Tomb Raider Retrospective

Gaming Icons: they’re everywhere these days. Whether it be the cybernetic sleekness of Raiden (post MGS4), the muscle-bound brashness of Marcus Phoenix, or the reflective visor-ness (that’s definitely not a word) of Master Chief. Since Mario’s inception way back when, as the vertically-inclined ‘Jump Man’, the industry has been littered with heroic figures, cheap knock-offs and archetypical champions. But what’s the common denominator with my three examples? They’re all male. Granted these days we’ve got a fair few lady warriors to choose from in terms of our gaming heroines; the KOTOR-bound exploits of Bastilla, the Metroid-shattering adventuring of Samus Aran. Yes, if you’re sitting at home on a Friday night (it’s an occurrence that’s far too regular) control pad in hand and in the mood to ditch the Y chromosome, then a suitable piece of software is never too far away. But if I were to say ‘name the most famous female in all of gaming’, then it’s likely, extremely likely, that we’ll all come to the same bra-busting answer. And that’s for a reason. It’s not to do with the amount of polygons being thrown around onscreen or how many players can be accommodated in a single multiplayer session. It’s to do with straight up classic and classy gameplay.

I love this next bit; asking you wonderful readers to cast your minds back to a specific era is the highlight of my articles. It’s the very definition of nostalgia (and a request that elicits a different reference point from all of us). Try this one on for size: 1996. It’s a bloody long time ago I know, but it’s a year that heralded a number of cultural significances. If you’re English your memory may skip immediately to Euro ’96 (arguably our nation’s best run in a cup competition following 1966) or maybe to the Spice Girls (arguably our nation’s worst contribution to music following 1966-you see what I did there?). But whatever the sociology of the time the ‘90s were a joyous few years for the console market. If you were a child of the ‘80s like myself then you would have been fortunate enough to experience the early part of the decade; the tug-if-war between Nintendo and Sega (brand loyalty was far more prominent back then) and then the industry-defining, expansive move to the third dimension. It’s this period that I want to zone in on; that time between the 16-bit and the 32-bit generations where gaming and pop culture seemed to intertwine indefinitely. Let me first pay homage to the retro-lovers amongst you; the Megadrive/Genesis was cool…way cool. Streets of Rage, Altered Beast, Jungle Strike, Phantasy Star, Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic 2, Sonic 3…(you see where I’m going), Sonic and Knuckles (how awesome was that dual-cartridge thing where you could play as knuckles in nearly all the other games?!). Developers seemed to crack the hardware they were working with, creating software that was imaginative, vibrant and fun all at the same time. If you were a kid aged between six and eleven (preferably with a bunch of friends from primary school who you hung out with religiously) then your extracurricular time was spent in only one place; three feet away from the living room television. But I suppose just by stating that I’ve inadvertently poked a hold in my recollection; gaming was decidedly childish. Kiddy-ish. Not adult (I’m really struggling to remember a Megadrive title that had an ‘18’ certificate on its front cover-please post a comment below if you can). I don’t think it was the intention for the business to be viewed solely in adolescent terms, just that the hardware wasn’t capable of allowing for anything on top of the colourful visuals/content. (There were a few titles though; a Doom-inspired FPS called Zero Tolerance and…well…Doom on the SNES.) As we’re all aware though things change and change they did both generationally and in terms of demographic, and it’s all thanks to one machine (two if you include Saturn- it’s ok if you don’t); the Sony Playstation.

It was phenomenal. The Playstation was a triumph of great advertising backed up by a solid gaming library, and launching within a week of the Saturn, Sega’s black box-of-a machine didn’t stand a chance. I implored people to embrace that big blue sphere bounded by the cool silver ‘S’ logo…nobody did. Say the word ‘Saturn’ to the common man in the street and he’ll reply ‘What…the planet?’ or ‘Mate…please…go sit down in the corner and drink your WKD quietly.’ Say the word ‘Playstation’ and he’ll shout things like ‘Yes!’ or ‘Metal Gear Solid’ or ‘Crash Bandicoot and Die Hard Trilogy!’ There were a plethora of killer apps and they all seemed be released at will, one after the other. Of course, there was a slight hole in the lineup. Sure, Sony fan-boy had the aforementioned ‘Bandicoot games to keep their platforming cravings satisfied, but he wasn’t as sophisticated as his Nintendo equivalent. Crash was effervescent and entertaining but he wasn’t king of the hill. His games lacked the grace of Mario’s and he couldn’t hold a candle to the rollercoaster speed of Sonic’s. No, Sony needed to look elsewhere for their genre-definer. They needed innovation. They needed a woman’s touch.

And for that we need to go back to the Saturn. Although floundering in the proverbial mire, Sega had something special lurking behind closed doors; a new action title created by English developer Core Design and a game that looked to give you all the exploits of the Indiana Jones films tied with everything you loved about platforming. This game was Tomb Raider.

