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Classic game appreciation section: Tomb Raider

If you asked me to point to one game that showcased the potential of moving from 2D side-scrolling games to 3D environments, I wouldn't be aiming my digit at the fat, moustachioed plumber. True, Super Mario 64 got there first in delivering fully 3D environments, but only in Japan. In the West, Tomb Raider gave us our first taste of true 3D exploration – and it did so magnificently. Bitch about the controls all you like, I maintain Tomb Raider is a masterpiece. Here's why:

The game came out on Sega Saturn at the tail-end of 1996. I was 14, which you would expect to mean I had a huge crush on Lara Croft. Every modern-day tribute to the game will point to her as the secret for the game's success. But that simply wan't the case. Nobody I knew perved at Lara because… well, she was made of pointy bits. On-screen, there's nothing sexy about this 'sex symbol'.


Above: Nobody at my school fancied Lara Croft. She looks... like a bad taxidermy. Of a blow-up doll

No. The first time I saw Tomb Raider in motion was in a real-time demo of the City of Vilcabamba on a Saturn coverdisc, and my initial thoughts of Lara weren't 'look at her bum' or 'I hope the camera zooms in a bit closer' – it was actually 'wow, she's making me feel tired'. Because the running animation was so lifelike, I felt like she would likely stop for a breather at any moment.



Above: The first moving glimpse of Tomb Raider I ever saw. It was a new world - gaming had changed forever

Amazingly, the animation was not motion-captured. Even though the game takes many of its cues from the famously mo-capped Prince of Persia, every movement of Lara's body was painstakingly animated via a technique known as 'keyframes' by hand by the game's animator, Toby Gard. An interview at the time explained:

Motion capture is a bit of a non-starter for a game like this. The problem is that in order to make something move smoothly, the various animations have to link at the cross-over point. If you use motion capture, you just can't get a person to move into exactly the same position time and time again. If you look at motion capture stuff the feet tend to jiggle around like anything. To avoid that sort of thing you would have to spend so much time cleaning it up, you might as well have key framed it in the first place.

With Lara on-screen throughout the entire game, her animation had to be perfect. The third-person actioner genre was still in its infancy (any kind of elevated floors were a genuinely impressive feature), but Core didn't take any shortcuts in delivering astonishing movement.

Looking at it now, you can clearly see the transitions between key frames, like when you go to interact with a sliding block and Lara slowly raises both hands, then either goes into the pushing or pulling animation depending which commend you enter. But none of these puppet strings were visible to my eyes in 1996 and I was overwhelmed with awe. To be honest, it's still some of the finest animation in gaming, 15 years on.

 

It works! Sort of...

With each new generation, the original Tomb Raider becomes more and more astonishing. How could such a cohesive and enthralling gameworld be built on such cripplingly underpowered hardware as the Saturn and PSone? They were wheezing under the strain of drawing these images 30 times every second - and often failed to do that. Famously, Lara's bob haircut was only implemented when it turned out there weren't enough polygons left to allow her ponytail to be rendered. Likewise, it was a breakthrough moment when Tomb Raider III's graphics used triangles instead of rectangles. Imagine trying to make a game out of rectangles.


Above: That's not a low-poly skeleton on a scrappy rock texture. It's a fallen adventurer and nothing less

Audiences in 1996 were prepared to make that leap of imagination because they had to. And maybe that's why the modern games don't capture gamers' imaginations in quite the same way any more. There's no need for your brain to do anything other than take in the millions of ultra-crisp pixels - and that's when imagination dies. From a personal perspective, it's like Monty Python's horses. Until the castle guard pointed out that there weren't any real horses, only coconuts being banged together, I was seeing horses. No, seriously, in my mind, King Arthur was riding a horse. It's called willing suspension of disbelief, which may be embarassing to recount, but it often means you have more fun:



Saturn and PSone's graphical capabilities were the coconuts. So I was there with Lara in these places, not amidst a mess of polygons. Yes, alright, I've gone wrong. Let's move on...

15 comments

  • Laini - August 23, 2011 2:11 a.m.

    The first Tomb Raider was a family expierence in my household too. My dad, brother, sister and I would all take turns when someone else died and spend ages discussing how to solve each puzzle. I too quite liked the control scheme. It seemed to lend a real weight to your actions. Who in the same situation would just blindly run around jumping willy nilly? You'd take the time to line it up and make sure you had enough room to build up speed. Sure it feels silly but it makes a lot of sense too. One of my favourite games of all the time for so many reasons. Great article and thanks for making me think back on some good memories :)
  • centrip - August 20, 2011 2:44 p.m.

