I have a long history with Tomb Raider. My first introduction to my no-nonsense British bae was back when I was seven years old. Mom had gotten herself a PS1 for Christmas and the two of us went crazy with game rentals. Of course Tomb Raider was in our rental rotation. I can’t say either of us ever got very far, patience isn’t either or our strong suits and those tank controls on the non-analogue controllers of the original PS1 are definitely not for those that just try to barrel through everything in front of them.
Then, a few years later when it had dropped out of regular rentals, I saw Tomb Raider for PC on sale at Costco and I begged for it. I also begged for a slab of those huge, delicious Costco muffins. I’m happy to report I got both! With my motor skills more developed than they were when I first met Tomb Raider, my PC experience got me further into the narrative. I still didn’t beat the game. I think I got to Greece. And the Greece section starts at level 5. So still not a stellar performance. But in my defence, I was only ten and even more impatient than I had been before.
If I’m going to be completely honest, I’m still god awful at this first Tomb Raider game. When I got my PS3 it was one of the first games I downloaded off the PSN. Nostalgia fuelled me through the first set of levels, curiosity through the rest. Though I still didn’t beat the damn thing. I got to the mines, one of the last levels, and then never finished it! I just couldn’t resist going back to replay Spyro the Dragon for the millionth time.
But I’m not here for Spyro (it pained me to type that, I’m always here for Spyro the Dragon), I’m here for Lara Croft! And for this retrospective, I’m proud to say I finally bested the first Tomb Raider game! And only twenty years since its release! Truly I’m a prodigy!
What I love about the first Tomb Raider game is how simple the story is. The game opens with a cutscene of a long past explosion in the desert that unearths a mysterious artifact. Then, in present day Calcutta, Lara Croft is approached by Larson Conway. She’s already an established badass explorer and treasure hunter when Larson appears to offer her a job from Jacqueline Natla of Natla Technologies. Miss Natla is searching for a piece of an ancient talisman known as the Scion and sends Lara to the icy cliffs of Peru to search the lost tomb of Qualopec for a piece of it.
Though if it’s lost it’s amazing that Natla had the exact location in which to send Lara… Is there something more sinister afoot? Does Natla have something else in mind for the intrepid explorer? Lara doesn’t seem to think so. Or the appeal of getting inside a lost tomb is just too good to pass up, regardless of whether or not Natla is highly suspect.
So into the snow capped mountains of Peru Lara goes! With only a poncho over top her trademark shorts, tank top, and pyramid sized/shaped boobs. You can tell she doesn’t know how to dress for the cold. Layers, Lara! Layers! A poncho just ain’t gonna cut it!
Here’s where the gameplay begins! Lara’s mountain guide gets killed by wolves so she enters the mysterious tomb on her own. This is her first of four stops before this story is done. We start here in Peru where Lara puzzle solves her way through wolves, bears, and motherfuckin’ dinosaurs to get the first piece of the Scion. As she’s making her way out of the Peruvian tomb, Larson greets her.
By shooting at her.
After besting him in a duel (aka jumping around like an idiot to avoid his gun fire while simultaneously firing off your own guns and managing to hit him even though you’re doing back flips), Larson spills the beans on Natla’s treachery. Seems that she hired Lara to get past the traps and then sent Larson in to kill her and steal the Scion. Because I guess she couldn’t just wait for Lara to fly to America and give her the piece of the Scion herself?
Before knocking Larson’s bitch ass out, Lara learns that a fellow treasure hunter has been sent to find the second piece. Before heading there herself, Lara breaks into Natla’s company to discover why this Scion is so important. She finds a medieval monk’s journal that reveals the Scion is Atlantean in nature. Yup, that’s right. Atlantis is real and Natla seems to have an unhealthy obsession with it. The journal says that the second piece is in Greece, in the tomb of Tihocan, the ruler of Atlantis.
