I was 12 when I met Lara. It was love at first sight. She, a globe-trotting archaeologist adventurer, and I, a bookworm from Portsmouth still reeling from the demise of the Spice Girls. As our eyes met across a Peruvian cave, my life changed forever.
It wasn’t just her good looks, intelligence and fearlessness. It was her insatiable thirst for discovery, throwing herself into the most inhospitable places on Earth simply for the sake of finding something that no-one else knew about, even when common sense, logic and giant yetis suggested she do otherwise. I knew I’d follow her wherever she went. Well over a decade later, I’m glad I did. Tomb Raider is easily the most influential gaming experience in a life mostly spent playing games. Nothing else combines exploration, puzzling, platforming and fantasy in quite the same way.
The series has seen more than a few re-inventions, and this year will see yet another reboot in the form of, erm, Tomb Raider. While it’s unlikely Lara will ever return to the cutting edge of gaming, I’m glad she’s still around. Nobody, to make reference to another amoral British icon, does it better.
Here’s a list of the funniest, the most exciting and the most iconic Tomb Raider moments, to either feed your nostalgia beast, or to propel you to the PSN, where all the old games are waiting to be played. I make no apology for the fact that the list is weighted heavily towards the older games in the series, this is a top ten list, and that’s where most of the top ten moments are. A longer list would have seen young Lara’s weaponless visit to a haunted island in Chronicles, her emo-tastic relationship with moody chopper-rider Kurtis Trent and the hidden ending to Underworld that puts a whole new spin on her antagonistic relationship with spooky Amanda Evert.
10: Climbing the Great Pyramid – Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation (Core Design, 1999)
(Starts at 2:55)
The Great Pyramid at Giza is pretty much the ultimate tomb, so it’s fitting that Lara has to do some acrobatics before she gets to raid it. Angling Lara’s jumps is probably the most annoying thing about early Tomb Raider games (“step up to the corner, sidestep to the left, hop back and then rotate so Lara’s left shoulder is in line with the rock that’s a slightly different shade of brown from the surrounding rocks, then do a standing jump and grab…”), but that’s what you have to do if you want to make it to the top. The Great Pyramid is made of hundreds of sloping blocks, and you have to find a route to the entrance so you can confront Horus and prevent Armageddon (long story).
It’s not often that Tomb Raider games require you to perform any kind of sustained activity on a large, open landscape, so the Great Pyramid is a change of pace that remains etched on your memory. It does this despite breaking all kinds of game design rules: it requires memorising a repetitive sequence of moves in what should be an organic scenario and requires heavy use of the game’s worst mechanic. However, it’s the contrast between this vast, outdoor climb and the explorative puzzling through The Last Revelation’s labyrinthine earlier levels that makes it so effective.
By the way, I love how whoever made that video is using exploding crossbow ammunition to kill bugs. That’s what Lara would do.
9: Home, Sweet Home – Tomb Raider II (Core Design, 1997)
Tomb Raider II pits our heroine against Mafia don Marco Bartolli in a race to obtain the dagger of Xian, an artefact of apocalyptic power. After the “final boss” (spoiler alert!), Lara pockets the dagger and returns to leafy Surrey.
We catch up with her lounging about in a very fetching bathrobe as she admires her prize. Unfortunately, Bartolli’s goons aren’t happy about her totalling their boss and running off with the spoils, so they rock up to Croft Manor in a convoy of Jeeps with a pack of Dobermans in tow. Unfortunately for them, Lara’s the kind of girl who keeps a loaded shotgun in her closet.
Having Lara run around her stately home barefoot, gunning down the Mafia, is a brilliant expression of her preposterous character. The film version tried something similar with a pair of slinky pyjamas and a bungie cord, but the brutal nonchalance of Lara’s domestic massacre is far more memorable.
The slightly risqué nature of the episode – muscled men invade the home of scantily-clad single woman – is turned on its head by a short epilogue. Lara stands in front of her running shower, about to disrobe. The camera lingers on her a second too long, and she reaches for her gun. “Don’t you think you’ve seen enough?” she asks, before giving you both barrels.
The answer, of course, was no. Elegant but merciless, sexy but never objectified, “Home, sweet home”, showed Lara at her contradictory, outrageous best.
8: The Damned – Tomb Raider III (Core Design, 1998)
Fiction which imagines what lurks beneath the London Underground is almost a genre in itself, and Tomb Raider III’s London episode is firmly rooted in this tradition. On the trail of a magical artefact carved from asteroid rock, Lara, clad in a foxy catsuit (PVC is really good for climbing), finds herself in the ruins of Aldwych station, only to come face to face with The Damned, a gang of Geordies (post-PJ & Duncan, pre-Cheryl) whose flesh was eaten off when they made the mistake of signing up as product testers for Sophia Leigh’s cosmetics company.