    Both flashback and TR had AMAZING title screen tunes. In TR I remember running around like a headless chicken from the final boss only to fall off the ledge - the drop was so far, Lara screamed twice on the way down!
  • AuthorityFigure - August 20, 2011 1:36 p.m.

    It's an important game, no doubt. But it is more of a technical achievement than it is a gaming achievement.
  • MeabhieD - August 20, 2011 12:04 p.m.

    I love TR. I always remember watching my sister play it for hours, and when she gave me a go, how S*** i was at it. Being three again, just the greatest...
  • mothbanquet - August 20, 2011 10:09 a.m.

    Dunno what I enjoyed most about this article, the frequent harkening back to St Francis' Folly - the Damocles room gave me nightmares - and the T-Rex valley, or the references to Holy Grail and Dad's Army. Either way, Justin, you make my day with every one of these.
  • gilgamesh310 - August 18, 2011 10:51 p.m.

    I really enjoyed this article, up until the point where he had to compare the game to Uncharted. I am sick of these games being compared to each other, they are not even alike, really. If they are compared Tomb Raider trumps Uncharted in most areas. The platforming in puzzles play themselves in Uncharted. In Tomb Raider you really have to think and the game requires a lot of skill from the player to be able to progress. Everything he said was bang on up to that point though. The way he described the last few levels dip in quality is very true. I don't know why he had to spoil the article by bringing up one of the most overrated game series' of this generation and one who's gameplay is mostly different to Tomb Raider's.
  • BeerBaron - August 18, 2011 7:04 p.m.

    I had given video games a rest after years of near obsessiveness playing them. Later while visiting my brother he wanted to show me his new Playstation. I was curious and took a peek, the game they had was Tomb Raider. I was hooked again, this was the game I had been waiting for but never really knew it. Your article is spot on and a welcome memory. The only current game that gives me a similar vibe is Fallout 3, of course it's more focused on fighting but there is a great deal of exploration.
  • Rhymenocerous - August 18, 2011 6:46 p.m.

    Justin this appreciation article is perfect, absolutely spot on in regards to EVERYTHING. It just makes me a little sad that games aren't like this anymore...Why did things change? When was the actual time that devs (or maybe, publishers) decided everyone needs their handheld all through a game to be able to enjoy it? I guess we were lucky to have lived the 90's... Rejoice! A toast to (mid) 90's!
  • paganpoet - August 18, 2011 5:43 p.m.

    re: people thinking Lara Croft, did anybody ever know anybody back then who actually thought that? I mean, people talked about her chest size, and the media seemed to talk about her status as a sex symbol, but CG images were so bizarre looking back then. I can certainly understand finding her attractive in more recent games or the upcoming one, as hardware capabilities have made it possible for her to look more realistic.
  • DirkSteele1 - August 18, 2011 5:14 p.m.

    Up there with Super Mario Bros on the NES and Sonic 1 on the Megadrive in the list of games that were very important to the continued growth, evolution and mainstream acceptance of our chosen hobby.
  • TheCakeIsaPie - August 18, 2011 4:26 p.m.

    I love these appreciation articles, Justin! Keep them coming!
  • Vordhosbn - August 18, 2011 4:25 p.m.

    I love the first 2 Tomb Raider games, many happy memories indeed. I just wish they'd release number 2 on PSN in Europe....it seems daft to have every other old Tomb Raider except that available.
  • garnsr - August 18, 2011 4:22 p.m.

    I agree, the first Tomb Raider is the only game that really feels like adventuring, more than fighting with a bit of climbing thrown in. Uncharted has so much fighting, and the new Tomb Raiders went so far that way too, that while I like them, I still want a game that has you climbing around huge rooms, not worrying about baddies (especially guys with guns) popping out. Shadow of the Colossus actually comes reasonably close to replicating the first Tomb Raider, figuring out how to get to the Colossi is most of the game.
  • paganpoet - August 18, 2011 4:13 p.m.

    One of my favorite games of all time. It plays like crap now, but at the time it came out, it was just an amazing experience. I still prefer the first one over the other Playstation sequels because of the feeling of isolation...like you're the first person to be in these ruins in thousands of years.
  • NetwebPT - August 18, 2011 3:51 p.m.

    I completed this game eleven times on Saturn, PC and PS. One of my first games..that's made me a Lara's slave :D

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