Tomb Raider 25 Years Later: A Triumph

Tomb Raider

In The Beginning

In 1996, a video game dropped that would significantly impact the gaming industry: Tomb Raider.  It was one of PlayStation‘s best-selling games, with worldwide sales of seven million copies, and it would remain the Tomb Raider series’ most successful game until 2013 when Crystal Dynamics‘ reboot surpassed it. After being introduced in her stellar debut, Lara Croft exploded into the realm of popular culture, becoming one of gaming’s most recognized characters. Tomb Raider was ground-breaking in its day for being one of the first 3D action-adventure platformers and having some of the most stunning visuals available at the time.

My first introduction to my 25-year love affair with Lara Croft was on Easter of 1997, when my father, who was out purchasing a present for me, discovered this game in the shop. Like many others, he was drawn in by the tough-as-nails heroine depicted on the cover and the game’s incredible promise. My father brought home the game, and I was captivated. To my ten-year-old self, beholding the box for the first time, I had never seen anything like it.

Tomb Raider 1 (1996) was a revolutionary game at the time. Nothing else quite compared to it, and while now it may not appear like much, there was nothing more breathtaking than this back then.

I was eager to begin installing the game, so I quickly typed in MS-DOS commands to get the game installer up and running. Once I started to play, Tomb Raider instantly took me with Lara’s intellect, brawn, and charm. The dark caverns, abandoned tombs, and booby traps filled me with fear as I carefully traversed every pit and peered around every corner, unsure of what dangers would meet me next. The thunderous music by Nathan McCree filled me with foreboding, and the considerable armory that Lara Croft packed into her tiny backpack made me feel like an unstoppable badass who could take down even the game’s most challenging of foes.

That’s not to say I didn’t make my blunders. Spike pits were a typical result of my failures, followed by a sickening squelch as Lara Croft uttered her last breath. Wrongly timed jumps lead to broken bones, and I frequently became a snack to the game’s variety of deadly fauna due to my hubris-driven decisions. Tomb Raider was brutal and unforgiving, often requiring players to use their brains to figure out the game’s numerous puzzles as well as how to attack enemies in the distance. Lara Croft’s fate was in your hands, and it was up to you to make sure she made it out alive and found all the pieces of the Scion before they fell into the wrong hands.

A Legend In The Making

Given the enormous popularity of Lara Croft, it’s strange to consider that the game was initially meant to star a male protagonist who looked somewhat like Indiana Jones. Perhaps Tomb Raider, and the gaming industry in general, owes its thanks to Core Design founder Jeremy Heath-Smith, who saw the male protagonist as a potential lawsuit and suggested Toby Gard return to the drawing board. Out of that suggestion, the early concepts for Lara Croft began to take shape.

The name “Laura Cruz” was initially given to the character, but her appearance and personality underwent numerous changes before Core changed her name to the more British-sounding “Lara Croft,” after which she became the renowned adventurer we know today. Lara Croft became a legendary action heroine among her gaming peers for her remarkable intellect, immense physical strength, recognizable blue Lycra top, and tiny shorts. She stood out from the crowd and established herself as a potent motivating force to many who grew up playing Tomb Raider games afterward.

Lara would entice many gamers to pursue a career in the gaming industry after meeting her for the first time. Others chose archaeology or other fields, driven by a desire to become more after being inspired by Lara’s book smarts and intellect. Why not? Female characters were rarely marketed as more than “boobs with a gun” before Lara came around. Miss Croft served as the antidote to an industry rife with sexism, showing gamers that female characters didn’t have to exist just for the desire of adolescent boys. Yes, Lara was beautiful, but her personality and appearance went much deeper.

For example, take professional gamer, one time GameStop TV host, occasional Lara Croft cosplayer, and my close friend, Melonie Mac. After over a decade in the gaming industry, Melonie has become a well-respected personality. In her own words, she owes much of this to the life-changing influence of Lara Croft on her early years.

“Ever since I first laid eyes on Lara Croft from playing the original Tomb Raider, I was instantly obsessed, and I wanted to be just like her. And it’s funny because my personality is so different than hers, but even so, Classic Lara has never left my heart; she’s always been a symbol of strength. Going back to the old games, even to this day, warms my heart like nothing else. Life can be tough and lonely but seeing how classic Lara paved her way wherever she wanted to go and didn’t need anybody is inspiring. I don’t think I’d be where I am today if it wasn’t for the huge inspiration Lara Croft has been in my life.”

