GAMING GREATS: Tomb Raider (1996)

How does Lara Croft’s very first adventure hold up?

Who made it?: Core Design (Developer), Eidos Interactive (Publisher).

Genre: Action-Adventure.

Platform: PlayStation, Sega Saturn, PC.

Format: Optical disc, CD-ROM.

Released: 25 October, 1996.

I have a real history with the impossibly buxom, globe-trotting archaeologist Lara Croft.

Back in 1996, the closest approximation we had to the screen exploits of Indiana Jones on consoles was the whip-cracker’s own inadequate tie-ins. Having always had a fondness for pulp adventures, I was perhaps the target eleven-year-old for Tomb Raider. This relic – which was released on the PlayStation, Sega Saturn and PC – was an important title for a number of reasons. Least of all the fact that the hero wasn’t a macho male, but a curvaceous, ass-kicking rich girl who merrily blows away bats, wolves, bears, and even a T-Rex (yeah, the latter made me shit my pants, too). In a sea of conventional action titles, this puzzle-based lark sought to break the mould with refined story and characterisation. But if it wasn’t for Ms. Croft, would we still be talking about it in 2014?

While the star provides two big reasons for why Tomb Raider has endured, it was obviously a labour of love for Derby-based developers Core Design. The concept was created by Toby Gard and Paul Howard Douglas, and they clearly had a passion for the films of Steven Spielberg and world history. There’s an integrity to Lara’s initial outing that allows me to overlook the now-ancient visuals; the heroine is so blocky that her assets could gauge your eyes out. Yet the dated engine doesn’t bother me on revisits. Tomb Raider has real character and an atmosphere that its cash-in sequels rarely recaptured (except for the technically superior Tomb Raider II). It’s also important to replay it in the era of Uncharted to see how massively influential it is. Playing it now is like stumbling upon Leonardo da Vinci’s missing sketches. And bless it, it just about deserves such a reverential comparison.

Putting Tomb Raider into my Sega Saturn all those years ago was an experience I’ll never forget, especially since I was one of the ten people in existence to actually own a Saturn. Here was a game with fairly extensive cutscenes, which was still a relative novelty in ’96 (the same year that also saw the “amazing” live-action intro in Resident Evil). TR‘s opening is quaint to modern eyes, but it more than set-ups the thin plot with the least amount of fuss (as well as a nuclear explosion that doesn’t make a lick of sense until later). In Calcutta, Croft’s services are employed by Jacqueline Natla, owner of the wealthy Natla Technologies. She wants Lara to recover an ancient piece called the Scion, which involves flying out to the mountains of Peru. Immediately upon entering an ancient tomb, her guide is beset by a batch of wolves, which she takes out in suitably badass fashion. My eleven-year-old jaw hit the floor seeing this:

From there, Lara must navigate endless caverns or “zones,” solve intricate puzzles, find parts of the Scion scattered around the world, thwart an obligatory double-cross, and visit Natla for some payback. Oh, and jump near-impossible gaps repeatedly. Often to her death… over and over again.

Right off the bat, I have to commend Tomb Raider for the 3D environment. It’s not too attractive now but you have to appreciate the skill that went into making it. That year’s Super Mario 64 was more successful in this regard, but that was a proven franchise with a considerable budget. Mario was also set in a fantasy universe. Core tried to make Lara’s world as realistic as possible, and they succeeded within their technological limitations. There are many rooms and obstacles in the early stages of Tomb Raider, but the visual look of the game never becomes recycled, and it looks a helluva lot more crafted than the costlier Tomb Raider III. You really feel like you’re stuck in the Peruvian mountains in the early stages, with craggy rocks, falling snow and chasms appearing suitably formidable. The settings also change as the game wears on, taking Lara to Greece and eventually Egypt, providing different textures and nuances. Core did a great job of spicing things up when the plot demanded it.

