Retro Rewind: Tomb Raider (1996)

I have always been, and probably always will be, a huge PlayStation gamer. However, my particular weapon of choice is the first and the original PlayStation (or PSX) – the world’s first 32-bit console, released in 1995. The range and depth of legendary games available for the system is unrivalled, in my opinion, and I have kept not only nearly all my games, but two working consoles, and I still source games second hand. Anyway, I digress.

This is the first in a series of reviews of those classic games. My first pick is a game that is dear to my heart – the original Tomb Raider.

Before the other games, the movies, the spin-offs, and the reboots, there was this game. I loved it when it came out and I still love it now. As a then ten-year-old girl, Lara was a likeable and relatable heroine at a time when not many of them were around. There have been many debates regarding Lara’s feminist status versus her sex appeal, but she was a strong and confident female protagonist, who just happened to have big boobs (that were later reduced). And sure, the game’s graphics may be completely laughable by today’s standards – consider the iconic T-Rex battle in the third level, The Lost Valley.

Here’s the original:

 

And here’s the 2008 remake:

But in my mind, the dated visuals don’t detract from the game at all. In fact, it’s part of its charm for me. The game is still completely immersive and sucks me right in. So what if the entire game is comprised of boxes and squares around Lara’s height? So what if the textures are tiled straight onto the grid, including the water? So what if Lara’s famous breasts are triangular and they can’t animate her long plait? It’s just polygons!

The environments are still lovingly detailed and lush. The sound design in this game is second to none – the music is used sparingly and in just the right places. The Jaws-like cellos that start off the action theme still never fail to scare the crap out of me. The effects, ambient sound and creature noises are bang on the money. And of course, there is the hauntingly beautiful main theme – hearing it in the pool rooms of City of Vilcabamba never fails to give me chills. The later games became much more action-focused – Lara gained many new abilities and even friends to help her along the way. I still prefer the puzzle-based gameplay, with hints of action every so often to wake you up. The joy in Tomb Raider for me is exploring the levels, soaking up the ambience, and trying not to break your neck doing a tricky jump. I take immense satisfaction in performing exactly the right series of manoeuvres, manipulating the environment to get where I need to go.

This game also has the best story of the lot: a mystical artefact from the lost continent of Atlantis and a fallen god revived in the modern day wreaking her revenge (spoilers!). Lara’s flashback to the destruction of Atlantis is still chilling to this day. The thing I love in this game is that it is genuinely scary in some parts – not just in an oh-my-god-there’s-a-Trex-kill-it sort of way, but in a shivery, skin-crawling way. The moving fleshy walls of Atlantis and the skinless enemies are truly disconcerting. And you can’t tell me you didn’t get vertigo the first time you saw St Francis’ Folly.

Of course, the game still has its flaws. The Save Crystal system implemented for the PSX is a huge pain in the arse, forcing you to save a limited amount of times in certain locations. Later games introduced more lenient systems. Sometimes the camera angles suck, especially if the game turns Lara’s head to look in a certain direction when you don’t want it to. And some levels are prohibitively dark, which was also solved by the introduction of flares in later games. The only ability that I miss in the first game is being able to roll in mid-air, which is very handy in the midst of combat.

Overall, this game is an absolute gem, and a wonderful introduction to the series. The other games are immensely good too, but this one is still my favourite and in my opinion, the most accessible (the opening levels of TRII and III are quite difficult for a novice – hell, even difficult for me!). The levels are mostly short and sharp, which doesn’t let the game get bogged down, and later levels are just difficult enough to enjoy without (much) frustration. I dig it out every so often for a run around, and it’s time for me to attempt another play-through – once I find my PSX memory card!

 

Tomb Raider is still available second hand for PSX (PS2 compatible), or for download from the PlayStation Network. It is also available for PC download, but you will need a DOS emulator.

4 responses to “Retro Rewind: Tomb Raider (1996)

  1. I recently tried to play this, and as a first entry it was unpleasant. Mainly because I had an impossible time getting the hang of the original ps1 controls. I had to give up and play the anniversary addition! That said, using normal controls I do like the game and it is very fun :)

    • I admit that with the controls you do have to be very precise, and because of that I’ve never mastered any of the next-gen consoles – I find it absolutely impossible to master analogue sticks!

      I’m glad you enjoyed it in the end though :)

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