a single character. There was more fun this time because there were three! This meant there was three times the carnage, which could only be a good thing. It was a true game-changer, and the fans went wild.

Train Mission, San Andreas

The series has given players almost countless iconic missions. Still, perhaps one of the greatest and most memorable is the train mission that sees CJ pursuing a train on a motorcycle. It was legendary, proved fiendish to many, and is even listed as one of the hardest missions in the game.

ign.com

The mission is challenging and requires a lot of patience and finesse to complete. It’s a real controller-thrower and came to take on an almost mythical role in the canon of GTA episodes. It is very satisfying to complete for players, though.

Final Decision, GTA IV

After hours of thrilling gameplay, it all comes down to a choice. The player must decide whether to strike a deal or take revenge, and this choice is reflected in how the game finishes and, ultimately, the fate of the characters.

GTA Series Videos/YouTube

The great thing about GTA games is that the stories are so immersive that you grow to care about the characters you meet. The fact that their fate is in your hands at the very end injects some emotional heft into the game’s finale.

Skydiving, GTA V

Because the graphics of this installment were so advanced and detailed, the views from a high-up vantage point were simply stunning. GTA V allowed the player to experience the thrill of skydiving, and it didn’t disappoint. People couldn’t get enough of it.

ign.com

The exhilarating jump was a real heart-in-the-mouth moment in a game that wasn’t short of adrenaline-fueled action. It’s a truly iconic episode in the franchise that lives on in the hearts of all GTA fans. Ask anyone what was memorable, and they’ll tell you it was this.

Trevor! GTA V

He’s one of the franchise’s most beloved (and psychopathic characters), and from his very first introduction during the early stages of GTA V, it was obvious that he would become a firm fan favorite. He’s not what people imagine when protagonists are discussed, but everyone loves this short-tempered lunatic.

sportskeeda.com

At the time of its release, the triumvirate of protagonists was revolutionary. It worked so well because of the distinct personalities of these playable characters. They each brought something new to the table, and Trevor was just a fun guy. 

RC Helicopter, Vice City

The radio-controlled helicopter missions have always been notorious for their fiendish difficulty levels. They required a steady hand and nerves of steel to navigate your way through the levels successfully. Vice City set the bar for these.

Game Destroyer/YouTube

In the mission ‘Demolition Man,’ the player had to control an RC helicopter and navigate it around an intricate building site. It is one of the hardest missions in the whole franchise, but the sense of achievement upon completion was huge.

Jetpack, San Andreas

When you thought the game couldn’t get any wilder, they threw a jetpack into the mix, and things went wild. The surprise was rivaled only by the sheer enjoyment of flying around while strapped to this high-tech contraption. It was a good bonus and could be used to access some locations easily.

@missfbe/X

The team behind the games is well known for their creativity and ingenuity; both talents were on display with this surprising development. It brought many smiles to the faces of gamers, and was a truly iconic reveal that had people craving for more.

GTA Goes Online

For years, the GTA games had been an experience that could only be enjoyed in a single-player game mode. All that changed in 2013 when the entire diegetic world made the big, brave leap into online gaming, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Techradar.com

Players could now experience the thrill of interacting with other real-life players as they explored the vast sandbox of GTA V. It was a massive moment in the franchise and the whole gaming community. Again, GTA accomplished what other games could only dream of.

Liberty City Bank Heist, GTA IV

All the GTA games draw heavily from movies and pop culture. The games are known for their magpie-like appropriation of the tropes and conventions of genre films. Perhaps one of the best examples is the GTA IV bank heist, which brought to mind numerous films.

el.gta5-mods.com

Taking its cues from gangster and heist movies, the episode catapulted the player into their own crime blockbuster. The visceral cinematic experience was a shot of adrenaline that left the player on the edge of their seat. It’s like being in your very own Hollywood action movie.

Michael’s Death, GTA V

This was a real punch in the gut for players and proved that nobody was safe in the world of Grand Theft Auto. Gamers had spent hours with these characters at this point, and to lose one of them was heart-wrenching. It was akin to losing a beloved family member.

eurogamer.ent

The fact that Rockstar was prepared to off one of the main characters in such a dramatic way was a real twist in the narrative, and one that was once experienced was not easily forgotten. As storylines go, this one was tough to take.

Rampages!

It’s easy to forget that the GTA series began life as a top-down drive-and-shoot game. One of the most well-known features in these early versions was the ‘rampages.’ During these sporadic missions, destruction and mayhem were the aim. It was comparable to the Purge movies.

www.redbubble.com

The player had to go on these destructive rampages and achieve a predefined set of objectives within a specific time limit. They were wild, crazy, and fun, so much so that they were brought back in the later games because players couldn’t get enough.