Bigger Is Better

After such an incredibly successful and ground-breaking entry in the franchise, it’s difficult to imagine that any further installments could match the original’s perfection. Still, Core found a way to do so. Tomb Raider’s first sequel, Tomb Raider 2, would push Lara to new heights of invincibility and cemented Lara’s status as a gaming icon. 

Tomb Raider 2 was the first game in the series that I played on the PlayStation. It took Lara all over China, Venice, Tibet, and even an underwater wreck searching for the legendary Dagger of Xian. This imaginative sequel upped the ante in every way possible and embodied the phrase “bigger is better.” Lara’s arsenal was now comparable to a small army, with automatic pistols, grenade launchers, M-16s, and Harpoon Launchers joining the mix.

For the first time, players could now commandeer vehicles to get them where they needed to go. Foes were more capable, better equipped, and more challenging to exterminate than ever before. And in terms of heart-pounding moments? Let’s not even get started on the final sequence at the conclusion of The Great China level. Within a short while, players are confronted by rolling boulders, crumpling floors, large blade wheels, and (if they discover the secret chamber) two T-Rexes (!) all within a matter of breaths. This game was an anxiety attack around every corner, and I still dread the ghostly flying Samurais in the Floating Islands level.

It’s admirable that after the enormous cultural shift that was Tomb Raider, Core Design achieved lightning in a bottle twice. Most game developers struggle to keep quality high between installments. Yet, Core produced a sequel that improved its forerunner, and fans often debate whether Tomb Raider 2 or Tomb Raider (1996) is the best in the original series.

Tomb Raider 2 (1997) – The notorious Skidoo. While this sequence’s music is one of the games’ greatest musical moments, let’s not mince words: this thing drove like ass.

It isn’t the simplest of tasks to single out a favorite moment from Tomb Raider 2. I loved steering an Italian speedboat through the waterways of Venice or discovering a snowmobile in Tibet (which resulted in a very memorable 90’s Techno-influenced track playing in the background). Like many gamers, I spent hours in Croft Manor, including trapping Lara Croft’s new Butler in the freezer. The shock conclusion where Lara fends off intruders who have broken into her home is still a fan favorite. From start to finish, this game was full of memorable events. With a witty fourth wall break ( “Don’t you think you’ve seen enough?”) and other elements that made the original Tomb Raider game so famous, Tomb Raider 2 had all of the ingredients to become another classic. Considering that Core created such a magnificent sequel in only eight months is proof of the original Core Design team’s talents.

It should come as no surprise that Core Design had even more surprises up its sleeve for the series’ third game, having shown just how flawlessly it could follow up on the first Tomb Raider. As a result, Tomb Raider 3, predictably named, would be one of the franchise’s most challenging and visually diverse games.

Tomb Raider 3, eager to set itself apart from its predecessors, sent players to five different continents. Thanks to new triangular, polygonal renders and colored light (both a first for the series), Lara Croft and the environments never looked more genuine. In the course of this adventure, our intrepid explorer visited London, India, Nevada, the South Pacific, and Antarctica in search of Infada Stone fragments. The player would come up against environmental dangers like quicksand, as well as irritating nuisances (medipacks stolen by a monkey!) at every turn. The pleasant seas of the South Pacific Islands weren’t long untroubled as enraged natives attacked their unwelcome new visitor. 

This game was gorgeous and probably would have benefitted the most from a modern-day remaster.

Additionally, in a first for the series, and in an attempt to make the game seem less linear, gamers could visit any one of three destinations (London, South Pacific, Nevada) after completing the India levels before ending the game in Antarctica. The Nevada levels were my personal favorite, both for the difficulty and story. I died numerous times on those miserable levels with winding jumps that are difficult to nail and snakes frequently slinking in the weeds.

Tomb Raider 3 (1998) – The first time I saw this aircraft zip around the bend, I nearly sh*t myself. Thanks, Core Design.

In the Nevada levels’ conclusion, Lara Croft knocks herself out while trying to break into Area 51. When she regains consciousness, she finds herself in a high-security prison. Lara has the decision of either going it alone or releasing the other prisoners, a decision that will have her fighting alongside them to eliminate the guards standing in her way. The final level, which entails the discovery of a real flying saucer, is one of my favorite moments from the original trilogy. As a devoted X-Files fan, I couldn’t have been more delighted as Lara made her way through the secret government facility. Mulder would’ve been envious.

Unfortunately, after years of being pushed to create new sequels with no pause, Core Design’s money-maker began to elicit more irritated groans than pleasure from her developers. So when work began on the fourth game in three years, Core Design was searching for a way out. From there, things did not go well for Lara Croft.