While the graphics and character models don’t withstand close scrutiny now, the presentation is still fantastic. Sound is used to full effect, creating an ambiance that works wonders for the more suspenseful moments. The score by Martin Iveson and Nathan McCree is as good as it ever was, too, giving the proceedings a majestic sweep. The cherry on top is the game’s camera, which flies around Lara gracefully and never becomes too problematic (except for the rare, poorly-timed moments when the terrain blocks your field of view). It all looks and sounds as cinematic as games could back then.

Problems arise with a familiar Tomb Raider pet-peeve: the controls. There’s no denying that moving Lara in the original game can be frustrating at first. She leaps around her surroundings with a great deal of flexibility once you get used to the tank-like set-up, but big jumps require god-like patience and total accuracy. You’ll see the poor woman getting impaled on spikes so often, you’d swear there was some intended sub-text. If you don’t like third-person titles where scaling the environment is 97% of the game, then you should really skip this whole franchise. This isn’t to say that the control scheme makes it a chore to play, but it’s definitely an area that was improved on in the follow-ups.

The combat side of things is also rather slight. Aim Lara’s duel pistols, shotgun, Uzi’s or magnums, never take your finger off the firing button, and you’ll take down enemies with ease (including the aforementioned dinosaur). Luckily, those primary pistols never, ever run out of ammunition. More important than action, of course, is the numerous puzzles, which are smartly incorporated and occasionally require deep thought. If you’ve played Uncharted or any derivative of the Tomb Raider series, then you know exactly what you’re getting.

Despite the innovations, enjoyable gameplay and well-realised environs, it is ultimately the star of the show that made Tomb Raider a classic. Ms. Croft remains a great game protagonist, and I’ve never agreed with the critics who thought she promoted sexism. Yes, she has Marvel Comics proportions, but she’s also self-sufficient, resourceful, intelligent, and not to be trifled with. Croft never flaunts her top-heavy figure in a leery manner either; a point of pride parodied in Tomb Raider II‘s infamous coda. Also, I can’t recall her ever having a relationship or romantic attachment in the series. Sex doesn’t appear to be something Lara cares about. What gets her hot is ancient history and collecting bits of old pottery. Tony Robinson would be in there like a shot.

In conclusion, the original Tomb Raider is exactly how I remember it: Alternately taxing, cheesy, and hugely enjoyable. It’s worth a revisit if only to prove how important Core’s hit was to the fabric of modern gaming, and how far the concept has come in the critically-acclaimed reboot. Amazingly, Lara’s first adventure is still a satisfying quest that is only bested by the current-gen exploits of Nathan Drake.

It belongs in a museum.

Useless Trivia

(Via Wikipedia)
  • Core Design made the game in eighteen months from a team of only six people.
  • Lara Croft was originally born under the name “Laura Cruz.”
  • In the PlayStation and Sega Saturn versions of Tomb Raider, saving the game is restricted to fixed save points within each level, marked by a floating blue crystal or by completing the level. When Lara touches one of these the option to save is made available. The scarcity of these points, however, means that if the player dies, large portions of each level must be replayed. Following criticism on this system, Core implemented a save anywhere at any time feature in Tomb Raider II. The DOS and Mac versions of the game allow the player to save at any time. A stage is finished when a certain doorway is reached, an artefact is recovered, or a boss is destroyed.
  • In 1998, shortly after the release of Tomb Raider IITomb Raider was re-released for Windows and released for the first time for Macintosh. This release, titled Tomb Raider Gold – The Shadow Of The Cat in North America, and Tomb Raider: Unfinished Business elsewhere, featured the regular game as well as two new expert chapters (Return to Egypt and Temple of the Cat) in four levels, two levels each.
  • An upgraded remake, Tomb Raider: Anniversary, was released in 2007.
  • The first glints of the game were seen on Sega Saturn development kits. However, ultimately, it would be the PlayStation rendition that would be known best. While the series would see four more instalments on the original PlayStation alone, no additional Tomb Raider games were ever released for the Saturn following the original due to an exclusivity deal with Sony.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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