GameSpite Quarterly 8 | Tomb Raider: Lara Croft, Indy Girl

My first encounters with Lara Croft were not happy ones.

She was introduced to me by the very first issue of Next Generation magazine I ever saw. “Who’s that girl?” read the cover line -- a corny reference to be sure, but ultimately inoffensive. No, what irked me was was the tiny blurb of text at the bottom which said of her game, Tomb Raider, “It’s fast, graphically lush, and not available on Mac.” As a staunch advocate of the Way of the Macintosh back in the days when the PC-versus-Mac debate inspired heated arguments rather than being an easy touchstone for lazy idiots who haven’t bothered to pay attention to the past decade’s developments on that particular front, I was deeply annoyed to see this otherwise reputable magazine trumpeting the limitations of my computer of choice right there on its cover. In fact, I was so annoyed that I bought the magazine on the spot just to see if I could pick apart their article. I couldn’t, but I did come away impressed with the idea of Tomb Raider.

Still, I wasn’t entirely sold. I hadn’t owned a non-Nintendo platform since abandoning my desolate Coleco ADAM for an NES a decade prior, and Ms. Croft wasn’t just Mac-agnostic; her game wasn’t available on a Nintendo system, either. My hard-earned pennies were already set aside for a Nintendo 64, and I had no interest in sacrificing that purchase for some Janey-come-lately, even if the press was agog at her game and gaga over the way she wiggled her boxy butt when she walked.

My resolve to disregard Ms. Croft was only further strengthened in our next encounter at the local sleazy PC shop, which I frequented strictly for the fact that it was the only place in the West Texas town where I lived in which a person could buy both anime and import games. At the time, I was a proud new owner of an N64, still slugging my way toward 120 Stars in Super Mario 64 (a goal I admittedly never reached; somewhere around 112 I figured it was time to move on with my life). Mario 64 was the only game I owned for the system, and -- once my excitement for Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire was diluted by a flood of lukewarm reality at a Toys 'R Us demo kiosk -- the only game I found appealing for the next six months. But by god, that was enough to justify owning a system! Howard Lincoln even said so. It was a masterpiece. A work of art. A true expression of creative genius. Mario 64 was the greatest thing ever.

So imagine my horror when the neckbeards behind the shop counter began telling me how superior Tomb Raider was. “This is, in my opinion, a much better game than Mario 64,” opined one. He was the same guy who tended to ignore 95% of his customers in favor of staring at the latest hex-based PC wargame that perpetually commanded his attention while he was presumably on the clock, ensconced at a computer situated suspiciously close to the import porn games section. I had difficulty taking him entirely seriously, given all that, but his less-unsavory coworkers chimed in to pledge their support to this unlikely claim as well.

I scoffed all the way home, where I played more Mario 64 with supreme confidence that I had made the better choice. Even as I was swearing at the baleful camera design in the clock stage, which killed me by switching as I made a near-impossible jump. Yet again.

Still, this incessant praise from so many different quarters -- not only the press, which I still trusted to speak Truth in those days, but also from fellow enthusiasts, creepy as they may be -- took up lodging in a disused corner of my brain and stuck there for half a year, which was almost exactly how long I took to come to the realization that there was little future for a serious fan of RPGs and 2D games on Nintendo 64. I sold my console to a roommate and cashed it in for a PlayStation, playing the odds that I’d find more software to my taste on Sony’s platform than Nintendo’s. And if not, I had ages (a year and a half, as it turns out) to sell off my PlayStation before the next N64 game I cared about, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, arrived. Failing even that, I did pick up a couple of enjoyable games with the system, which at least put it on equal footing with the N64’s library to date.

Tomb Raider wasn’t a part of that inaugural pair; my suspicion of the inordinate praise of others and general nausea at the terrible box art stayed my hand. But soon my brain worm kicked in, coming alive to chew at my synapses and fill me with the hopeless awareness that I was to make a purchase despite my better judgment. And sure enough, a few weeks later, I’d soaked up the brief (yet savory) pleasures of Suikoden and Mega Man 8? and needed a little more reason to justify owning this new console. I scrutinized the shelves at my favorite mom-and-pop gaming shop with care but failed to find anything more compelling or promising than Tomb Raider on the used software racks. I choked back my ambivalence, whipped out my checkbook, and went home with a copy of this supposed masterpiece.

