Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts


 

Tomb Raider

 

I had a tough decision to make back in the mid 1990s. Well, as tough as a decision can be for a 16 year old. I had, for years, been a fan of Nintendo. Sure, I had some Sega products as well when they were at their peak, but one thing was reliable: Nintendo. The Big N. The house that Mario built. I owned all those consoles and handhelds up to that point, so I had to decide on what my next console was to be: the Nintendo 64 with its amazing Mario 64 game showing off the nicest graphics this side of a 1996 arcade cabinet, or the new kid on the block: The Sony Playstation. The unknwon S. The house that wasn't built yet, though with the announcement at the time that Final Fantasy was to appear on it, it could be say it would become the house that Final Fantasy built.

More on Final Fantasy some other time, because at this point in the fall of 1996 it was not out yet, the Nintendo 64 was everywhere and popular as it just came out, and the Playstation's price just dropped after about a year mulling around trying to find an audience. For a teenager saving his allowance, I had to choose.



Oh, and this thing also a thing that existed.
 


In those early days, though, there wasn't a lot to choose from. The Playstation had already been out for a year, as I mentioned, but it didn't have that one title. Nintendo had that one title. Mario 64. It was impressive. The Playstation was around longer yet outside of Resident Evil, it had nothing to really stake a claim in.

I remember standing at a counter and the salesman, my future boss, was going through the pros and cons of each. Sure, the N64 had better graphics, but it was also more expensive. The console and the games themselves were pricer than their 32-bit counterparts. Then he showed me Tomb Raider. I wasn't overly impressed by the graphics, though, but I at least saw something that was kind of comparable to what the N64 was dishing out there with full 3-D environments. It looked better than the Jumping Flash demo, at least.

Jumping Flash was where you piloted a giant mechanical rabbit and jumped around, by the way. His name was Robbit and yes, we were very easily entertained in the mid-90s.

So I weighed the options:

If I bought the N64 now, which was still very early in its launch, it would cost more and the games would always cost more. I could get the console and maybe one game.

The Playstation was cheaper. The games were cheaper. I could buy the console and two games. Plus it had Final Fantasy VII just announced, and Sony's marketing was already in full swing as it showed the limitations of the Nintendo 64, which made Squaresoft (my favorite game developer) jump ship.

I made my decision. A Playstation. Tomb Raider. Resident Evil. That's a good package to take home.

Oh, and a free demo disc. It had Warhawk on it, which I played extensively.



Truth is, I didn't buy a Playstation for anything else other than Squaresoft's support of it. Still, that support was a ways away, so I needed something then and there to play. I didn't think it would be Tomb Raider. I couldn't really get in to the pictures and videos I saw, it looked like mild entertainment at best. I liked horror movies, which is why I bought Resident Evil alongside it, but Resident Evil wasn't the game to suck away hours of my time. Even though I wasn't thinking it would, Tomb Raider made me commit to it and not do much of anything else.

I think what I loved about Tomb Raider is how many things it shared with the Metroid games - and before you ask no it has nothing to do with the heroes being women, it's entirely in the atmosphere. This was 1996. There weren't any Metroid games out there. I loved what those games presented: a sense of isolation, exploration, even a little bit of dread around every corner. Lo and behold, what did the first Tomb Raider game put a focus on (other than large breasts?) Exactly those qualities.

I think that's what became so lost with the pin-up-girl marketing of Laura Croft as some sort of pixelated sex symbol. At its heart, the first Tomb Raider game was a nicely crafted puzzle game with exploration and a little bit of combat. It was about throwing you in to a pit with just your wits and willingness to keep moving forward. Tomb Raider shared more with Metroid than it ever did with Indiana Jones. This wasn't adventure and action, it was contemplation and fear. Also dinosaurs.


I was more frightened of this T-Rex than I was anything in Resident Evil.
 


