Tomb Raider (1996) – 20th Anniversary Review

For the past 20 years, the name Lara Croft has become a household name and appeared in many different forms, from movies to Halloween costumes and of course, video games. But where did it all begin? To celebrate the 20th anniverary, I talk a little bit about the 1996 game Tomb Raider.

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Intro

As a kid, I grew up with Nintendo consoles but even I was aware of the notable icon Lara Croft. Next to Spyro and Crash Bandicoot, she appeared to be another big mascot for the Playstation (even though the Tomb Raider games appeared on other platforms.)

If she had a new game coming out or any news about her was buzzing about, she’d almost always feature on the cover of a magazine, in all her polygon glory.

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“Poly-glory,” perhaps?

And is it really that big of a surprise? At the time, video games never really had a huge female icon. Of course, Samus Aran from the Metroid series was well established by this point. But given that she was hardly outside her power suit, it was hard at a glance for newcomers to grasp she was a woman. Hell, when I first saw her in Super Smash Bros., I had to be told she was a woman.
But Lara Croft from the get-go, with her dual-pistols, slender body and…”big personality” could be seen as a badass woman. Not only that but a sexy badass woman.

Aside from the character being a breakout hit, the game was also widely praised for it’s innovations: 3D graphics and environments, engaging storyline and cinematic qualities. Fun fact: In 2015, while I was taking a film history class, a small mention was made in regards to the Tomb Raider game for its use of cinematic techniques in a video game. It blew my mind at the time that we were watching gameplay of Tomb Raider in my class.

For the longest time, I believed that Ocarina of Time brought much of the innovations to 3D adventure games. But after playing Tomb Raider, I can see now there’s a lot of credit that must go to the infamous Lady Croft.


Personal History

Despite seeing her in magazines, advertisements or movie trailers, I never actually knew how the Tomb Raider games played. Not one clue. My best guess would be that you’d run around tombs and find items. Duh, right?

It wouldn’t be until 2014 when I actually saw gameplay of the original Tomb Raider games. I only watched it for a bit before thinking to myself, “You know, I never gave the Tomb Raider games much attention. I kinda want to play them now…”
At the time, I was dead broke with no money to buy any new games. I didn’t have any eighth generation consoles nor even seventh. But I did have a PS2. And one day, while browsing the local retro game store, I found Tomb Raider 1&2 together for a total of about $8. I bought it with the little money I had and got home to experience my first leap into the world of Tomb Raider.

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It was also before the time I knew how to take pictures, apparently.

Review

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The original Tomb Raider game is a 3D exploration/adventure game created by Core Design, originally released on the Sega Saturn, DOS but mostly remember on the Playstation. The goal is to reach to the end of each level by solving puzzles, defeating enemies or overcoming any other obsticles in your way. Unlike modern games, many puzzles do not make it obvious how to be solved. You will have to traverse the level yourself to figure out the layout and take note of what goes where and what does something. On occasion, the game will cut to the location of a door opening or other level changes but not always.

Also unlike modern games, Lara herself controls in what’s described now as ‘tank-style’ controls: Pushing ‘Up’ will move her forward but hitting ‘Down’ will make her hop backwards, not turn around and move forward in that direction. Moving left or right will turn her towards those directions but not move her in those directions. Another difference is Lara’s jumping: if you leap towards a ledge, you will not automatically grab it. You must hold a button to have Lara grab a ledge and hold it for the time she is dangling. There are also other buttons to control whether she walks or runs, pulls out guns, rolls forward or other nifty tricks.

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Indiana Jones WISHES he was this flexible.

The controls are definitely part of the game’s learning curve. Many ‘big name’ games nowadays tend to play with similar control styles with minor differences. But back then, controls were not as uniform and usually were ‘tuned’ for each game. That’s not to say ‘differently’ controlled games don’t exist anymore. But they definitely are more sparse than before.

The story is almost perfectly suited for a movie: Lara Croft is approached a man named Larson Conway, who works for a wealthy businesswoman named Jacqueline Natla. Natla wants to hire Croft to find an artifact called the Scion, located in the mountains of Peru. From there, twists and turns occur, making Lara travel to tombs in Greece and Egypt and eventually, the Lost City of Atlantis. Even though nearly all of the game takes place in deep tombs, the levels are masterfully crafted and the story allows for the player to go across a wide variety of areas, featuring different themes, colors and atmospheres. There is a looming ‘black fog’ in large rooms, which is there because of system limitations but it actually benefits the game by creating a very surreal kind of isolation and makes you really feel like you’re in an ancient tomb.

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“Immersion”

Adding to the immersion is the great sounds featured in the game. As a whole, much of what you hear in gameplay is silent ambience filled with cracks, rustling and the occasional animal sounds. But sometimes, the music soundtrack done by Nathan McCree will pop in at the most opprotune moments. Many players have walked into an area, amazed by the size and scope, only to be further treated to musical score that fits the grandeur. The music is also a good representation of the panic you feel when you have animals chasing after you.
The last mention of music must go to the amazing main theme of Tomb Raider. Truly encapsulates the feeling of ‘discovery’ and in my opinion, is up there in the most iconic video game themes.

Conclusion

Speaking as someone with no nostalgia for the game, the original Tomb Raider still holds up today as a great classic. For someone who’s only played the newer entries or for someone who’s interested in getting into the series, I believe they should give the original a fair chance. It’s challenging in terms of playstyle and gameplay but never to the point of feeling impossible. Once you get started, you’ll find yourself wanting to progress in order to see what that next level will be like and what types of challenges await. Some will say the game ‘aged poorly’ but that only means they never had the drive to learn how to play.
Considering you can typically find the game for cheap on Steam, GOG or PSN, you’d be a fool to pass it up especially on a sale. The game is also available on iOS for only a dollar, albeit it will be a bit more challenging with touch screen controls (but still possible to play and beat; I know from experience.)

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This actually isn’t Tomb Raider’s first mobile release. Remember the N-Gage? Guess it really was ahead of its time…

Final Thoughts

There is a whole history behind the Tomb Raider franchise that I’d love to explore but to tell the truth, I’m still playing the games myself. I’ve only beaten the first three games so far but I’m planning to continue giving each entry a try at least.
Despite never playing any Tomb Raider games until a couple years ago, I fell in love with the series all the same. The compulsion and desire to play the game has made me feel like a kid again. Not only is it due to fun nature of the games but the character of Lara Croft herself. She’s more personable than most game characters but still fits in her universe of mythical artifacts and infinite bullets.

It’s almost unfortunate to think that Lara Croft became a big icon due to her sex appeal since there is so much more to her and the games than that. Toby Gard, the creator of Lara Croft, didn’t like that aspect of the marketing and I’m inclined to agree. I don’t think Lara Croft shouldn’t be attractive at all but rather, it should at most be an ‘attribute’ rather than her ‘whole character’. You don’t need to have Batman or Superman show off their buff muscles to appeal to the audience.

20 years later, the Tomb Raider series is still going on and has appeared in various forms of media, ranging from movies to comics to trading cards. And even through the remakes and reboots, the original Core Design version will be the one I think of when I hear the name ‘Lara Croft’. Triangle tits and all.

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Seriously, LOOK AT THESE THINGS.

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