In 1996, video games were undergoing a massive transition in perspective. Nintendo was primed to “change the system” with the release of the Nintendo 64. Meanwhile, Sega and Sony were flexing their polygonal muscles on the Saturn and Playstation, respectively. It seemed like everyone was trying to figure out how to translate games from the second to the third dimension (and make oodles of money in the process).
At the time, many genres only went through a significant change in their graphics and perspective. Fighting games still involved hitting an opponent in the face until their life bar turned red, first-person shooters remained true to their namesake (shooting in the first-person), and console RPGs continued to rely on hand-drawn sprites fighting in a line. On the other hand, platforming games required a bit more consideration in redesign. With a shift to the third-dimension, the grand tradition of “running to the right side of the screen” had to evolve.
Initially, many developers simply enhanced the traditional model with 3-D objects set against a 2-D plane. Games like Bug! and Crash Bandicoot did some exciting things with this new “2.5-D” perspective. Other companies took the new, expansive lands and filled them with items and trinkets for the player to collect. Mario’s leap onto the Nintendo 64 tasked the hero with gathering stars in open worlds, with the ultimate goal of unlocking more stages through collection. But one small team based out of England had a novel idea for a platforming title: focus on the cinematic qualities of a hero exploring ancient ruins. With that notion, Tomb Raider was born.
Tomb Raider offered the player a rich world of exotic locales and ancient ruins to explore. There was no cumbersome heads-up-display or pile of trinkets to collect, so the gameplay was razor-focused on traversing each cavern, tomb, or ruin. The soundtrack featured the sort of symphonic music that accompanied most adventure films, but the tunes would only play during certain times. This minimalist approach lent stronger atmosphere to the game; locations and set-pieces seemed more remote and desolate without constant music running in the background. At the forefront of all these design choices stands Lara Croft, who went through several changes before she even hit the market as we know her today.
In the early stages of development, Lara was rendered as a male placeholder for gameplay testing. As the developers began to focus on stealth and puzzle-solving gameplay, they decided Tomb Raider better suited a strong female lead as opposed to a classic male action hero. This female lead went through several designs, which included a muscle covered amazon and a militant grunt, in an attempt to counter industry stereotypes of female characters. In the end, designers settled on a well-bred British archeologist by the name of Lara Croft to become one of the first leading ladies in video games.
With all of this rich history and longstanding legacy in mind, I prepared to play the original Tomb Raider for the first time. I would love to tell you that this game-changer has stood the test of time; that anyone who wants to experience excellence in platforming should download this title immediately and revel in its glory. Sadly, I am compelled to honesty in my writing, and the truth is that Tomb Raider has not aged gracefully.
Most of this is due to the controls of the game, which rely on the directional pad for movement, since the analog stick was not a feature of the Playstation controller at the time. As a result, I felt like I was driving a rather feminine tank as Lara jogged through passageways, managing to get caught on every surface she touched. Our heroine also has a nasty habit of not being able to interact with levers/switches/doors unless she is standing exactly in front of the aforementioned trigger. I became rather infuriated with Miss Croft as she managed to ignore the lever in the wall over and over again, despite being within arm’s reach of the switch. The controls for jumping are equally frustrating, and completely lacking in fluidity. There is a sort of pause between hitting the jump button and actually leaping, which lead to Lara bonking against ledges and falling to her undeserved demise.
It is such a shame that frustrating and dated controls have trapped Lara Croft’s first adventure in the crypt for influential games; never to have the same impact on players as it did back in 1996. Since so many action/adventure games of the current age focus on murdering wave after wave of enemies with flashy weapons and ridiculous kill-combos, it was refreshing to play a game where the focus is on exploring and appreciating the environments that the developers have lovingly created. I look forward to trying the newest entry with Laura (and Lara) later this week to see just how much the series has changed over the last seventeen years.