Tomb Raider was the first game of the "new generation" of gaming that captured that "Metroid" feel (which I discussed in my pervious Metroid entry), more impressively capture that in full (grid-based) 3D. I was sucked in to that world and those locations. The way the designers took such care in to creating elaborate levels and puzzles within those levels, much like Metroid to allow you to get to new locations and areas, showed an understanding of 3D level design I really had never seen before. Then again, Tomb Raider was one of the first full-on 3D games I played outside of corridor shooters, so walking in to a large, multi-level room where you get to climb and explore was pretty new compared to just hitting an elevator button to go to the second floor in Doom II or Quake.

Even though Tomb Raider wasn't a technical marvel, it got its point across. Plus, I found the limitations actually a good contribution. When you played Tomb Raider, it only had so much it could process with the Playstation's limited power, so it had only a certain amount of scenery it could generate. As a result, it had to limit how far you could see and it did this by putting things that were far in complete shadow, only appearing as you approached. The N64 had the same issues in games, masking its pop-in and limited draw distance with fog in places where fog probably wouldn't exist, Tomb Raider got through it by utilizing the element that would actually appear in a tomb: darkness. That darkness was frightening. The fact you couldn't see everything, that anything could come out of those shadows or that you couldn't see all four corners of a room to figure out where to go actually added to the aesthetic; accidentally making Tomb Raider, a game where you're already alone in a tomb with little music and only ambient sounds around you, actually one of the scariest games I played at the time.

 

 

Tomb Raider wasn't a technical marvel, but it was a well-designed one. The limitations of the hardware and graphics actually added to the aesthetic more than took away from it or distracted you. A great case of using a weakness as a strength, Tomb Raider wouldn't have been as memorable otherwise.

 

Then you have Lara herself. I never got the whole "sex appeal" of the character. Keep in mind, I was right at that age that I should have "gotten" that, but it never occurred to me. I know that's how she was marketed, over-saturated in every magazine out there by the third entry in the series, but I still never got it.  Maybe it was because there wasn't a "heroine" that was distinctly a woman at that point. I mentioned Samus Aran from Metroid, but she was faceless. Lara was a woman, and she was about as good as you were going to get, I guess, and virgin gamers would probably take anything that had two point-looking things on its chest.


 

Pointy things!

 

Maybe it was the accent. I could see that. Or hear it, I should say. She did always have one seductive turn of phrase. But you can't put a voice on the cover of a magazine, can you?

 

 

You couldn't avoid Lara in the late 90s. Though you could avoid subtlety if you published a magazine, apparently.

 

All that was kind of distraction, because at their heart, the Tomb Raider games were really fun games and there wasn't a whole lot like them at the time. The first Tomb Raider didn't impress me graphically, or with the controls, and certainly not with Lara, but it was how it was designed that made me take notice. The levels were intricate at times, going on for what seemed to be a never-ending gauntlet of traps, puzzles, enemies and constant pitfalls. I would die, and die, and die...but it had a balance that kept you coming back to see what was around that next corner or across that crevasse.

Tomb Raider is one of those games that's best on the first experience. The "feel" that I had, from the realization of small music cues, isolation, stiff controls, constant darkness and occasional frights, was lost in the sequels. At that point, I was expecting it, and at that point Tomb Raider's developers must have seen those things that I liked as "flaws" and tried to correct them. Suddenly Lara had a bigger arsenal, more moves, there were more outdoor segments and the darkness wasn't as scary anymore now that I knew what to expect. The level design was always there, though.

I didn't play another Tomb Raider game after the third one on the Playstation. I moved past it. All that over-saturation in mass media of Lara and loss of that initial games "magic" from that first time playing in the sequels no longer appealed to me. Then again, this would be around 2000/2001 and gaming, in general, began to lose appeal to me.  Though I've picked videogames back up since then, and I've played and actually enjoyed the latest rebooted Tomb Raider game, it really occurred to me how unique Tomb Raider was. Not necessarily setting a trend in sex-appeal or technical quality, but capturing that moodiness of playing a game that exudes a sense of mystery and isolation. As strange as it might sound, Tomb Raider was the 3D Metroid game I wanted off the N64 but never came. Maybe that's why I still waited years to actually buy an N64 when that realization of no new Metroid games, games that had that "feel," came. I much rather wanted to spend my money on the Tomb Raider sequels, and they were still cheaper.

 

For past Not/Quite Remembering Videogame artiles, click here. 


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