Shockingly, I wasn’t disappointed. Well, OK. I was a little disappointed; all those comparisons to Super Mario 64 had led me to expect a game that played similarly to Nintendo’s blockbuster. That wasn’t the case at all, and I quickly found that movement in Tomb Raider was a methodical and sometimes laborious task. Mario was a game that took pleasure in momentum, actively encouraging players to fling themselves about with reckless abandon by building combos of a sort by jumping: Each leap players took as Mario offered more height and distance than the last, with the third launching him high into the air with an exultant cry of joy.

Tomb Raider, on the other hand, was practically a tile-based game, despite slotting clearly into the action milieu. Lara Croft lacked Mario’s exuberance, to be sure. Her movements were cautious and precise, bordering on clumsy, and jumping was more a tool for climbing and navigation than a pleasure in and of itself. The two games were nothing alike.

In the end, though, Tomb Raider better suited my temperament and tastes than Mario did: It was a very goal-oriented, exploratory style of platformer. The focus of the game wasn’t the physicality of movement or bounding across vast plains filled with clever and inventive obstacles, as Mario 64 was; rather, the experience was driven around navigating much smaller and more self-contained -- more designed -- environments. It was a somewhat more cerebral experience, silly as that may sound. To reach faraway ledges and platformers, Mario forced players to test whether or not they were dextrous enough to navigate to such heights while beset by countless hazards; Lara Croft’s ascent was more about figuring out the puzzle inherent in each environment and properly understanding the structure and architecture of the ruins she explored. Twitch skill rarely came into play, even when angry native animals or rival treasure hunters appeared. Success in Tomb Raider was a matter of carefully observing the lay of the land, determining the utility of nearby walls and pillars, then meticulously planning and executing the leaps necessary to reach them.

For some, this design felt needlessly tedious, especially arriving on the heels of an experience like Mario 64, which turned video gaming’s third dimension into a playground. If Mario 64 was free-spirited recess in the school yard, Tomb Raider felt like gym class: More structured, more limiting, more demanding. Yet it was rewarding in its own way, especially for those who properly understood its ancestry.

See, where Mario 64 obviously descended from its own famous lineage of revolutionary, genre-defining platforms (and absolutely upheld that legacy for the third dimension), Tomb Raider didn’t have quite so impressive a pedigree. Developer Core Design wasn’t really an A-list developer, responsible instead for mediocre, derivative, Sony Imagesoft-calibre platformers like Chuck Rock and Hook. With Tomb Raider, however, Toby Gard, Paul Howard Douglas, and their associates were looking beyond their own studio’s previous output to the creations of others: Namely, classic western-developed platformers like Eric Chahi’s Out of This World and Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia. Ms. Croft moved much like the heroes of those masterpieces -- deliberately, fluid in motion but slow to act, so that each movement needed to be carefully considered in advance for best results -- but with the addition of a third axis. Add in a touch of Indiana Jones’ treasure-spelunking and gun play, and you have Tomb Raider.

That Core pulled it off so successfully was no small feat. Delphinus had already attempted (and failed) to extend the Out of This World/Flashback series (such as it was) into 3D with the well-intentioned-but-dreadful-in-execution Fade to Black, which beat Tomb Raider to PlayStation by several months but failed to make a blip with its clunky, hostile play. Prince of Persia and Indiana Jones would each make their own respective attempts to enter the third dimension several years later, and both would fail miserably as well. As such, Tomb Raider managed to leapfrog beyond its inspirations, and its impact on 3D platforming was very nearly as great as Mario 64’s.

Fifteen years later, in fact, one could probably argue that Tomb Raider resonates more than Mario does. Mario 64 is easily the superior work -- more ambitious, more inventive, more refined, more fun -- but the cartoon platformer genre has largely faded from the public consciousness. Even Mario’s own extraordinary follow-ups sell a fraction of games that descend from Tomb Raider: Compare the relative popularity of Super Mario Galaxy 2 to Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Assassin’s Creed is notable for being the first franchise to effectively distill the essence of Tomb Raider into an open-world design, and the next Tomb Raider looks to draw heavily from its example -- another curious example of the perpetual game of one-upmanship Lara Croft is constantly embroiled in.