Upon her arrival in Greece, specifically a place called St. Francis’s, Lara is attacked by lions, gorillas, and the fellow treasure hunter Pierre Dupont. Which is fine, I get it. He’s a guy with guns and doesn’t want to lose out on the vast amount of money Natla promised him. But let’s real quick talk about the lions and gorillas. In Greece! Lions I can kind of understand, what with things like coliseum death matches being popular when the Romans decided watching animals get slaughtered was fun. But gorillas? I could be wrong but I really, REALLY don’t think that Romans or Greeks had gorillas just around? I don’t think they knew they existed.
As Lara tears her way through Greece, fighting lions, gorillas, and skinless centaurs and monkey creatures (and yet I’m still more weirded out by the gorillas), she gets herself the second piece of the Scion and learns about the rulers of Atlantis. And when she joins the two pieces of the Scion together, she has a vision of Atlantis’ destruction and sees the last piece’s location in Egypt.
After dicking around in Egypt for a few levels, Lara has the final piece of the Scion. She found it under a full sized Sphinx that was just hanging out underground. Because that’s not so big as to never have been found before. After emerging from the underground tomb, Lara is ambushed by Natla. The Scion is taken from her but before Lara can be killed, she makes a break for it. She follows Natla by sneaking onto her yacht and ends up at an island in the middle of nowhere.
This is the fabled Atlantis.
Once upon a time, Natla was one of the three rulers of Atlantis. When she abused her power and tried to make an army of mutant creatures, she was banished. That explosion cutscene at the very beginning of the game? That artifact that was unearthed was Natla’s frozen body. She was freed and began again on her quest to create a monstrous army. She needed the Scion though and Lara Croft was just the woman to deliver it.
Good thing Lara is a bigger ass-kicker than this so-called Queen of Atlantis. A few backflip-delivered bullets and Natla is down, the world is safe once again, and Lara hijacks herself a sweet yacht because Natla just had a mountain come down on top of her, she’s not going to need it anymore!
Lara Croft is our main character throughout this game and every Tomb Raider game.
She is also a lady crush I’ve had for years and years. She’s the most recognizable female videogame protagonist ever and gave me many a-daydream of the sexy, running-and-gunning world of raiding tombs. I once got in trouble for trying to hand in Tomb Raider fanfic in grade three for a creative writing assignment. I just loved Lara Croft so much and I couldn’t understand why Mrs. Weatherup was calling me out of class to tell me to write a story without her in it.
Everything is better with Lara Croft in it. That’s a fact.
But did you know the original story behind Lara Croft? Think of what you know of her now. Old money in English aristocracy, yeah? Turns out she started out a lot differently than I had always thought. Back in the 1990s, if you had story that needed to get out but it wasn’t necessarily important enough to go to all the trouble of putting in the game, you’d put it in the game manual. That’s where Lara’s origin was plainly printed for absolutely no one to ever see because c’mon, why would we read when there was a PS1 sitting just a few feet away?
Apparently Lara was raised to be an aristocrat and after attending finishing school at age 21, her marriage into wealth was assured. But then her plane crashed in the Himalayas and she had to learn to depend on her wits. After the crash she couldn’t live in the upper-class of society any longer and her family disowned her. She made her money back with writing about the extraordinary things she found and her tomb raiding exploits.
I think it was the first Tomb Raider movie that made her father an explorer and that’s why Lara is one. I like the idea of her being disowned from her old money, but then why does the tutorial take place in a huge English countryside manor? She made enough money writing about hidden tombs to buy her way back into high-society? Seems like a step backwards considering she hates it.
But game manual character development aside, what do you get to see of Lara in game? Honestly, not a tonne. I remember reading an interview with someone who worked on the Tomb Raider reboot game saying they thought Lara had always been a deep character, since game one. Where are they pulling this information from? Have you played this game? I love Lara, but she’s not the most three dimensional character I’ve ever seen. I mean, she is technically three dimensional, look at the peaks of Croft mountain on her chest, but saying that her personality is? It’s a stretch.
