Tomb Raider Retrospective Part 1 – Tomb Raider (1996)

5 02 2008

Platforms: PC, PlayStation, Saturn and N-Gage

Tomb Raider 1 Title

Facts

  • It was set in Peru, Greece, Egypt and Unnamed Island a short distance away from Egypt.
  • It was the one with the T-Rex that you can probably remember.
  • It had 4 guns: pistols, better pistols, shotgun, and uzis.
  • Her breasts were a sort of triangular wedge.
  • She did not have an animated ponytail, or even an unanimated one.
  • It had a mansion level, but there was no butler, and you couldn’t go outside.

Unusually for the series, the original Tomb Raider was actually focussed on the act of raiding tombs. The game could generously be described as being inspired by the Indian Jones films, in as much as it involved ancient civilisations that were not only capable of but frequently did construct elaborate mechanical traps and door-opening mechanisms involving switches several hundreds of metres away.

The story involved a wealthy and very 90s businesswoman named Jacqueline Natla hiring a bunch of broad stereotypes to collect pieces of the Scion for her. The Scion is an ancient artifact with spooky powers such as being a sort of primitive video-blogging device, and somehow enabling the bearer to rule Atlantis. It had been divided into three pieces and scattered across the world, which I assume is the normal procedure for artifacts of such contrived power. While initially hired by Natla, Lara realises she wants all the bits of the Scion for herself for some reason, and she decides that Natla is a bitch who needs shooting. With that in mind she runs, shoots, falls to her death, and leaps around the world collecting the Scion chunks before Natla’s goons can, and foils both a Texan and a Frenchman on the way.

While the setting starts off reasonably grounded in reality, as you progress through the game it gets gradually more and more ridiculous. For the first part of the game, Lara mainly shoots wolves, bears, panthers, crocodiles, gorillas and other normal endangered animals. But then the dinosaurs show up, then the mummies, and finally the centaurs and the demons. Never once does Lara seem the least bit concerned with all these fantastical creatures showing up to kill her. By the end of the game you are running through surreal flesh-wall tunnels while Atlantean mutants that explode when killed are bursting out of giant stasis egg/pod things. In probably the weirdest sequence in the game, Lara runs into her own fleshless dopplegänger who’s weakness is the rather abstract concept of asymmetry.

It would be very easy to dismiss the plot as just an excuse for Lara to traipse around the world, but oddly that doesn’t seem to be the case. If it were then they probably wouldn’t of spent the time and money needed to produce this baffling sequence. Other than the occasional seemingly unnecessary cutscene like that, the game largely seems to leave you to work out what is going on for yourself. You sort of get the feeling that there was probably a lot more to the plot at one point in development, but it mostly never made it into the game.

Weird Cutscene
Ah, classic Tomb Raider. Wait…. WHAT?

The mechanics of moving Lara around the environment could be described as slow and methodical, but to the untrained eye may seem tedious and frustrating. There’s a sort of tomb raider mathematics associated with these early games that you have to learn if you play them for any period. The levels are essentially constructed out of identically sized cubes, some of which are deformed to create irregular surfaces, but are still in essence cubes. Once learned, you can be one hundred percent sure if Lara will make a jump or not, and what sort of run up she will need to do it (eg. a run-up of two walking-backwards steps are required to make a jump of four cubes, assuming you are grab on). These mechanics stayed in for the first five games and in my opinion were part of what made them good.

The combat was never the strong point of the game as there was virtually no skill involved in it. The one and only strategy involved holding down the fire and jump buttons and leaping around all over the place until whatever it was that was attacking you died. The designers clearly understood this wasn’t very engaging as there were only ever about 20 enemies per level. Of course there were bosses which were a T-Rex which is probably the most enduring memory anyone has of this game, two fireball chucking centaurs, a torso, and a Demon-Businesswoman-Atlantean-Leader who throws yet more fireballs at you.

Tomb Raider 1 - T-Rex
Lara takes the only logical action in response to the discovery of actual dinosaurs living in a forgotten valley, she fills them with bullets.

One of the most unique things about this game at the time was the mansion level. It served a dual purpose; it provided a quick and effective background for the game, specifically that Lara was a woman rich enough to actually own a mansion, and it served as a training level for the game mechanics and general sandbox environment to run around in without wolves jumping out from every which way. The first iteration of the mansion here was strictly internal, and there was no butler following you around. There wasn’t really a whole lot to do, and the engine was so bad it ended up looking a bit rubbish really and unlike anything you would expect a mansion to look like. Lara, ever the apologist, mentions that she is still in the process of unpacking which explains there being loads of crates all over the place and not much else.

Tomb Raider Mansion Screenshot
There is a lot wrong with this shot so rather than pointing it all out I’ll simply say that the engine just wasn’t really built for realistic environments.

All in all this was an excellent game, a classic even, and obviously good enough to begin a franchise, but I can’t help but feel the majority of people didn’t actually play all that much of it. It’s slow pace and unforgiving difficulty probably put a lot of people off getting all that far into it, and so they didn’t witness the totally insane later levels. It was also one of the only entries in the series that manages to live up to the name Tomb Raider.

Meanwhile, the suits over at Eidos had caught the scent of gold, if gold has a scent that is, and commanded more Tomb Raider be made for them. Clearly something about either Lara Croft or Tomb Raider was working, and it was probably the one appearing on the front of magazines. I can’t help but feel that things would of gone a lot better if they had not ignored half of what made the first game good, you know, Tombs. It’s right there in the damn name.

Tomb Raider Retrospective
Introduction
Part 1 – Tomb Raider (1996)
Part 2 – Tomb Raider II (1997)
Part 3 – Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft (1998)
Part 4 – Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation (1999) – coming soon
Part 5 – Tomb Raider Chronicles (2000) – coming soon
Part 6 – Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness (2003) – coming soon
Part 7 – Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend (2006) – coming soon
Part 8 – Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary (2007) – coming soon

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