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Classic game appreciation section: Tomb Raider

Level-headed

The world that the game takes place in feels steeped in history. Walking through the lost city of Vilcabamba, you see animal skins stretched out on frames, pass earthenware pots on the floor and walk across hay-strewn wood in the now empty stables. Wooden beams in the ceiling have a rustic quality that makes you feel like someone spent time crafting them. And when you start getting into the Indiana Jones-style temples with swinging blades and booby traps, that's it. The game's got you enthralled.

These locations were abandoned in subsequent games, of course, but those same games are where the series started to go wrong. Why? Because they moved away from the very simple premise of raiding tombs. Tomb Raider 3's Area 51 section was utter nonsense compared to the beauty and haunting majesty of the vast majority of Tomb Raider's levels.


Above: Fighting a bear in an underground city in TR1 is better than avoiding security cams in TR3. Fact

And haunting really is the word. Even with all the bells and whistles offered by modern hardware, no Tomb Raider game has ever come close to matching the atmosphere of the original. Nathan McCree's score is utterly sensational, with incidental flourishes and short passages of music used in favour of the traditional 'level music' in other games. And when the monks start chanting, you really get what the team was trying to instil. A sense of awe, beauty and reverence. You should keep your voice down in here.

It was a trick used in Delphine Software's Flashback (pictured), which kept the audio track sparse for the most part. And, like Flashback, the gameplay was similarly-paced. It was all about lining up your jumps and then executing them perfectly instead of just running around and jumping blindly, relying on the game to catch you if you fall (like Nolan North era Prince of Persia) or just letting you rewind your mistakes (like Sands of Time-era Prince of Persia).

There's something to be said for both of those approaches to game design - probably something insulting in the case of the former - but Tomb Raider's extremely harsh treatment of failure is one of its greatest triumphs.

Yes, it's annoying when you die and you realise you haven't saved for half an hour, but if that doesn't give you a damn good reason to value your virtual life, I'm not sure what will. Why should you get a second chance, explorer? If this adventure's too much for you, why are you even here?


Above: One of the first major jumps has a mercifully shallow pit beneath. It's about the last one that does

I'm aware the control system is antiquated and awful and annoying and every other negative word beginning with 'A', but I like it. I like having to carefully line up jumps, hop backwards once, then run, leap and then hold a button to catch the ledge on the other side. It requires effort, finesse and patience. And because you have to take your time, you take in your surroundings more than if you could just dash across a room in 20 seconds like you do in today's games. Which, again, adds to that atmosphere - and feeling that you're going through all of this very much on your own.

 

To the end?

I actually doubt many players ever reached the end of Tomb Raider. Its later levels get ludicrously difficult, a problem exacerbated by the conservative distribution of save points (that can only be used once). But that's probably for the best. Aside from the ultra-scary torso boss…


Above: OHMYGODKILLITWITHFIRE!

…the final couple of levels seem to run out of ideas. The pulsating walls of the final area are a real WTF moment and Egypt, with its scattergun iconography and stretched level design, is perhaps one area too far. I appreciate the plot does involve supernatural elements, but the concept is frankly stretched to breaking point by the time you reach the conversation with Natla and perhaps it was too ambitious for the hardware to deliver. All that carefully-constructed credibility is undone by crude animated wall textures and underground palm trees.

Compare that to the genius touches of the rest of the game. The trigger moment of the T-Rex or the mythological hammer of Thor that you have to trigger by standing on the exact spot the hammer will fall. The way you get hurt running through spikes, but walking won't harm you. And as for that amazing bit with the fallen hand of the Midas statue...


Above: Everything he touched turned to gold. So standing on the hand of his statue is probably a bad idea

Playing Tomb Raider was a family pastime in my house - we'd all think about the puzzles (some of which had us stumped for a while). So when the Midas bit came on, my dad said to me 'you know the myth, right?' and I said 'yes, of course I do'. And I did. Then I climbed on the hand anyway. It was a Pike/Mainwaring moment. "You stupid boy".

 

Raiders of the lost art

It may be a cliche, but they literally don't make games like this any more. So I can forgive its flaky finale because the main bulk of the game is so perfect. From the wonder of Lost Valley and its T-Rex battle, through St Francis' Folly and the Coliseum, it's superb escapism. Perhaps not superlative, as Uncharted exists, but it only takes the best bits of Tomb Raider and improves on its few shortcomings.

And that's the problem, really. Uncharted is the worthy successor to Tomb Raider. Sure, I like the Tomb Raider Anniversary remake and appreciate the quality of Underworld, but there's only ever been one true Tomb Raider game in my mind - the original.

And, like Ridge Racer Type 4, you can buy it on PSN and enjoy it now. With some control remapping to make it more like the Saturn pad's layout, it works an absolute treat on PSP. There's no point buying it if you have no patience. This is like a fine wine. It should be approached slowly, sipped and savoured. Because like a vintage tipple, a game like this may never come around again - so let's be thankful that those first 3D grapes were fermented so exquisitely.

18 Aug, 2011

Appreciation section: Doom 3
It's not the Doom you remember, but it is the Doom you'll never forget

 

 

Appreciation section: Ridge Racer Type 4
It's Riiiiidge Raaaacer!!! Drifting straight into the racing hall of fame

 

 

Appreciation Section: Panzer Dragoon Zwei
One of about two good dragon games ever

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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