It’s important that I mention the Lucas/Spielberg collaboration as Tomb Raider started out life very much in the Indiana’ mold. The character of Lara Croft was originally conceived as male, her John Woo-style dual-wielding substituted for a whip and top hat. But the folks at Core’ foresaw the inevitable comparisons and Lead Artist Toby Gard (he seems like such a modest, genuine guy every time you hear him speak) decided to change the status quo, and before too long Lara was born.

From then on the only way was up (not Essex). The first Tomb Raider title was released to universal acclaim-it was insane. The way that people today go crazy for Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty and Battlefield, that’s was it was like but all for one game. And it wasn’t after months of ad campaigns or feverish viral marketing and Twitter feeds. Remember this is ’96; the Internet is barely being acknowledged at this point. Lara seemed to hit the ground running…and then just keep on going and going. Like Rocky before it people still say the first one is the best and it’s a sentiment that’s completely true. You had an opening gambit between Lara and (eventual) bad girl Natla that hinted at the tale that was about to be told, and then a drastic bit of FMV with your guide (some generic guy from anywhere in the world-the equivalent of someone wearing a red shirt on an away mission in Star Trek) being ravaged by hungry wolves (I’m tempted to use a Duran Duran reference here). From the moment you picked up the control pad you knew this was something different. Lara controlled effortlessly, and she looked even better. Muddy and ugly by today’s standards the Saturn was being pushed to its limit at the time, the smooth camera motions and clever use of sound making for a captivating experience. And then you had the set pieces; the first time you saw a raptor, the final half-torso boss and of course, the legendary encounter with the T-Rex. I think that sequence stays with everyone the most not just because of the shock value but because of the sound. Tomb Raider had an economic use of such effects – there wasn’t a blistering Hollywood score that accompanied the action every few minutes, things were fairly subdued and this actually worked in the game’s favour. It created a tension, an unsettling atmosphere that was closer to Resident Evil than it was to Zelda. And so when you stumbled into the open terrain of the Lost Valley and heard the pumping music kick in…my word (underwear immediately needed to be changed). That was kind of the title’s signature; varied locations, intricate puzzles that took days to solve without using a strategy guide and then the reward of shooting the hell out of whatever creature thought it could mess with your acrobatic gunplay. (I’m just thinking – there were so many animals in that game! Like, gorillas and cougars that were just hanging around in abandoned crypts and coliseums…HOW?!)

As Tomb Raider II started to see the light of day it was clear Core’ had made use of their time perfecting the formula seen in the first game, but this time with more. More guns, more firefights, more everything. Sprinkle a handful of vehicles and a brilliant opening level set at the Great Wall of China into the mix and you had a sequel that played every bit as good the hype had suggested (also Lara’s hair was longer and her breasts bigger – always good).

This unfortunately is the part where the story starts to decline. Tomb Raider III wasn’t all that – an above average retelling of its forerunners at best. The Last Revelation was even worse, trying to kill off our voluptuous vixen in a wholly anticlimactic ending, and then…Chronicles. No…just…no. The story goes that the development team had started to fall out of love with the series and strict yearly release dates being enforced by publisher Eidos meant their hearts and souls weren’t really in it. I totally get that but, if you had an IP that was making that much money and you were getting the recognition you deserved for it, wouldn’t you put absolutely everything you had into it? It’s not for me to judge but you get my point.

And so we come to 2005 (I’m deliberately skipping over Angel of Darkness because, as anyone who purchased it will tell you it was an abomination – even more of an abomination than Tim Roth’s character in The Incredible Hulk). The Xbox 360 was released that November (followed by the PS3 a year later) and a new breed of visually stunning games were hitting the shelves. Accompanying this was the news of a new Tomb Raider game and that responsibility for Lara’s comeback was handed to the plucky team at Crystal Dynamics. I wasn’t sold. ‘When does ditching the people responsible for the original ever work?’ I thought. I thought wrong.

In recent times Tomb Raider has seen a remarkable resurgence. Legend was great, Underworld was even better and Anniversary…Anniversary might just be the best game I played in 2010 after finally peeling back the cellophane and opening the case. Crystal Dynamics made it work, reinventing our heroine and making logical decisions every step of the way. Bringing back Toby Gard (he left before TR II as he thought Lara was being pulled away from his original concept), updating her movements and throwing in some quick-time events for good measure; it was the next-gen Tomb Raider we’d all hoped for and we had three sumptuous helpings of it over seven years.

The games of course are not without criticism, we all know that. Legend hasn’t aged that well graphically, the shooting mechanics are still the series weakest element and you still have some guy chatting in your ear the whole way through for no apparent reason (?!). But these are minor gripes. Lara Croft was never about combat; she was about freedom. The ability to climb up an impossible rock face, somersault over a lunging panther and then dive down a flowing waterfall all the while humming the beautifully scored theme tune that makes turning the game on, never a dull experience. Tomb Raider and its leading lady are chic. They are relevant. They are iconic.


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