She’s cool and calm, indiscriminate in her killing, and loves to wear shorts even when she’s in the icy peaks of Peru. And that’s about it. Cutscenes involve her pointing guns at people’s faces and methodically extracting exposition from them with some well timed questions. It’s not like her mouth, eyebrows, or anything else moved during the cutscenes, so there goes all that subtle character development. Where’s the depth in that?
I mean, besides badassery. But that could be construed as sociopathic tendencies.
Then there’s the baddie, Natla, disgraced queen of Atlantis and a war monger with death to the inferior human race on her mind. You don’t learn much about her before she’s threatening to kill you and then yachting off to Atlantis to bring about the end of the world with mutant soldiers. Seeing her with wings during the final boss fight is great. What’s happening is supernatural, and rooted in ancient magic. Lara is saving the whole goddamn world and, by this point, you’ve fallen to your death from enough pratfalls and gotten mauled by enough animals to absolutely see this through to the end.
This bitch Natla is going down and Lara the uncaring sociopath that she is will be the one to do it!
Spite is pretty much the greatest driving force in Tomb Raider, for both yourself and probably Lara too. Huh, okay, that’s some depth I suppose.
I don’t know why I’m saying this, because it’s been twenty years and we all know, but Tomb Raider has the tankiest tank controls you will ever come across! And if that exclamation point makes that seem like a good thing, I’m sorry, but it’s not.
Most of your time playing Tomb Raider will come down to lining up very precise and fiddly jumps… and then getting pissed off if they don’t take! I mean, c’mon, you said in the tutorial, Lara, that you wouldn’t jump until the last second but you just jumped too soon and now are dead again!? It’s frustrating. I love the game but I’ll be the first to say it’s annoying as shit! I mean, just imagine this for a moment, will you? This game has about seven hours of gameplay if you know exactly where you’re going. If you don’t, go ahead and stretch that seven hours indefinitely. Within those seemingly infinity hours of gameplay, 50% of it you will spend dead. That’s not a good life to death ratio!
It’s a control scheme I could never get right when I was a kid because I couldn’t bear to use the walk button! I mean, why would I want to walk anywhere–I’m a motherfucking tomb raider! Plus I had no doubt started to come down from the Crash Bandicoot high of time trails and tiger riding levels and was looking for my next fix of speed.
Tomb Raider is not the game to look for that in!
So while you tip-toe your way to cliff edges and then take a risk on what type of jump will land you on the next cliff over, you’ll also be looking for switches, shooting endangered animals in the face, and poking around the dark corners of the levels for secrets (medi-paks, special guns/ammo). None of the secrets ever take you far off the beaten path, but they’re hidden really well and you’ll miss a lot of them.
Some levels are even so convoluted and annoying you won’t want to look for secrets. I mean, the St. Franchise Folly level? The Palace of Midas? That shit can go fuck itself. You’ll barrel through those as quickly as you can just to be done with them. If you can get through them at all. Not going to lie, I may have pulled up the level skip cheat to deal with the Palace of Midas. The fire pillars that combine a timed element, instant death, and precise jumping?
Well, you can just go fuck yourself Palace of Midas!
Also, fuck shooting animals in the face! I hated that as a kid and I hate it now! Who just goes around shooting lions and tigers? You’re invading their territory Lara; you’re destroying creatures just trying to live their lives! I mean, it’s you or them for the dinosaurs, but I find it hard to believe that a lion would care about your presence. They just want shady places to sleep, Lara. Don’t deny them shady places to sleep and you’ll be fine!
I definitely feel like the first Tomb Raider is the most mysterious of the games. You know so little about Lara going in and the artifacts that she’s after has little information at first. You, as the player, have to unwind the mystery as much as Lara does. There’s no hand holding because there’s no room on the disc for hand holding! If you want to figure out the story, you have to play the game, and well, to get each little sliver that they feed you.