As their leader explains, Sophia is attempting to create the elixir of eternal youth, but an early formula tested by him and his brethren not only robbed them of their flesh, but cursed them with eternal life. Could Lara see her way to stealing some Egyptian embalming fluid from the Natural History Museum in exchange for a bit of help with the nefarious Ms. Leigh?
Do giant mutant bears shit in the woods?
7: Angkor Wat – Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation (Core Design, 1999)
Crystal Dymanics upset a lot of fans when they changed Lara’s backstory. Still, their decision is partly understandable when you look at the old one. How did Lara learn to become an adventurer, you ask? Simple, replies Core Design. Her father sent her, un-chaperoned, aged 16, on a dangerous tomb raiding expedition with rent-a-nazi Werner Von Croy.
Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation’s extensive tutorial covers this hitherto-unknown period in Lara’s life. Young Lara (I love how you can tell she’s 16 because she’s wearing her hair in bunches, like all 16-year-olds) must accompany Werner on a quest to retrieve a dangerous artefact from Angkor Wat, pulling underwater levers for her gout-riddled tutor as he reminds her how naïve and British she is in his comedy accent.
It’s always been hard to tell whether the scripts of early Tomb Raider games were meant to be…like that, or if they were the most conspicuous victims of a hasty development cycle, but there are few fans who don’t look on the awkward dialogue and campy one-liners without affection. Werner and Lara’s bizarre banter is among the funniest in the series, especially when he keeps lumbering into the fourth wall by saying things like “press jump and hold the action key to grab the ledge!”.
At a junction, he asks Lara whether she’d rather take “the route of the virtuous” or “the path of the heretical”. If you’ve found all eight secrets (golden skulls, natch), 16-year-old Lara will say “I’m up for a little heresy!”
Isn’t she always…
6: 40 Fathoms – Tomb Raider II (Core Design, 1997)
Lara’s first costume change (in front of a totally non-plussed Tibetan monk, incidentally) came half-way through Tomb Raider II, and sees our heroine ditching the shorts in favour of a wetsuit. It’s ok, her backpack is made of the same stuff as Dr Who’s Tardis, so her massive desert books fit in alongside the shotgun, uzis, and 20 military-grade med-packs.
Anyway, Lara needs a wetsuit because she’s about to hitch a lift on the back of a submersible and loot the wreck of the Maria Doria, currently resting on the ocean floor. An FMV (remember those?) shows Lara demonstrating that real adventurers don’t need diving gear, which is more than can be said for the pilot of the vessel, who dies when it is attacked by a shark.
Control is handed back to the player as Lara is left floating deep underwater in almost total darkness, with only 30 seconds to find some air before she drowns. Thus begins a very nerve-wracking sequence, which has many players mistakenly try to reach the surface instead of heading for the wreck. The premise might make no sense (how come Lara isn’t crushed by the pressure?), but it’s a great gaming moment.
5: Main Theme – Tomb Raider, Tomb Raider II, Tomb Raider III (Core Design, 1996, 1997, 1998)
Yes, Lara was a pin-up, and yes, Tomb Raider did things with three dimensions that no-one had done before, but what really made us fall in love with Tomb Raider was the mystery, the isolation, the sense of exploration. The feeling of discovering something that had lain forgotten for thousands of years.
When you look back at the Tomb Raider, built from thousands of beige blocks, you realise how incredible it is that the game cast such a powerful spell. Much of this was down to the score, which was then, and still is now, unlike anything else in gaming. Lara Croft may have mimicked a few of Indiana Jones’ moves, but she shunned his 1930′s adventure serial brass in favour of something altogether more beautiful. The Tomb Raider theme, with its unmistakable four-note opening, is as mesmerising today as it was back in 1996.
The next two games began with no less wonderful variations. Tomb Raider II gave us delicate, sweeping strings that suited its tale of frozen temples and Venetian architecture, while Tomb Raider III‘s more dramatic offering set us up for an altogether more explosive adventure.
4: Midas’ hand – Tomb Raider (Core Design, 1996)
Taking its cues from Indiana Jones, one thing the Tomb Raider series has always done well is traps. Though there’s nothing wrong with simple spike pits and rolling boulders (or the crunchy, squishy noise Lara’s body makes as she succumbs to them), the best Tomb Raider traps are those which take you completely by surprise.
Of these, Midas’ hand is perhaps the best. The statue of King Midas lies in ruins in a Greek palace. You can tell it’s him because it says “MIDAS” across the bottom. Being an explorer, your first instinct is to leap onto the disembodied, outstretched hand in front of you. Bad idea! King Midas, as anyone familiar with Greek myths will know, turns anything he touches to gold. This includes Lara.
