Lara Croft, we hardly knew ye...
For a moment, forget everything you know about Tomb Raider.. the endless uninspired sequels, the shameless attempts to establish Lara Croft as a digital sex symbol, the constant stream of shoddy merchandising tie-ins.... At the very beginning, Tomb Raider was a groundbreaking game with an atmospheric, exciting adventure that launched the 3rd person action genre.
One of the things Tomb Raider is best known for are its graphics. They may look hideously primitive today, but in 1996, the blocky level architecture, low-resolution textures, and angular-bodied heroine were state-of-the-art. The PC version looked good out of the box, with a smooth-yet-blurry standard VGA mode and a 16-bit high-res mode that was much more detailed but ran poorly on all but the best systems. But, with a 3D accelerator card and a downloadable patch, the visuals would take on a whole new dimension, with 16-bit color, filtered textures, high screen resolution, and a buttery-smooth framerate. It really put the Playstation version in its place, and was one of the first real justifications for spending $300 on a 3dFX card.
As a feminist take on Indiana Jones, Lara Croft spends the entire game doing just what its name implies: raiding tombs. Imagine the first 15 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark expanded to a 10-20 hour game, and you'll get the picture. Lara traipses around the world, visiting ancient underground caverns in the Andes, Egypt, and more. Thanks to a capable 3D engine, all of the locales are impressively expansive, and filled with signs of age, distress, and abandonment that give you a real sense of being the first human in centuries to explore them. Aided by an echoy, evocative ambient soundtrack and a lonely, strings-heavy theme song, this game effectively creates a feel of isolation. Save for a handful of human boss enemies, Lara is utterly alone, with only animals and genetically engineered monsters for company.
The gameplay itself is basically a 3D adaptation of the system seen in games like Prince of Persia and Flashback:The Quest for Identity, with plenty of running, jumping and dangling over large dropoffs. Lara has a wide variety of moves, and is quick and agile like an anime ninja. The frequent combat is enjoyable as well: Lara automatically locks on to her nearest enemy, and will keep firing at it until you release the trigger. This, combined with her ability to flip in 3 directions while firing and a somersault move that instantly makes her face the opposite direction, makes gunfights intuitive and free-flowing.
The level architecture is based around cubes, and this impacts play control in a few negative ways. Most obviously, there is only one acceptable method of making a running leap from platform to platform. Lara needs to be roughly a "block" away from the edge, and the player must press the jump button shortly before she reaches it. Start too close or press the button too late, and she'll likely run right over the edge, often onto a bed of spikes or into a deadly freefall. This leads to many deaths, or at least a minute or two spent getting back into position for another try.
There are also numerous camera problems, which were typical in third-person 3D games during this time period. In particular, try backing Lara up against a wall, or trying to see around a corner in a narrow corridor. The game also uses a few too many key-fetch puzzles, which got a little tiresome by the end, even in 1996. Finally, the CGI cut scenes are truly terrible, with crappy video encoding and ugly character models. A particularly strong offender is the depiction of Lara herself. Along with sexiness, Lara Croft was supposed to bring "girl power" to video games, but it's hard to take her seriously when she has a wasp waist and her breasts look like they represent a full 60% of her body weight.
The Bottom Line
Sadly, the original Tomb Raider's dated graphics combined with the series' current-day status as the laughingstock of 32-bit franchises means that any gamer trying it for the first time today will likely be less than impressed. But trust me when I say that in 1996, it was something special.