First posted on 25 February 2006. Last updated on 09 August 2009.
From time to time there is a game that, while not being the first of its kind, successes as a pioneer of a new genre and become the reference against which all future games alike are measured. An example of such a game is Tomb Raider. Since the original title, the series has spawned many sequels (not counting the Gold versions) and crossed multiple gaming platforms to be among the most popular game franchise in history. It is in the original Tomb Raider that we first meet our heroine, whose fascination has since grown far beyond the boundaries of a computer or a console. What is her name? Her name is Lara Croft.
The intro starts with a scene of a nuclear test in New Mexico. Lara, the last descendant of a noble family with a feeble for adventuring, has used up most of her family's wealth and is now adventuring for money. Miss Jacqueline Natla, an owner of a world spanning emporium and a collector of ancient arts, has hired you, Lara, to find an ancient artifact known as the Scion. To locate this artifact, you must travel to Peru to the tomb of Qualopec where the Scion is said to be buried.
After shooting your way through to the tomb and recovering the artifact, you learn that what you have retrieved is only the first piece of the Scion. Unbeknownst to you, your benefactor has hired Pierre Dupont to recover the second part of the Scion from a French monastery under which the last king of Atlantis is said to be buried. In the tomb you find references to old Egypt and clues to another tomb in the old city of Khamoon where you find the third piece of the Scion (by now, you know why this game is called "Tomb" Raider). Just as when you recover the final piece, you are surprised by Miss Natla, who rips you off of all your weapons and the Scion while trying to kill you. You escape and follow her to a ship traveling to a small island under which a pyramid of the old Atlantis is supposed to be buried. There, you learn that Miss Natla is actually the last survivor of Atlantis who has been previously imprisoned and buried—that is, until the nuclear test in New Mexcio which has freed her. She has been imprisoned as a punishment by the other kings of Atlantis for her plans to breed a super race of beings to force the development of the human evolution. As she now has all the pieces of the Scion, she can continue the breeding of her creations. In the end, it is up to you to kill the abominable beast, foil her evil scheme, and save the world.
With Tomb Raider, Core Design has succeeded in creating an unique world that has since survived many sequels. The game is played in a 3D environment from the perspective of a moving camera that follows Lara from her back. This environment is constructed using rough polygon models to ensure good performance from the game engine in animating both Lara's actions and the environment's reactions. These polygon models are mapped with very detailed textures so that the jagged polygons are nearly imperceptible unless Lara is standing directly in front of them. There are some problems with bending textures if Lara is too close to a structure, but I have only encountered these problems a few times when Lara has to shimmy to an open area. The game is designed for DOS but can be run in a DOS window under Windows 95 or 98. The only major hardware problem I have encountered is that I have not been able to turn off my analog joystick while playing the game, so that I have to unplug it from the computer in order to prevent the joystick from sending false signals to the game.
The cut scenes in Tomb Raider are made up of either pre-rendered interlaced videos or animated clips generated in real time by the game engine (especially if Lara has some "last words" to say when she has just defeated an enemy or has to fight an upcoming enemy). You can easily tell the difference between these cut scenes since you can see how polygonal Lara really look in the latter. For slower machine (such as a slow Pentium), the game appears more jaggy and there is an option to switch to a lower resolution. While the game does not look as sharp as it does with higher resolution, it is a necessary sacrifice in order for you to play the game successfully at a reasonable speed. This is particularly important in situations when you have to turn quickly while fighting the beast because it is at your back or when you have to time a jump correctly in order to avoid the swinging blades.
The sounds in Tomb Raider are mostly of Lara's footsteps on different types of ground surfaces and the battle cries of the different enemies. In certain scenes, you can hear small bits of 3D echoing. This is an amazing technical achievement, since 3D sound technology is still in its infancy when this game is made. There is no background music in the game, but its absence justly adds more to the feeling of being completely alone trapped in an isolated world.
Controlling the character of Lara is very simple. There are 4 basic movement types (run, walk, jump, strafe) which are selected by keys you hold while using the movement keys. Swimming is set by default when Lara is in or under water. All the basic movements are explained in an extra training mission at the beginning of the game. Weapon usage is also very simple. Lara automatically aims towards the targets herself, so you only have to control when to fire with the pre-selected weapon. Inventory usage or weapon switching are easily accessible by simply pressing ESC during the game.
Tomb Raider is the prototypic action adventure game that is more action than adventure oriented. Aside from killing enemies and animals, Lara does a lot of platform jumping. This includes different types of jump, run/jump, and jump/grab, depending on the distance Lara has to make. In fact, this platform jumping is even more challenging than the killing of different monsters in the game. Do not fear, though. All the jump modes are explained in detail in the training mission and, after a few falls, you can easily tell which jump is needed to prevent Lara from plummeting to her death. The puzzles in Tomb Raider consist mostly of finding the correct keys or levers to open doors or passageways to different areas. The relations between the keys or levers and the doors or passageways are generally very obvious. There are a few areas that cannot be found or reached as easily. These areas are marked as secrets. At the end of each level, you are told how many of them you have found and how many there actually exists in total for that particular level. This is the only difficult part of the game that requires some thinking, and the goal to find all the hidden secrets adds significant replay value to this game.
Undeniably, the single biggest draw of Tomb Raider is its groundbreaking engine that makes it possible to play as a heroine who has more than just a pair of big guns! The simple fighting system with dynamic camera controls is superior to other games from the same era such as Alone in the Dark which requires manually aiming and only uses a fixed camera perspective. However, the algorithm that is used to control the camera is at times too inflexible. In general, the camera floats behind Lara and is only directed to the front or side if there is no room behind her. Sometimes the camera creates awkward shots that are unplayable, such as when Lara is standing on a platform after going through a door which then closes between her and the camera or when Lara has to run down a slope and jump at the right moment just as the camera is pointing somewhere else (so that you must guess at the right time to jump).
Tomb Raider is the original classic game that has sparked the popularity of the mixed action adventure genre. It has become the yardstick against which numerous imitators have since been measured. Although the graphics may appear outdated today, the game still holds a quality that has made it an enduring title. The story of Tomb Raider may not be very logical (mixing up different ancient civilizations such as putting Mayan designs in an Inca tomb), but the story is not what Tomb Raider is truly about. What this game is about is the adrenaline pumping combination of action and adventure, all of which are packaged in the body of a sexy heroine named Lara Croft.