Category Archives: Core Design

#65: Tomb Raider

Format: Playstation Genre: Platform/Third Person Shooter Released: 1996 Developer: Core Design

I’ve just finished playing Tomb Raider: Underworld, so now seems like a good time to look back on the first Tomb Raider game – arguably the best one in the series, possibly only surpassed by the tenth anniversary remake.

The tragic curse of the Tomb Raider games is that the more they try to introduce innovations, the further they get from the magic that made the first game so brilliant, yet at the same time the developers are constantly criticised for not being innovative enough. The second title in the series saw the introduction of vehicles – sections that were throwaway at best – and if we fast forward to the Tomb Raider: Legend reboot, Lara has evolved into some sort of homicidal maniac, gunning down wave after wave of bad guys like a female version of The Punisher. Thankfully, they’ve redressed the balance a bit with Underworld, which focuses more on puzzles than gunplay, but it’ll be interesting to see where the series goes next.

Looking back, the one thing that stands out in my memory when I think about the first game is the all-pervasive feeling of loneliness – something that gradually became lost as the series started introducing more and more bad guys to butcher. The first game managed to capture a feeling that you really were exploring a long-lost ruin or a never-before-explored jungle valley, and on the rare occasions when the native wildlife did spring out and attack, it was a genuine surprise after what seemed like hours spent on your own. The unexpected emergence of a fully grown T-rex has to count as one of gaming’s all-time greatest moments – it was so genuinely unexpected I almost fell off my chair.

The sense of scale was something else that really stood out – along with Mario 64, Tomb Raider was one of the first games to really use 3D environments to their fullest. I remember the feeling of emerging into one of the game’s regularly interspersed ‘wow rooms’ – gigantic caverns with intricate pathways and stunning visuals. Clambering up an enormous underground sphinx was a particular highlight, as was the unexpected delight of finding a pair of submachine guns on top of its head.

Last, but definitely not least, I have to mention the fantastic music. Music’s emerged as a bit of a theme for the last few posts (e.g. see XIII), and a big part of the Tomb Raider experience is the billow of scene-setting orchestral music that wafts from the speakers as you stumble across one of the aforementioned ‘wow rooms’. The absence of music for much of the game really adds to the feeling of isolation, so when it kicks in as you emerge into a long-forgotten pyramid it really packs a punch. There are very few pieces of memorable game music, but the Tomb Raider theme is right up there with the Super Mario Bros. music and the theme tune from Halo in terms of sticking in your head like a wad of musical brain gum.

On the downside I seem to remember that some levels used to drive me utterly mad, and the spacing of save points wasn’t exactly forgiving… often I’d be caught hurling abuse at the seemingly inept Lara for stumbling off a platform like some sort of drunk, then I’d immediately feel guilty for sending her to her death as soon as I heard that wince-inducing scream and crack of broken bones as her prone body connected with the cavern floor below. Still, no matter how many times this cycle was repeated, I’d always end up coming back for more… And it was worth finishing the game to see that giant monkey-thing with no legs at the end – I still have no idea what all that was about.

Lewis

(Screenshots from http://www.mobygames.com)

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Filed under 1996, Core Design, Platform, Playstation, Third Person Shooter