Tomb Raider (1996): A Relic from a Different Time

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Tomb Raider (1996) turns 17 this year. This is good news for those drawn into gaming by Lara Croft’s rampant objectification, but what about those who appreciate a good game? I revisited the classic, curious how age has treated Lara. What I found myself asking was whether we, as gamers, have aged badly.

Tomb Raider introduces Lara Croft, an eloquent, self-assured archaeologist, famed for her ‘assets’ (although I can’t say I have ever really noticed). In the opening cinematic, she is asked to find the mysterious Atlantean Scion. We next see Lara trekking through a blizzard with a male companion. They discover a large stone gate, which Lara expertly scales and opens, by pressing a panel at its head. Within, green eyes glint in the darkness, and a pack of wolves emerge, savaging Lara’s male companion. Lara unholsters her pistols and drops—firing—from above. Companion dead, she enters the mountain alone. The great stone gate rolls closed behind her.

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This cinematic is highly effective because it clearly establishes key game elements. We are given a feel for Lara’s character, and a simple storyline. The cinematic also crucially conveys the game’s mechanics and atmosphere. We see that climbing and pressing switches will be important, that the environment will conspire against Lara, and that malicious threats lurk in the darkness. These challenges can be combated with a combination of acrobatics and precision. In the levels that follow, Tomb Raider manages to build on these elements while preserving and intensifying the threatening glint in the process.

One of the means through which this threat is preserved is through a sparing use of sound. Often all we hear are Lara’s footsteps, with an occasional echo, of a distant, ominous noise. This is sometimes accompanied by the scuttle, screech, or groan of an enemy lurking nearby. The music is reserved for particularly intense and scenic moments and has a powerful atmospheric quality.

What must be made clear is that combat is far from the most significant part of Tomb Raider; sadly, this represents the first sign of aging for many modern gamers. Following every Steam sale (as Tomb Raider can still be purchased for the PC), people complain about the combat elements. Lara’s unholstered weapons automatically target enemies and all players need do is hold the button to shoot. It seems basic, but those complaining are missing the point. Freedom (while firing) comes from Lara’s movement, consisting of gravity-defying jumps and rolls. The gameplay in Tomb Raider predominantly focuses on this movement, and environment interaction. In fact, in one of the later levels Lara starts with no guns at all.

What Tomb Raider is, and what gamers now find difficult to appreciate, is a game of patience and precision, punctuated by instances of panic.

In terms of exercising patience, players constantly face the possibility of death, not due to enemies, but due to a lapse in judgment on their part. Jumps must often be made from ledges suspended over spikes, lava, and hundred foot drops. Some jumps must also be performed while sliding, requiring careful timing. These mechanics are not forgiving. It is necessary to carefully tune movement, or else Lara will be sent plummeting to her death. To highlight this emphasis on precision, there is a button to make Lara walk one step forward or one step back. These mechanics bring with them complaints of cumbersome controls, but the problem is more one of adjustment. It is very much a change of pace from the Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia platformers of today, which try to balance combat with environmental interaction.

tombraiderjumpPatience is also of pivotal importance when considering the dominant puzzle and exploration element. I recall my dad once using a pen and paper to map out the exact dimensions of a level and the locations of blocks in order to navigate intricate tunnels. Pushing blocks can be painfully slow, so mistakes are better avoided. There is also a puzzle requiring lead bars to be converted to gold. This is done by placing each bar on the hand of King Midas’s statue. There was no hand-holding (no pun intended). There was no Google. Players had to rely on their wits and patience to guide Lara through the tombs.

I have explored patience and precision, but what of panic?

Tomb Raider has a sadistic save system. Sparsely scattered throughout each level are blue-floating crystals. Interacting with a crystal gives the option to save the game, but this is a one time deal. Save too early, and too often, and you will find yourself having to play the whole last half of the level without reprieve. Save too late, and you will find yourself forced to replay a lengthy segment. It presents quite the dilemma, and was criticized even in 1996. It is worth noting that, in the PC port, the save system was changed to allow players to save at any time they please.

The strength of this system is that you quickly become acutely aware of Lara’s vulnerabilities, and place great value on her life. For example, Lara’s health can only be replenished with scarce medpacks; there are times when you must frantically open the inventory to avoid impending death. Swimming underwater can also be a tense experience, as it is accompanied by a depleting gauge that represents how long Lara can swim before she drowns. The precision needed for jumps has already been well explained, but there are also traps: rolling boulders (think Indiana Jones), spike pits, swinging axes, crushing gates, and, in one instance, daggers which hang not-so-innocently from the ceiling. The option to manually look with the camera can often mean the difference between life and death.

Then there are the enemies. Nothing can prepare you for the piercing stab of instant panic which occurs when jumped by a shrieking mutant. No game since Tomb Raider has set me so on edge. I was 4 years old back then. It still scares me. This same intensity, greatly imbued by music and atmosphere, is unlikely to be achieved with a modern save system, of regular checkpoints, or the option to save at any moment.

The game is also as sadistic with Lara in death as it is in life. Death animations are often so explicit that they simply could not be reproduced with modern-day graphics. There is one abomination that picks up Lara by the leg, smashes her repeatedly on the ground, then wiggles her broken corpse before dropping her. Many people who were unable to beat the game vented their frustration by occupying themselves with finding elaborate means of killing Lara. Little Tom T included. Nothing shocked me more than when I stepped on the hand of Midas, and saw Lara slowly turn to gold.

It is true that the graphics have not aged well. Character models are rendered from about ten polygons, and textures pop all over the place. The game suffers the typical problem, where PS1 games have visually fared worse than the Nintendo titles from the same-era, presumably because Nintendo are more stylistic, and make little effort to capture realism. However the graphics can be forgiven, in light of the opportunity they provide for elaborate deaths.

The reason Tomb Raider has not aged well, and the reason I found myself asking whether we, as gamers, were the ones who have aged badly, is because it demands so much from the gamer. As a result, some of the game’s strengths can become its weaknesses.

In our modern gaming climate, even the most critically acclaimed single player titles often do not see completion. The game session tracker Raptr found only 7% of gamers completed the final mission of Red Dead Redemption, a “Game of the Year” winner, which sold upwards of 5 million copies. The attrition rate is so bad in fact that it was cited as the reason the Xbox One exclusive Titanfall has no single player at all. The immense resource dedication required was not seen as worth it, if only a small percentage of players will see much beyond the first mission. Our generation of gamers have been spoiled by hand-holding, quick-cheap thrills, and all the information of the internet at our finger tips. The result is a low tolerance for frustration and a poor attention span.

Tomb Raider, when excavated, has the hallmarks of a classic preserved. The truth is that we as gamers are the ones that have changed. Without being fueled by nostalgic familiarity, I question whether many could beat the game today, in the face of so much frustration. Those with the necessary temperament to slow down, pause, and exercise patience have my respect. For the tenacious gamer, Tomb Raider remains as immersive, frustrating, and rewarding as ever. For most, however, it pains me to say that Tomb Raider belongs to a different time.

  • Tom T

    More deaths: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2W2K8oUplw (for those that find the game’s sickly charm appealing)

  • Sam

    “Death animations are often so explicit that they simply could not be reproduced with modern-day graphics.”

    I reckon Mortal Kombat 9 would give you a run for your money.

    • Tom T

      I… stand corrected.

  • spaboolly

    “Famed for her ‘assets’ (although I can’t say I have ever really noticed).” Indeed.