Welcome to The Retrospective, your weekly look into the quality and longevity of gaming’s greatest (or maybe just best remembered). Each week, I try a game from the past that, for whatever reason, I completely missed out on at its height of popularity. Last week, I had positive thoughts on Halo: Combat Evolved, and this week I thought I’d attempt to ride the wave of current interest in Tomb Raider, thanks to its newest iteration. Today I’ll take a brief venture into the very first Tomb Raider, released all the way back in 1996.
I only recently started collection games for the PlayStation One, and while I’m discovering that the console has an unbelievable wealth of quality titles, there are a few that perhaps deserve to be buried in their place in history, never to be unearthed. Admittedly, my only connection to the series until now was a very brief introduction by friends when I lived in Europe years ago. Everyone there had PlayStation and everyone played Tomb Raider. Growing up in a Nintendo household, I wasn’t too interested and never bought into it myself.
However, Tomb Raider is still among the most recognizable franchises in gaming and if the numbers for the newest installment say anything, it’s that people still clearly have interest in Lara Croft. However, it should be noted that the newest title needed an extreme makeover to get that accomplished, and perhaps that’s a sign that the older games aren’t so fondly remembered as I used to think they were.
It’s clear that early Tomb Raider is a product of an older era, one in which Leisure Suit Larry was a successful series. We’ve since traded childish sexuality for almost unnerving violence over the years, and it’s certainly debatable which makes us look more like children. In any rate, Lara Croft used to be a bulbous Barbie doll. And now we have scenes of her skewered on pikes and other delightful imagery.
Playing the original Tomb Raider presented me with a strange dichotomy. While on the one hand, the setup and the character model itself were clearly designed to fit even the most hormonally injected 90s teenager, but the gameplay didn’t feel cheapened or stale. Usually when I play a game with a significant… nefarious draw, everything else suffers because, well, why bother making a fun game when you know people are buyin’ it for the boobs?
But from the get go, Tomb Raider managed not to be completely shallow. There was a life to the game, and even though the controls (much more on that to come) substantially got in the way from immersion.
I understand that this game came out before the advent of the analog stick, but dear god does a d-pad not belong in a 3D game. Too often the default movement would be too much for me to orient Lara to a specific spot to, say, grab an item or open a lever. Perhaps the greatest sin was forcing her to leap back with the down button, instead of simply having her walk backwards. Luckily, most of the challenges presented to me didn’t require the most extreme precision, but I’ll be damned if no one else cursed to high heaven when she just. Wouldn’t. Grab. The ledge.
Now I didn’t ultimately play the much of the game, and absolutely not even the majority, but from what I saw, I got a tremendous dosage of old-school 3D world atmosphere. Because of the graphical limitations, there was something eerie and off about the tomb, like some evil force lurking behind the graphical shadows that was pulling the strings and sending enemies my way. For pieces of the experience, I legitimately confronted the age-old wonderment in a game that I used to experience as a child.
I think it’s because the designers of the time had a far looser grasp of their world’s elements. Today, game designers can control the most minute details, down to the very individually swaying piece of grass in Crysis 3 or the most high-res texture possible in Halo 4. Just like how celluloid film allowed old cinema to have a naturalistic pop and crackle, so too did old consoles force their games to have a clunkier picture. It’s why old horror games were so effective, because what you were looking at was so vague and disjointed.
And so, I can say with complete confidence, that the tombs in Tomb Raider left me with a very intrigued, yet disturbed feeling. It’s like the designers let the game assume a life of its own, and it made me ache for the more simple stylistic decisions of the past. Another fantastic design choice was to leave the game mostly silent. Similar to Half-Life, music plays a tiny role, occasionally highlighting important or tense moments. The rest of the game leaves you to meld with the atmosphere and fear every little noise.
However, the controls cannot go unpunished, as Tomb Raider felt needlessly frustrating and oftentimes completely broken. Luckily, shooting managed to be seamlessly integrated into the experience, as the lock-on feature and lack of an ammo system are actually welcome choices in my book. But as I mentioned before, there were too many moments where the controls and mechanics stood between me and the objective. Not good.
But when it’s all said and done, I gauge my appreciation of a game based on two criteria. Did the game effect me emotionally, and/or did the game hook me into near addiction. While I certainly wouldn’t say that the latter applies here, I found the world compelling enough to say that even after all these years, Tomb Raider still has something going for it, and shouldn’t be completely forgotten.