Motorbikes on Trains, San Andreas

By San Andreas, gamers knew what to expect from the gaming experience: freedom to go wherever and do whatever you want. One of the most iconic and fun things you could do was find a motorbike and ride wherever the wind takes you.

libertycity.ru

You were encouraged to make the most out of the game environment, and one of the coolest things you could do was ride your bike along the roof of a train. This was exhilarating and often led to some crazy jumps and crashes.

The Yacht Mission, Vice City

Vice City was renowned for its neon-soaked sense of decadence and excess. Set in a fictionalized version of Miami in the 1980s, the aesthetic was an in-your-face luxury, and of course, because of Miami’s reputation, it has to include yachts and yacht-based missions.

gta.fandom.com

Boat chases are quite an unusual mode of pursuit, but nothing is off the table in terms of GTA. At the time, the water effects in the game were pretty groundbreaking, and the sense of spectacle was awesome. Ask any gamer, and they will tell you the same thing.

Alien Encounter, San Andreas

The beauty of the GTA games lay partly within their assimilation of pop culture into the game world. Area 51 and its hidden secrets is one facet of popular culture that was included and twisted into the San Andreas narrative.

Stone Rocker Gaming/YouTube

The fact that the game is wild enough and confident enough to pivot from a straight-up crime genre into something entirely different is the mark of something completely at ease with its expansive and sprawling nature. Not many games would be as daring to take on the aliens and Area 51.

Ghost Town, GTA III

Part of the joy of these games is the open-world structure that rewards exploration and adventure with discovery and hidden content. The ghost town in GTA III is a perfect example of this feature at its best, and nobody can forget that.

Katzenwagen TV/YouTube

It takes a bit of discovering, but the sense of reward inherent in finding a hidden part of the map was a guaranteed dopamine hit to gamers and has taken on a legendary status in GTA lore. Suffice it to say that gamers were more than entertained trying to find easter eggs.

Casino Heist, GTA Online

Once the game had made the jump to the online world, the cinematic potential of bank heists and other nefarious activities got turned up a notch. The casino heist in GTA Online was a jaw-dropping spectacle. Players had to break into a highly-secured vault and pull off a daring robbery.

kotaku.com

Communicating and interacting with other real-life characters in the game added a whole new layer to the game’s permutations never seen before. Pretty much anything could happen, and the feeling of genuine jeopardy remains strong today—a groundbreaking moment in the series.

Riot! San Andreas

When San Andreas was released in 2004, the gaming community was overwhelmed with the scale and spectacle that it depicted. Perhaps one of the most vivid evocations was in the riot mission, where chaos reigned supreme, and the population was unhinged.

gta.fandom.com

It was a thrillingly immersive mission, and the player got a real feeling of a city sliding into the unhinged chaos of a full-blown riot. It was a crazy sight to see the residents of Los Santos losing their collective minds and the police trying to calm things down.

Statue of Happiness, GTA IV

The GTA franchise is as famous for its cultural parody and satire as it is for its wild and crazy missions. One of the most blatant examples of this is the unveiling of the Statue of Happiness in GTA IV. Yes, even the famed symbol of American freedom wasn’t spared.

tconn101/Reddit

Riffing on the iconic Statue of Liberty, the Statue of Happiness is a brilliant demonstration that anything was fair game to be lampooned by the series. It’s a funny and cheeky nod to the real world we love. The status can also be found in The Ballad of Gay Tony, The Lost and the Damned, and Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars.

A Whole World of Possibility

Games had been big before, but the GTA series brought a sense of scale unlike before. The impressive scale of the game world had been hinted at in previous versions, but in San Andreas, it came to the fore. San Andreas featured three vast and completely separate cities to explore.

tecmundo.com.br

Las Venturas, San Fierro, and Los Santos had unique features modeled on the real cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. The freedom the player had to explore the map and move around was groundbreaking. There were also many real-life elements, and the plot was based on real events.

Radio Stations!

One of the most iconic features in a game series that is full to the brim with iconic features is the ability to tune into different radio stations every time you get into a car. You can always be sure to find the perfect track to go along with whatever you’re doing, game-wise.

Mr_Morrison13981/Reddit

Whether you were involved in a hair-raising pursuit with the police, having a drag race along the strip or simply cruising the freeways, you could be sure there’ll be a great soundtrack. But what we loved most was the talk radio. It was hilarious!

Dress for Success

From the iconic white suits and Hawaiian shirts of Vice City to the myriad haircuts available to the protagonist in San Andreas, the look of the main character has been an integral part of GTA’s fun and playability. Without the feature, the game wouldn’t be the same.

hdimagelib.com

Being able to personalize and style your character as much as you like has provided hours of sartorial fun for players throughout the series and has become an integral part of the game’s lasting appeal. You had the freedom to make your character as stylish as you wanted.