Tomb Raider is an extremely linear game, falling into a traditional sense of stage-by-stage progress that seemed almost quaint next to Mario 64’s hub-based design. Yet the game’s levels were only such due to the arbitrary placement of chapter breaks; each and every stage flowed one into the next. Tomb Raider’s was a seamless world, seemingly divided into stages strictly to give players a moment to gather themselves (and to allow for the restrictions of memory limitations). Ms. Croft’s adventure begins outside a mountain cavern in Peru, and players follow her into its depths, advancing steadily through the bowels of the earth in a quest for -- well, who cares, really? The plot was your typical Indiana Jones search for a mystical treasure beset by double-crosses; the real goal of the game was just to conquer those vast dungeons and come out the other side. Aside from a brief cutscene a third of the way through the game, which allowed a change of setting from Peru to the Mediterranean, Ms. Croft’s adventure is a single vast trek with pleasantly little by way of story to distract from scaling the scenery.

And what scenery! God knows how the settings depicted in Tomb Raider ended up underground, but for whatever reason Ms. Croft’s world is a subterranean microcosm of the ancient world. Peruvian ruins give way to ancient temples and desolate villages where lost remnants of forgotten species lurk. Later, the setting takes players to a towering monument to a bizarre pantheistic pantheon, through a Roman colosseum, and beneath an Egyptian pyramid. All underground, and all within a few miles of one another. Does it make sense? No. But it was memorable -- especially for me, having visited Berlin’s Pergamon museum mere months before and being fascinated by its tremendous indoor reconstructions of Greek temples. Here was a game that offered me exactly those, but without museum guards to stop me from exploring their recesses. On the contrary, I was actively encouraged to study and conquer every inch of them. It was resonant, empowering, and intoxicating.

Tomb Raider’s solitary exploration was broken up by smartly paced moment of excitement. The unexpected and frankly heart-stopping encounter with a Tyrannosaurus rex toward the end of the Peruvian caverns is probably the game’s best-remembered moment. It also showcased the limitations of the combat mechanics, as most players retreated into a cave, out of reach, and slowly plinked away at the dinosaur with Lara’s handguns for 10 minutes as the dinosaur wandered past in agitation, but never mind that. The best moments of the game weren’t about combat, anyway. They were about discovering gorgeous underground vistas, completing a massive, multi-part puzzle to unlock a new area, finding a hidden treasure in a forgotten corner of the caverns. Shortly after the T-rex battle, players are given the opportunity to take a leaping dive off a huge waterfall, and the thrill of falling is potent -- far more so for the fragile Lara Croft than much larger plummets ever seem for the nigh-indestructible Mario.

There’s a real sense of delicacy in Tomb Raider’s design. Look beyond the clunkiness of the controls and the boxy visuals and you’ll find a world that brilliantly builds ever more complex environmental puzzles. Perhaps the highlight is St. Francis’ Folly, a central shaft that branches into four separate chambers, each with its own unique riddle to be conquered. Every room offers a different death-defying challenge, but navigating the central column to move from one room to the next is a task in and of itself.

Core made sparing use of each of Tomb Raider’s elements to ensure each retained its impact. Combat, especially against dangerous enemies like bears and humans, is used to punctuate the exploration. Music is sparse, and the appearance of the game’s few, brief, choral productions lends them weight. They generally accompany either combat or else your first view of an impressive new area that must be mastered. The soundtrack lends urgency to Lara’s struggles for survival and grandeur to the new environments that players will conquer over the coming hour.

That being said, Tomb Raider is hardly perfect. Its combat mechanics are awful, and most battles boil down to climbing to where no one can reach you and picking things off at your leisure, or else jumping around like a maniac as Lara auto-targets. And mistakes are particularly unforgiving thanks to the restrictive save system, which requires players to expend rare save crystals that can only be used once. Later games adopted a save-anywhere format, but the original Tomb Raider was definitely not player-friendly on that front.

Despite its shortcomings -- to say nothing of its poor first impressions -- Tomb Raider was easily one of the most important games of the early PlayStation era, giving the system a worthy competitor to Nintendo’s best offerings. It beautifully translated the western cinematic platformer into a grand, three-dimensional odyssey, and it gave gaming its first popular mascot character who actually kind of resembled a real person. Tomb Raider wasn’t where gaming grew up or anything preposterous like that, but as a moderately realistic, slow-paced, western-developed action game that could stand toe-to-toe with the success of Japan’s finest, it was an important step toward modern console gaming -- for better, and for worse.

By Jeremy Parish? | May 6, 2011 | Last: Chapter III: Sony Takes the Lead | Next: Lara Croft and the Theatre of the Mind