It’s a groundbreaking video game that stars a rare female protagonist. It’s been adapted into two movies starring Angelina Jolie, with a new reboot starring Alicia Vikander coming to theaters on March 16th. Thia the Bard has already written an excellent article for Real Women of Gaming about the impact that it had on the gaming industry with its famous protagonist, Lara Croft. It’s the one and only Tomb Raider!
It’s also a game that I never tried playing until recently. But then, lo and behold, I managed to find a copy in my local retro game store for $6, and here we are.
Tomb Raider, originally released for the PlayStation 1, Sega Saturn, and PC, stars Lara Croft, an adventurous woman who likes exploring dangerous locations and finding priceless artifacts. The game begins with Jacqueline Natla hiring her to find a piece of a scion in the mountains of Peru- but Lara is soon betrayed and strikes out to find the rest of the pieces on her own.
When I first started playing this game, I realized just how much modern games have spoiled me. I’m used to playing through tutorials that hold my hand the entire time, telling me exactly what buttons to press in every situation. Tomb Raider has a tutorial, but it’s not part of the main game. Instead, you can access Lara’s home in the main menu, and she’ll guide you through jumping, running, walking, etc. But even then, there’s no “press X to perform an action.” It’s always “press the jump button” or “press the action button.” You want to know which button’s the jump button? Well, you’ll just have to read the manual or figure it out yourself, because Lara’s not talking.
So I was completely out of my league when I first dove into the adventure and had to backtrack to Lara’s house to figure out what I needed to do. That said, I love the setup. It’s perfect for experienced gamers who don’t need a repeat lesson at the start of every playthrough, and also great for people like me who tend to start games, stop them when life gets in the way, and then pick them up again months later. The tutorial’s there to refresh your memory whenever you need it, and then you can jump right back into the actual game.
Unfortunately, the controls and graphics haven’t aged well. It can be difficult to navigate a three-dimensional environment with a control pad instead of a control stick. I’ve done it in the past with DS games like Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. But Tomb Raider felt clunkier, perhaps because it’s on a bigger screen with wider areas to explore. Fortunately, the developers added the “walk” command that allows Lara to move slowly through treacherous areas, and while walking, she cannot fall over a ledge no matter how much you push her. This helps out a lot.
(Also, yes, some PS1 controllers come with control sticks, but the ones that I own did not work with Tomb Raider. Lara only ever moved when I directed her with the control pad.)
Obviously, most games from the PS1-era have not stood the test of time in terms of how they look. So it is with Tomb Raider. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the silliness of polygon characters bobbing their heads up and down as they “talked” in certain cutscenes, if only for nostalgic reasons. The cutscenes that take place in-between levels have a higher quality. Although, again, that’s not saying much. It looks great for a PS1 game.
The visuals may look awkward, but Tomb Raider has good voice acting for its short cutscenes and Lara’s tutorial. It also has a different approach to its soundtrack compared to other video games that I’ve played in the past. You’ll hear musical themes throughout the game, but only at specific points, and not for very long. It usually starts up when you reach a significant area or come across a certain enemy. The rest of the time, you explore the tombs in silence. In this way, the soundtrack gives you a sense of where you are and how you’re progressing through the game. However, it’s no guarantee of anything. There are situations, such as the final fight in the Tomb of Qualopec, where the enemy attacks Lara with no musical warning whatsoever and you have to act fast.
Finally, there’s Lara Croft herself. I like her character and how she prefers exploring tombs “for sport,” as she puts it, rather than for riches. Additionally, I think it’s really neat that while Lara does battle a couple of male antagonists, the main villain in the first Tomb Raider is another woman. I wasn’t expecting that at all.
Yes, Lara’s character design is problematic with her unrealistically large breasts shown on the cover. But, for what it’s worth, the actual game doesn’t focus on her appearance as much as it focuses on her love of tomb raiding and action skills. As Cracked.com put it in their article, “6 Glitches That Accidentally Invented Modern Gaming:” “Lara is strong, independently wealthy, beautiful, smart, and great at what she does.” And I enjoyed have the opportunity to go on exciting adventures with a smart, capable, adventurous woman as the playable character.
Overall, I’ve had a mixed experience with Tomb Raider. I love the concept of exploring ancient tombs to find powerful artifacts before the Evil Organization gets there first. I like Lara’s character too. But it’s not a series that I’m dying to continue playing. There’s only so many times that I can miss a jump before I stop having fun and start feeling frustrated. Then again, that’s probably just me and my own lack of gaming skills. I’m still looking forward to the new movie, and I’ll probably try out the Square-Enix reboot on the PS4 someday.