Thing is though, it’s tits hard. Tomb Raider will have you make your way over sheer, snowy cliffs in Peru, death puzzles in Greece, labyrinths of sand in Egypt and holy-shit-what-the-fuck-is-happening in Atlantis. Not that I’m saying each of these places doesn’t have charm, they’re just, well, see above for the level of difficulty, measured by anatomy.
Let’s start at the logical place of the first levels: Peru. As the first set of levels, these are the ones you’ll be able to get through the easiest. Well, there are dinosaurs running around, so it’s probably not easy, but easier. There are still the usual places you can mess up a jump and fall to your death, but there aren’t as many. A level will not be a complete write-off if you miss a jump in Peru. The puzzles and the amount of exploration you’ll be doing are also scaled back. As a whole, the game is linear, but the areas that come after Peru do a better job at making it seem like it isn’t.
Then, as usually happens in videogames, the next set of levels are more challenging. Except unlike other videogames that give you a gradual rise in difficulty, Tomb Raider drops you head first into pits of fire, impossible jumps, and confusing labyrinths of general doom. If the first five levels in Peru are like a friendly punch in the arm, then every level after is like that scene in Sin City where Bruce Willis punches in the yellow fucker’s head until it’s just a puddle of ooze on the ground.
The death puzzles of St. Francis’ Folly and Midas Palace are what the word “impossible” was made for.
Then there’s Egypt and Atlantis. The death traps of Greece take a backseat to an increase in gun violence and soul crushing insta-death jump labyrinths. There are bits where you have to shoot things throughout the whole game, but Egypt brings in a new horrifying thing for you to kill and hides them around every corner! Yippee! They’re apparently supposed to be mutants, created to fight humans for Atlantis, but they look like giant monkey mummies. And sometimes also skinless centaurs and flying demons things? Whatever they all are, they’re a pain in the ass. They take a shit tonne of bullets to kill and then when they do, they explode. So if you’re standing anywhere near them, get ready to die. Hope you saved recently at one of the seven (and only seven) save places scattered throughout each level!
But I love the Egypt levels regardless of tedious, skinless enemies that explore. I think if there are two things I have made clear to the world that I love it is ghosts and it is Egypt. But there are no ghosts here (but just imagine how bitchin’ that would have been!), only Egypt! And boy, do they put love and care into designing Egypt.
Peru was just a bunch of stone and snow, Greece didn’t have anything that screamed Greece, Atlantis is a bunch of weirdo organic technology and lava (more on that later) but Egypt has some real love and care put into it. You’ll see every individual stone that makes up a Sphinx and every wall is covered in either brightly painted or carved hieroglyphics. Sure you’ll be making some of the hardest jumps this game has to offer in Egypt, but at least you’ll be awed when that giant, underground Sphinx appears out of the shadows!
Last but not least, we have Atlantis.
It’s a fictional place with a bunch of myths already behind it. Atlantis is believed to have been highly advanced compared to the rest of the world and Tomb Raider shows that with a mountain maze full of organic technology. The whole place feels alive since you’ll be walking over floors that look like pulsing, living meat. Personally, I’m a little confused by that? That aesthetic was used brilliantly in American McGee’s Alice, but I’m less on board here. Also, fuck the pits full of lava. I get enough of falling in them in Minecraft, thank you very much!
Oh, the graphics of Tomb Raider. Honestly, I don’t think I need to say anything more than the picture below.
The cutscenes are decent, considering it’s 1996 and every single pixel and polygon had to be crammed onto a PS1 disc. The cinematic bits are few and far between, which helps them seem better than they actually are, though everything still feels like underneath the more rounded edges are a bunch of triangles. At the very least in cutscenes Lara’s boobs aren’t pointy enough to put your eye out on!
The in-game scenes though?
Listen, I get it. It’s 1996, you’ve got a single CD to put your game on, and with most of the story being told through the booklet included in the jewel case, you can cut a few corners. Here’s the thing though, if you don’t have enough room to make the character’s mouths move while they talk to each other, maybe spread out some of the attention paid to Lara’s triangle tits and focus on some other areas!