Unlocking the Bridge, Vice City

One of the biggest thrills and the collect things for players during the Vice City era was getting to the stage of the game where the previously closed bridge opens up and a whole new part of the game map becomes accessible.

Gta5-mods.com

By this point players had already had plenty of the city to explore and turn into chaos, but when that bridge unlocks, the thrill of discovering a whole new host of locations and activities was definitely a watershed moment in the game.

Ray Liotta Voicing Tommy, Vice City

Vice City marks the moment where the franchise shifted in cultural significance and became more like a movie than a video game. A mark of this jump came from the vocal talent that the team hired to make GTA even more realistic.

Kamikatsu/gta.fandom.com and gdcgraphics/CC BY-SA 2.0/ Wikimedia Commons

Legendary actor Ray Liotta came onboard as the voice of the main character, Tommy Vercetti, and his gravelly tones gave the character a personality that still reverberates with gamers even to this day. It was a shift in approach that changed the whole video game world.

Phil Collins!, Vice City

Much-loved soft rocker Phil Collins became the first celebrity to appear in the GTA games as himself. It was a mark of how video games were expanding their horizons into all facets of popular culture. This trend would only grow bigger over the years.

dengekionline.com

Phil Collins’ appearance in Vice City set a precedent for celebrities to appear in the games as themselves. He was followed by Frankie Boyle and Ricky Gervais, who appeared in later games. Such a feat gave birth to a cultural juggernaut.

You are What You Eat, San Andreas

San Andreas was notable for many reasons, but one of the coolest features was that the more your character ate, the bigger he became. Yup, the characters were more like real humans. This increase in body mass would slow CJ down and affect his health.

Relentless Rogues/YouTube

It would also affect the way that other characters interacted with him during the game. Of course, it was a two-way street, and a few sessions pumping iron down the gym would soon get you back in shape, just like a real person would.

BMX, San Andreas

As the first mode of transport that the player has an opportunity to use, the humble BMX bike is closely associated with the freedom and fun that was to be found within the massive and delightful world of GTA San Andreas. 

gta.wikia.com

They are great fun to ride, and players soon found that they could pull off all sorts of cool tricks; bunny hops, wheelies, and endos were all busted out. But players had to be aware that they were pretty easy to fall off in.

A Living Breathing City, GTA V

Non-playable characters have been an integral part of the GTA universe since its very inception and frequently became unwitting participants in the various events and misdeeds that went on in the game environment. In GTA V, these NPCs hit another level entirely.

Casanova Games/YouTube

Each character would go about their daily routine. They would have their motivations and react in differing and unique ways to any provocation coming their way. It added to the sense of being in a real city and made the game more lifelike.

Underwater hatch, GTA V

The GTA series likes to reward the curious player through the discovery of hidden ‘easter eggs.’ One of the most notable of these surprising discoveries is the mysterious underwater hatch in Grand Theft Auto V. If you get close enough, you can hear Morse code.

gta-myths.wikia.com

Although you can’t interact with the hatch at the moment, the frequency and depth of the patch updates that Rock Star continues to release for the game, even ten years later, makes it likely that there will be something to discover there at some point. This is something players can look forward to.

Rock Band Limo Mission, Vice City

It’s one of those irritating missions with many people throwing their controllers in a rage. Tommy has to drive a limo for a rock group, the catch being if you fall below a certain speed, the limo explodes. Sound familiar? Does a certain movie come to mind?

gta.fandom.com

It’s a concept that first entered popular culture in the film ‘Speed’ and GTA appropriated it for Vice City. The series has a long history of taking familiar setups from popular movies and inserting them into the game world. This adds to the sense of cinematic spectacle.

‘I’m Walking Here!’ GTA IV

Another magpie-like steal from the movies is Nico’s delivery of the famous ‘I’m walking here’ line from the seventies classic Midnight Cowboy. It’s one of those lines that is instantly recognizable to movie fans, many of whom are also GTA aficionados.

www.gta4.net

This ability to incorporate tropes and quotes and, in some cases, whole scenes and transpose them into the game world gives the player a real sense of being in a movie, where they are the star embarking on exciting adventures.

Racing, Series-wide

The chance to raise cars, motorbikes, and even boats and planes has long since been a staple part of the GTA series. The fact that as the franchise has developed side games have become almost standalone in terms of quality is amazing.

eurogamer.net

The races can be thrilling and are almost as much fun as playing through the main game narrative missions. Online, the community of petrolheads and race fans have developed their own culture and community. It’s a living, breathing part of the game world.

