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...
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