The in-game cutscenes were fewer and further apart than the cinematic cutscenes, so at least I didn’t have to see pyramid boob Lara talk to Larson, the amazing rectangle man more than absolutely necessary.
And the backgrounds?
I can’t tell you how many times I ran off a cliff because I didn’t see it coming. You know why I didn’t see it coming? Because everywhere looks the damn same! Some levels of this game have a serious issue with creating depth so you can’t tell the difference between shit! Like, sometimes you’ll be traversing a cliff edge and be like, is the sand texture under my feet all the same level? And sometimes you’ll be so stupid as to believe that it is all the same plane and you’ll charge forward, throwing caution to the wind. And then, oops! Just fell to your death so I guess fucking not on the whole same plane deal!
What I do like about the backgrounds is the draw distance. Which is probably something you’ve never heard said before. In some of the more wide-open areas, you won’t see all of it. You’ll need to move around and get closer to certain areas to see them. The Sphinx is the perfect example of this. There’s nothing but darkness at the far end of the cave, but as you approach, the face of a Sphinx comes slowly into view from the shadows.
It’s freaky, it’s surprising, and it makes sense. How well would these secret, underground tombs be lit? Having these places be dark keeps the atmosphere intact and helps deal with the fact that this is 1996 and 3D videogames are still the work of dark wizards.
Oh, just one more thing to mention: why does Lara’s hair change from long braid down her back in cutscenes to like, a weird bun thing during the game? This is a graphics thing, yeah? I mean, it’s not Lara’s fault her hair disappears in game, surely! Were they worried about realistic hair physics and how they couldn’t do that in game? Because, yet again, let me draw your attention to her tits. There’s not exactly any realistic physics on them, is there? No one really cared that much, did they? So make the girl’s hair consistent, yeah?
I adore Tomb Raider’s soundtrack. It’s simple and sparse, creating a perfect atmosphere within the long abandoned tombs and caves that Lara finds herself in. Then when the music does kick in, it’s the perfect indicator of what’s about to happen. Fast and frantic, you’re about to get attacked; slow and melodic, you’ve discovered something no one has seen in thousands of years and it’s all yours to explore.
There’s nothing wrong with having constant atmospheric music in the back of videogames, but by not having that in the first Tomb Raider game, you have a game soundtrack that’s incredibly striking when it plays. The main theme alone is gorgeous. The harp being plucked, the choir, the piercing violins, it’s moving, it’s mystical, it sets the tone for the whole game. You will be awed by Tomb Raider, or at the very least awed by Nathan McCree’s soundtrack.
It’s some of the best video game music usage ever and if you have the scant twenty minutes it takes to listen to the whole thing, I suggest you do.
It’s a chore to play the first Tomb Raider game twenty years on. The graphics haven’t aged well. Or at all. The controls are like trying to get a tank across No Man’s Land after rain fall. The level design can be just downright atrocious as you run through tunnel after tunnel that all looks the same. It’s a chore, guys. It’s a chore.
But it’s also a joy! Because who says you can’t enjoy doing a chore every now and again?
What was put before us in 1996 (pointy boobs and all) was dazzling. Here was an action/adventure game with a worldwide scope of badass running-and-gunning with a female lead! I might not have become a tomb raider myself, but having a PS1 controller in my tiny hands that controlled a female character that took no shit from those around her? It’s called representation and it matters. Lara Croft wasn’t a damsel in distress like Peach or Zelda. She set her sights on something and she didn’t stop till she got it. I like to believe Lara helped me form my zero-tolerance stance on bullshit and fuckery!
The first Tomb Raider was revolutionary and I don’t think anything shows that better than Lara Croft’s enduring popularity over twenty years later from the first time she strapped on her holsters and laced up her boots! And in a world where there are more anthropomorphic animal leads in video games than women, that’s really no small feat!
Tomb Raider II is up next! Lara’s after the Dagger of Xian and inspiring U2 to use her image during their tours. But that’s just a regular Tuesday for Lara.