How A Pixar Lawsuit Over Unicycles Led To Grand Theft Auto

I got into gaming through hand me downs, as I’m sure a lot of you did. I say the PS1 was my first console because it was the first one that was bought for me, that felt truly mine, but the whole reason I wanted a PlayStation was because my uncle left his old SNES at my grandma's house. There weren't a lot of games, but I didn’t have a lot of sense back then, and playing the same few levels of the same few games was all I needed. I went to my grandma's a few times a week, and I'd while away time on FIFA International Soccer (the first ever FIFA, and basically FIFA 94), Super Mario World, and Donkey Kong Country. My uncle only had four games, and these were the three I would play over and over. However, what I want to talk about today is the fourth game: Unirally, or for those of you across the pond, Uniracers.

That I played Unirally the least should not be held against it. Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario World are two of the SNES' most beloved games – the latter of which is one of the most esteemed games of any era – while I have played every FIFA since. Unirally was fine, but my memory of it was unremarkable. I scarcely remembered it at all until a few years ago when my grandma was going to throw it away and I took it off her hands. Memories poured into me as I looked at the other three cartridges, soaking into my skin, swelling my body with nostalgia, but Unirally drew a blank. After a quick game of FIFA 94 to remind myself how far we have come, I jumped back in and my memory was jogged.

The reason I didn't remember it much was because it was just fine, nothing more. Super Mario World was my first taste of video games, and that benchmark may be responsible for my career today. Blame it on Mario, I guess. If I’d only had Unirally at my disposal, maybe I'd be an accountant right now. It was fine, but also very weird. In the game, you played as a unicycle – no rider, so a sentient unicycle – and raced along a 2D track while tricks and stunts gave you boosts. The colour of the track indicated what ramp or turn or hazard was up next, and that's about it. Like I said, it was fine.

Until very recently, I thought no more about Unirally. However, a recent conversation about the strangest games the team here played as kids has led to some startling discoveries. I didn't even mention Unirally at first, so unimportant is it to my childhood self, but instead Kula World, where you solve puzzles as a sentient beach ball. Sentient items were all the rage in the '90s, it seems. This led me to this rabbit hole I invite you to follow me down.

First of all, I looked up who made Unirally. I hoped they had not gone out of business in all these years, despite not remembering the game enough to hold much affection. Maybe they had been absorbed by Nintendo, or merged with another company to still be alive and kicking in a supporting role on a series like Test Drive. Neither of those things happened. In fact, Unirally was made by DMA Design, who went on to become Rockstar Games. Yeah, that Rockstar Games. Which probably isn't a surprise if you've read the headline, but it was a major shock to me. I still think it's a little odd that Crash Bandicoot was made by the same studio as The Last of Us, or that Marvel's Spider-Man sprung from the same well as Spyro the Dragon, and those games are good. That the crappy little unicycle game I barely remembered from childhood was made by arguably the most revered developer on the planet spun me for a loop-de-loop with one wheel.

It's not just any game by DMA Design either. Unirally was the last game the studio made before Grand Theft Auto. If we think of Rockstar's history as being split into a before and after moment, Unirally was the end of the before. Though no one knew it at the time, and few have considered it since, Unirally is a part of triple-A gaming history.

You might be wondering then why you haven't heard of it. You have heard of some of DMA's other games, like Lemmings. Grand Theft Auto did not come out of nowhere, but from a seasoned team who built a firm foundation that sequels could build on successfully. The problem is Pixar, which again, is less of a surprise after reading the headline. Pixar has its own GTA in Toy Story, which formed a clear before and after for the studio and, much as GTA eventually would too, the medium itself. But Pixar has a Lemmings and Unirally of its own. Toy Story was not the first rodeo.

Pixar's Lemmings was Luxo Jr., a short film about the now famous Pixar lamp and the blue and yellow ball with a red star we often see in Pixar movies. Its Unirally was Red's Dream, and it may have altered gaming history forever. Red's Dream featured a computer animated unicycle which looked similar to the one in Unirally, mainly because there's not very many ways you can make a computer animated unicycle look different to another computer animated unicycle, especially with the computers of the mid-'90s. Pixar sued and, somewhat bafflingly, won. DMA was ordered to cease production of Unirally and only the original run was ever sold. I looked, copies still aren't worth much, don't worry.

This may have been what prompted the back to the drawing board approach. DMA had a three year break between Unirally and GTA, having released nine games in the three years prior. It may be that this case, and the simplicity of DMA's art style that invited it, led to a change in direction. Grand Theft Auto might exist because Pixar thinks it owns the rights to unicycles.

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