Armored Truck Robbery

The film Heat is the inspiration behind this brilliant and iconic mission. The three protagonists all team up for this one, and the heist is almost a shot-for-shot recreation of Michael Mann’s famous opening heist scene. It’s thrilling stuff which appeals to many.

NeedForMadnessAuto/Reddit

Movies such as Heat provide the perfect aesthetic for GTA to steal and build into the structure of the games. Heists are exciting and visceral activities demanding players to hold their nerves to finish it. The feeling of exhilaration is unique.

Friend Request, GTA V

This is a straightforward mission compared to some of the other players encounter. But what we like about this one is its satirical elements. Michael is tasked with infiltrating a social media company as payment for his debt of over $2 million.

thegtabase.com

GTA has always had a taste for high-powered arch-satire. But this skewering of the internet age is one of its most cutting. From the cargo short-wearing tech-bros who work at ‘Lifeinvader’ to the garish color scheme, this mission nails the lot.

Saint Mark’s Bistro

Saint Mark’s is one of the most iconic locations in the GTA series. It is one of the main mission hubs in the groundbreaking GTA III game, and some years later, in the epic San Andreas, you take a trip back there.

gta.fandom.com

For fans who had played the series from the start, it’s a welcome shot of nostalgia. Seeing the old familiar location rendered in what was considered state-of-the-art graphics at the time is an experience that is not easily forgotten. It brought back a lot of memories.

Vehicles!, Series Wide

One of the joys of GTA that never gets old is the sheer range of vehicles that the players can drive, fly, ride, or pilot around the game world. Each car handles differently and feels unique. It’s like being in dreamland.

vg247.com

It’s crazy how different the cars feel, and add an extra level of depth and nuance to the game. It’s a mark of the detail that the game makers have put into each aspect of the world to make it feel as close to a (twisted) take on real life as possible.

Vespucci Beach, GTA V

In the world of Grand Theft Auto, iconic real-world locations are transposed onto the game map and given the full satirical treatment. One of the most recognizable of these locations is Vespucci Beach in Los Santos, always crowded and vibrant.

rockstargames.com

It is instantly identifiable as Venice Beach, the ultra-hip beachside community between Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean. The landmarks are obvious, as is the social crowd of hipsters, rollerblades, and everyone else! Visit at sunset for a stunning view of the ocean.

Vinewood, GTA V

Rockstars’ none-too-subtle homage to the glitz and glamor of Hollywood can be found in the Los Santos neighborhood of Vinewood. It comes complete with a version of the famous landmark Hollywood sign. Seeing the ‘Vinewood’ sign on the hillside is a real’ wow’ moment.  

js.gamecowboys.nl

The game version even features its Walk of Fame! Part of the joy of GTA is the opportunity to explore places and locations we are all familiar with from real life. Players can lose hours just roaming around the map as if they were roaming real-life locations,

Yeti! GTA V

The depth of the GTA games makes it possible to encounter a yeti when out in the wild landscapes that lay beyond the city and town areas. But in the wilderness, the player can encounter all sorts of terrifying beasts, even mythical ones.

destructoid.com

But the Yeti rules the desolate landscapes of the wilderness. He is a notoriously difficult creature to find, but it is possible to track him with a little luck and perseverance. Be warned, though, he’s not very keen on making friends.

Stunts!, Series Wide

One of the coolest things about the Grand Theft Auto series is the ability to launch completely crazy stunts that defy belief and gravity! The maps are designed to reward exploration, and players will find all manner of cool things. 

achievementhunter.com

The limit to these crazy tricks and jumps lies with the player’s imagination. Such is the range of vehicles, potential ramps, and objects around the map that unique stunts can always be found. Players love to share these online and one-up each other.

Cast of Characters, Series Wide

The past two decades have seen video games becoming ever more cinematic in the experience that they offer. The storylines have deepened, the worlds have become more open, and the cast of supporting characters has expanded into something more like a movie.

george123890yang/Reddit

This wide range of characters enhances the feeling of the player existing in an interactive movie. They help to set up storylines through missions and interactions, and they add a depth of feeling to the whole gameplay experience, making it more unique and unforgettable.

The Trailer!, GTA VI

After ten years, we now have a first glimpse at what the future of the Grand Theft Auto series has in store for us. The GTA VI trailer has now dropped! We have been given a tantalizing look at the next installment, and the internet went wild!

MSDK DarkDragon/YouTube

It looks like it will be a bigger, better, louder, and brasher update of the series that we all know and love. There are bound to be surprises and shocks for fans, and the future of Grand Theft Auto looks set to go from strength to strength.