Near-Death Experience

While Cyberpunk 2077 is a modern cautionary tale of overworked developers and studio/publisher mismanagement, in reality, Tomb Raider’s developers knew all about this struggle over two decades prior.

Due to Lara Croft’s increasing popularity, the Tomb Raider original series’ creators felt forced to release new installments annually as part of Eidos Interactive‘s marketing strategy. This forced developer Core Design to re-use the same modified game engine to meet the publisher’s unreasonable demands and develop games in less than a year, instead of the modern-day gaming development cycles of 3 to 5 years.

Tomb Raider’s engine began to seem antiquated in the face of more advanced games, and the series’ critical reputation began to deteriorate gradually from the third game onward.

In 1999, with the release of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, things came to a head for Core Design. The demanding continuous production schedule had worn down many at the studio. Feeling exhausted with Lara herself, Core Design devised to kill off her character and conclude the series.

Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation (1999) – Returning Lara to Egypt was a good choice; however, the game’s engine was starting to show its age by this time.

Naturally, this did not go over well with fans of the series (like myself), who gasped in pure shock as the game’s final moments came to an end. Was Lara dead? Had they killed one of gaming’s most iconic characters? The next game in the franchise (Tomb Raider: Chronicles), if you’re wondering, put those concerns to rest. Chronicles told the game’s narrative through the eyes of her closest friends, who recollected her previous escapades during a memorial service for the beloved archaeologist. After the game, an injured (but still breathing) Lara Croft is discovered, setting in motion the events for Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness, the series’ first Playstation 2 outing.

After initially trying to kill her off, Core Design intended Angel of Darkness to be a whole new beginning to reignite their passion for the character. Core created the sequel from the ground up to take advantage of the sixth generation of video game consoles and offer a new course toward beginning a brand new trilogy for current audiences. Initially, the game experienced a lot of enthusiasm and anticipation. Critics were highly enthusiastic for this new version of Lara Croft, who, owing to the PS2’s power, was more natural and realized than ever before. Early gameplay showed a radically overhauled vision for Tomb Raider, and it seemed as if Angel Of Darkness all but guaranteed Lara Croft’s return to dominance in the gaming industry.

Yet, due to various delays and management failures at the studio, Core Design missed critical deadlines, and the game’s development had gone completely off the rails. The studio later commented that they were “overambitious” and unprepared to handle the PS2’s development kit. 

Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness (2003) – Despite the game’s bad reviews upon release, it has since amassed a respectable cult following. One can only wonder how much better this game would have been if it had received just a few more months of development.

Unfortunately, Lara’s first PS2 outing was released before the developers had fully perfected it, resulting in a commercial and critical failure in Angel of Darkness. As a result, the series’ future was now in jeopardy, and after Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life flopped at the box office, it appeared that the public’s affection for Tomb Raider had come to an end.

Much discussion has gone into Core Design being responsible for the series’ downfall, and perhaps that’s not entirely unfair. As an article years later would note, Core became too big too fast and often strained under the weight of their ambitions. 

However, even if Core Design admitted to being overambitious, their backs were already against the wall with the absurd development expectations of the PS1-era games. It’s always left an awful taste in my mouth that Core shouldered all the blame when Eidos never gave them a chance to breathe. 

Thankfully, there was still some life left in the old gal, as fans would soon find out. After removing the reins from Core Design, Eidos handed development rights to Crystal Dynamics. The ‘Legacy of Kain‘ studio started work on Lara’s future, enlisting Toby Gard to assist with her reboot (his first Tomb Raider game since 1996). From there, Crystal Dynamics rebuilt and reinvented the character, returning her to critical acclaim and ensuring the series’ survival.

Following the success of Tomb Raider: Legend, Crystal Dynamics released two more Tomb Raider games (Anniversary and Underworld) following their takeover of the Tomb Raider development rights. After Underworld, SCI acquired Eidos Interactive, which subsequently combined with Square Enix to form Tomb Raider’s new publisher and fans waited with bated breath as to what would come next. 

A Survivor Is Born

Starting as far back as 2008, Crystal Dynamics began to lay the groundwork for a second series reboot. Feeling handcuffed to the 1990s Lara Croft (of whom they referred to as ‘Teflon Lara’), Crystal wanted to conceive their version as one that would feel more relatable while also showcasing the character’s vulnerabilities and resiliency.

The developers would spend the next few years tearing down and rebuilding concepts (at one point even envisioning an open-world survival-horror reboot of Tomb Raider called ‘Tomb Raider: Ascension‘). Finally, the fruits of their labor saw release in 2013, rebranding Lara as a young and inexperienced archaeologist shipwrecked on an island controlled by an enraged Japanese spirit named Himiko. 

