A shattered visage
It's strange how things can be all over the place one moment, and forgotten the next. 'Wing Commander' is the next best example; after a series of increasingly elaborate games and the spin-off 'Privateer' series, there was a flop film and then nothing, nothing at all. The last Wing Commander game came out seven years ago, and it's hard now to remember that it was once a major force in the PC games world. Star Trek will go the same way, in a few years. The lone and level sands will stretch far away.
Tomb Raider is another case in point. The series was everywhere for a good five or six years, and the character of Lara Croft was a pop cultural icon to rival Pac-Man. The Tomb Raider games became such a phenomenon that magazines and newspapers took to writing about the phenomenon itself rather than the game. The series merited a film that was a financial success, and a sequel which was not. The most recent game came out only two years ago, but the Tomb Raider series seems to be dead and gone. Only a few dozen months ago, Lara Croft was the wet dream of the kind of people who write for 'Wired' magazine, and caused the nocturnal emission of several pints of buzz words and grandiose musings on the nature of celebrity in the internet age and so forth. The character and physique of Lara Croft had the effect of reinforcing the media's stereotypical portrayal of computer gamesplayers as hormonal male teenagers with little experience of real-life breasts, or indeed women in general. (Thankfully, the few games which directly imitated the character flopped dismally, perhaps because hormonal male teenagers are more comfortable with images of black-clad Ninja men holding guns than they are with women.)
The impulse to write about the Tomb Raider phenomenon rather than the actual games is so seductive that I am doing so myself, right now, in what is supposed to be a review of Eidos' 1996 original. I could carry on indefinitely, if only a publisher would agree to finance me; and that is unlikely, because Tomb Raider is no longer the money-spinning cultural giant it once was. The lack of an impulse to scrutinise the games turned out to be a blessing, because the games were essentially the same, with slightly different graphics and different environments.
Tomb Raider is an unusually atmospheric platform game. Unlike the majority of its contemporaries, it takes a broadly realistic approach. The main character is a human being, rather than a dragon or super-deformed plumber; the environments are supposed to represent the real world, albeit that they are hyper-real in the style of the 'Indiana Jones' films, which the game resembles. The main character is, unusually for a computer game, a woman, and plenty has been written about Lara Croft elsewhere. As she is mostly viewed from a behind-and-above perspective, her breasts quickly fade from the memory, and although it is surprisingly erotic to drown or otherwise kill Lara - admit it, you enjoyed it too - her abundant physique quickly becomes mentally invisible.
The gameplay is, as covered effectively by Mr Ludicrous Gibs elsewhere, a mixture of jumping puzzles and "hunt the cog / switch" runabouts, complicated by the unusual control scheme. The player's control of Lara Croft is much less direct than in other platform games; she jumps of her own accord, and only on one of the invisible gridlines that make up the world. Performing a running jump from the edge of blocks is devilishly hard until you realise that you have to press the jump key a few steps in advance.
As such the platform action feels distanced, closer to being a puzzle game than a test of skill. It's not so much "can you make that jump" as "where will you jump next", and frequently you find yourself having to ascend shafts by leaping from edge to edge in a careful and unique sequence. The game's enjoyment comes from working out the puzzles and enjoying the spectacle, and at the time Tomb Raider was a very attractive game. Particularly if you had a PowerVR or 3DFX card, in which case the textures were smoothed off and the underwater bits had a gorgeous fog. The music is actually a set of ambient soundscapes which sound nice when listened to on CD, plus a theme which uses a lot of woodwinds, from what I remember.
Apart from the abovementioned control issues, the game was generally of a consistent standard and only occasionally marred by excessive obtuseness (a level in which you have to fiddle with water pumps sticks badly in the memory). The biggest gripe is that of the series itself, which barely progressed from this game onwards; rather than using the character of Lara Croft in a new context, or fundamentally altering the gameplay, the people or organisation responsible for the product seemed content to pump out the same game with minor variations.
The Bottom Line
In its day it was a fun platform game, with frustrating controls, atmospheric locations, one or two impressive setpieces - an attack by a big dinosaur was particularly good - and an iconic female character who utterly failed to stem the tide of rape, prostitution, forced marriage, female child-murder, battery and casual, constant abuse which is still a woman's lot in 2005. I have no idea if it'll work on a modern-day Windows machine - the game emerged even before 3D cards were common. It also has a historical part to play in the story of Sony's PlayStation, because along with Wipeout it was one of the console's first wave of killer apps (if we count Gran Turismo and Final Fantasy VII as the "second wave"). As such it might be best to buy the PlayStation version and play it on your PC with an emulator, albeit that you'll miss out on the attractive 3D accelerated graphics.
Ah, I remember when Lara Croft was played by Rhona Mitra. She was almost the same age as me. And yet she never answered any of my letters, even though I sent loads. That made me very upset but I have calmed down now.