What makes this trap so delicious is not only the fact that a little pre-school mythological knowledge will save you, but also that you need to use the hand to turn lead into gold in order to solve a later puzzle. Educated, logical and slightly evil, Midas’ lethal hand is Tomb Raider’s puzzling at its best.
3: The Grapple (Tomb Raider: Legend, Tomb Raider: Anniversary, Tomb Raider: Underworld)
(Starts at 2:25)
Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider games moved away from the adventure-style “find, combine and unlock” gameplay of the Core Design years to focused on platforming, and fond though we all are of Core’s “supermarket trolley” physics, that’s something Lara would never have been able to do back in the 90s. The symbol of this shift, and of the series’ new identity, is the magnetic grapple.
The grapple began life in Tomb Raider: Legend as a device to add diversity to the platforming. Lara could now swing, wall run, and pull herself around a submerged crypt while floating on the back of a thousand-year-old coffin. Tomb Raider: Anniversary used this solid foundation to re-imagine Tomb Raider, and the Egypt levels in particular were given new life with its addition; but it was in Tomb Raider: Underworld’s DLC Beneath the Ashes where things really started to get good. Crystal Dynamics built on their grapple physics to create a whole new kind of puzzle, one where Lara would have to use it to manipulate her environment as well as just transport herself from place to place.
It’s not technically a Tomb Raider game, but Crystal Dynamics’ Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (2010) built an entire game around grapple puzzles, and it’s still one of the best things ever to hit the XBLA.
2: Croft Manor (Tomb Raider, Tomb Raider II, Tomb Raider III, Tomb Raider: Legend, Tomb Raider: Anniversary, Core Design, Crystal Dynamics, 1996-2007)
Lara’s mansion is possibly the best-known domicile in gaming. Far more than a tutorial level, it serves both as a sanctuary from the hostile environments the player encounters on their travels and a window onto Lara’s inner life. It’s classicly decorated, there’s a cosy library stacked with archaeology books, and the stereo plays classical music (not Missy Elliot, but thanks for trying, Paramount Pictures).
Each successive iteration of the house improves on the one before it. Tomb Raider’s packing crates have been shelved in Tomb Raider II to make way for an extensive garden, complete with a preposterously tall hedge maze which hides the secret control panel for her treasure vault (seriously, banks are for wussies). Tomb Raider III goes all out; as well as the swimming pool, gym and assault course, players must solve a multi-layered puzzle and take a swim in Lara’s subterranean fish tank to locate the key to her private quad bike track.
I would love to know how she got planning permission to build all this stuff.
“So, let me get this straight, you want the lever that opens your basement to be in the attic?”
“Ok, and the attic should only be accessible after climbing the chimney in your library.”
“What if the fire’s alight?”
“Oh, I need to be able to turn it off using one of the books in the library.”
“Um, ok. And you want a fish tank in the basement.”
“Yes, about 2,000 square feet, floor to ceiling.”
“And the only way you want to be able to get in to, say, clean it or retrieve anything you may have hidden in there is by a tiny hole in the ceiling.”
“We’ve been through this.”
“Yes, Miss Croft, but health and safety regulations dictate that…”
“I keep a loaded shotgun in my closet.”
“Where’s my rubber stamp?”
Lara can’t explore the house in the next three games, so Crystal Dynamic’s graceful re-imagining in Tomb Raider Legend and Tomb Raider Anniversary was more than welcome. Every fan have their favourite mansion moment, but I’d wager the one that will always come out on top is the beloved “Winston-in-the-fridge” move, in which you can lock Lara’s doddery butler in her enormous meat larder. No wonder he always looks so nervous.
1: The T-Rex – Tomb Raider (Core Design, 1996)
When you meet Tomb Raider’s T-Rex, it is one of the most pant-wettingly scary moments in gaming. Up until this point in the first game, you’ve played with a few ancient mechanisms and explored a few caves, but there’s nothing to suggest you’re not just a run-of-the-mill archaeologist adventurer pottering around some dusty ruins looking for treasure. Then all of a sudden, something’s not quite right.
Most people don’t survive their first encounter with the T-Rex. It comes out of nowhere, and the music’s so panicky that it tends to eat you before you’ve had a chance to draw your pistols. Combat only exists in Tomb Raider to add tension and texture to the adventuring, it’s most definitely not a shooter series. Up until this point in the game, you’ve only fought bats and a couple of wolves, so when the quiet, eerie atmosphere is shattered by the appearance of the most awesome predator who’s ever walked the planet, it’s genuinely terrifying. The limited draw distances, which lesser games may have tried to conceal with smaller arenas, make you powerless, unable to anticipate the attack until it’s got its jaws around you.
Scary, unpredictable and infused with budget British charm, the T-Rex attack is Tomb Raider’s most iconic moment.
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