Crystal’s newest version of the character, which strayed significantly from the version seen in Angelina Jolie‘s portrayal, sees Lara trading in her signature dual pistols for a bow and arrow and learning the ropes as she “evolves into the Tomb Raider we know and love.” 

In this version of the character, Lara Croft has become far more defenseless. She’s considerably more naive than she appeared previously, and she’s generally overwhelmed. Lara is a lead you really can’t help but feel sorry for since she has to endure some of the worst few days of her life. On a cheerless beach, on the edge of nowhere, Lara goes through the worst trials imaginable. She has no choice but to go it alone or become another victim of the doomed island. Her friends perish one by one, strengthening her resolve to survive.

Tomb Raider (2013) – The 2013 reboot was excellent in tone and gorgeous in atmosphere, owing to horror flicks like The Descent.

Lara Croft’s metamorphosis from a damsel in distress to a ruthless survivor was perfect, and I was intrigued by the return of what I felt were early signs of the old Lara Croft. While it was unexpected to witness Lara so emotional and exposed, I genuinely approved of this version of the character and wanted to see where she would go next.

The problem is that, by the third game, I felt as if the writers had neglected all of the character’s growth. So when developers stated the character would “grow into” the Tomb Raider we all know and love, we never quite got a fulfillment on that promise. 

Not Quite a Tomb Raider

Before I get into my gripes, I appreciate a few aspects of this new version. First and foremost, despite young Lara’s insinuated lack of experience, she is still the brightest individual in the room. While her rivals have typically been a succession of bungling idiots or power-crazed narcissists, Lara’s intellect and judgment had always allowed her to discover long-forgotten cities and civilizations before said adversaries. As a result, Lara is always one step ahead of the opposition, and thankfully Crystal Dynamics has preserved that vital piece of her identity.

Additionally, like the previous Tomb Raider games, she frequently finds herself in difficult situations due to her misplaced confidence. Lara’s hubris often leads to predicaments for her, forcing her to race against the clock before the world ends. This problem is especially true in Shadow, where Miss Croft nearly causes Armageddon by carelessly removing a dangerous relic from its final resting place.

Lara’s resourcefulness and survival instinct, which had previously been under-explored in earlier entries, was improved in these latest outings. Lara is frequently forced to search for tools and supplies, make basic weapons, medicines, and equipment while trekking through difficult areas and fighting trained mercenaries in Tomb Raider (2013) and the subsequent two sequels. A survival mechanic would have come in useful in the past when ammunition and health packs were sometimes challenging to acquire. If Crystal combined these components with Lara’s persona from the older Tomb Raider games, we’d have a smash hit on our hands. But we aren’t there yet.

The issue with Crystal Dynamics’ modern version of Lara is that despite the studio extending the story over three games, she never quite blossomed into anything more than what she was in the first game of the trilogy. On the contrary, I would argue in some ways, she regressed. Despite numerous claims that the ‘survivor’ trilogy would lead to Lara returning to her old self, the shift never truly happened. Instead, Lara still feels as distanced from Classic Lara Croft as she did before. I consider this to be a total bummer because the first entry in the reboot trilogy was fantastic. 

Tomb Raider (2013), which revisited an iconic character and updated her for a new audience, was every bit as savage as the original 1996 game, putting Lara through the paces as the island’s perils hardened her character and made her a total badass. By the time the credits rolled, the game accomplished what it had set out to do, having a Lara who fell in love with Tomb Raiding and seemed compelled to continue her hunt for Trinity on her terms. Imagine my disappointment then, when the next game went right back into the Daddy & Mommy story that made me cringe during the Legend, Anniversary, and Underworld saga. 

By contrast, Crystal Dynamics’ version of the Tomb Raider formula, which we’ve seen in previous installments, has provided us with a slew of stunning traditional Tomb Raider locales. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a fantastic illustration of this, with some of the series’ most breathtaking vistas and tombs. However, it’s what makes their failure with the character so inexplicable: Their capacity to nail the tone when it comes to Tombs, but not the girl herself.

Rise of The Tomb Raider (2016) – The backdrop of this scene rivals the wonderment of the original series. It’s a shame then that the overused, cliched, and, to be honest, unnecessary “following in her father’s footsteps” narrative device is used frequently throughout this section of the game.

The problem with rebooting such a well-known figure is that the writers must keep more than just a few trivial aspects of her personality for the public to recognize her as Lara Croft. Unfortunately, even though Rise and Shadow of The Tomb Raider succeeded in recreating the atmosphere of the original’s tombs and locales, Lara’s essence was still sorely lacking.

The Lara, who “played for sport,” cut off contact from her family entirely and who acted alone never returned. In her stead was a Lara who was overly co-dependent on the help of others, appeared insecure and whiny at times, never donned her famous twin pistols, and did not have that “vibe” that fans were waiting for on pins and needles.

Lara was occasionally insecure throughout the three games, and while it was understandable in the first game, it felt out of place in the third. Eidos Montreal was in charge of the final entry in the series, but it nevertheless utilized the same formula as its predecessors. As a result, Shadow suffered the trilogy’s worst ratings, with several critics arguing that the recipe had become stale. I happened to agree with them.

Deja Vu

The stale bread feeling I got at the end of Shadow of the Tomb Raider evokes too much of a sense of Deja Vu. The critical decline feels all too familiar to me, as someone who lived through Tomb Raider’s first near-death experience during Core Design’s reign. If Lara is going to sustain her dominance in the years ahead, future games will require significant alterations for her to reclaim her rightfully deserved glory.

The goal for the following games should be to recapture that sense of complete solitude and for Lara to be fueled only by her motives. Thus, Lara doesn’t require the assistance of any sidekicks, and she doesn’t need to be motivated by her father’s quests and research, as was the case in Rise of The Tomb Raider.

One of my main criticisms with Crystal’s two trilogies is the overuse of the supporting cast and Crystal Dynamics’ habit of making Lara into some tragic orphan by forcing her mother and father into the narrative whenever feasible (Lara Croft isn’t Batman). In the first Crystal Dynamics trilogy, Zip and Alistair were obnoxious, and while Jonah was a far more bearable sidekick in the second reboot, Lara Croft is at her best on her own.

Shadow of The Tomb Raider (2018) – Visually, this is the most authentic feeling Tomb Raider since the Core Design days. Had they nailed Lara’s character arc, this game would have been perfect.

Anniversary (a remake of the original 1996 Tomb Raider) shone in this regard by not attempting to retcon her colleagues into the game and often leaving the player in almost total silence. In addition, Anniversary saved interactions with other characters for the rare narrative cutscenes, and the game benefitted from it as a result. 

Recently, craving a more traditional ‘Tomb Raiding’ experience, I booted up the previous Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider trilogy and felt super nostalgic about Anniversary. Why? Because despite some of the changes, Anniversary still felt like older Tomb Raiders for the most part, just with a coat of fresh paint. The newer games miss that mark, and the replay value and nostalgia aren’t there. Unfortunately, I haven’t felt any will (save for TR2013) to pick up the reboot trilogy again, and that’s a problem. Don’t get me wrong; the new series isn’t awful. There have been plenty of breathtaking moments in terms of visuals that have taken my breath away; it’s just that something is always missing. Something not quite hitting the mark. 

If I had to pinpoint the cause, I would say that this is due to current Tomb Raider games attempting to fit in with other big-budget titles rather than trying their own path. Tomb Raider was a trailblazer many years ago, and it now feels as though it’s running after everything else. I’m not the only person who feels this way. Games like Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order have given fans what they’ve been asking for since 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot by delivering an authentic Tomb Raider experience.

Recent murmurings suggest that Crystal is looking to “unite the timelines” in the next game and combine classic elements with their modern take to create a fully-realized current iteration. Hopefully, this means that the new Lara Croft will likely be more of an actual Tomb Raider, explorer, and adventurer without any overbearing “daddy’s and mummy’s gone” story or sidekick around to hold her back.

There’s reason to believe that this time, at the very least, the return of classic Lara is not just empty promises. This year, in celebration of the franchise’s Anniversary, the official Tomb Raider Twitter account showed a considerable amount of love for the original Tomb Raider series. In addition, several of their collaborations to celebrate the event have included a considerably more “Classic” looking, Croft. I’m not sure how much of this is by design and how much it is because I want it to be, but after waiting for the Lara I loved to return for three games, I’m clinging to the tiniest sliver of optimism.

Despite my apprehensions about Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal’s management of Tomb Raider thus far, let me state that I am still cautiously optimistic about the franchise’s future. Tomb Raider is still just as relevant as it was 25 years ago; it’s just lost its way. It would be fantastic to have a remaster of the original trilogy (just updated with modern controls, ala GTA Trilogy) or something that gives me those same feelings I had 25 years ago. However, I want to believe those days aren’t over. 

But if Lara once clawed her way out of an Egyptian pyramid and survived certain death, she can unquestionably do it again. So here’s to hoping “unifying the timelines” means bringing back the Lara Croft we all desire. Our queen deserves only the best. 

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