Retro Game Review – Tomb Raider

 

Factfile
Developed by: Core Design
Released: 1996
Format played: Playstation 1

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Ruminations

One of the seminal titles of the Playstation years and the launching pad of a cultural icon, Tomb Raider hit the PS1 in 1996, wowing audiences with its combination of 3D graphics, action and puzzles. Testament to its impact, the franchise is still going strong today, the game an influence on Uncharted, Gears of War and any number of other third person action adventure titles.

Taking its cue from Indiana Jones, the game saw you take control of Lara Croft, generously proportioned British aristocrat and adventurer, setting forth on a mission to recover an ancient artefact of unimaginable power. Or some other such gubbins.

All of that is just an excuse for some good old fashioned exploring as our jet setting heroine plunders the tombs of one ancient civilisation after another on her jaunt through Peru, Greece, Egypt and Atlantis.

I played Tomb Raider to completion on release but, despite enjoying it immensely, never revisited it or spent any serious time with the sequels until the release of Tomb Raider Anniversary. I found it interesting how little of it I remembered. A handful of scenes stood out; the Sword of Damocles, the Cistern and of course the dinosaurs, although I hadn’t appreciated how early in the game they appeared.

Approaching this again, I was torn as to which version to play. My memories are of the PS1 version but I also have the PC version. A quick browse online informs me that, whilst the PC version has analogue support, instant saves and offers improved visuals, the PS1 version, clunky D-pad control, save crystals and all, includes additional music. And crucially, it is the PS1 experience I am looking to replicate, despite its drawbacks.

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Second Impressions

Urgh. In 1996 this may have been eye opening but in 2015 it is simply eye watering.

Such is the danger of revisiting your past. What I remembered as a machine defining, cutting edge title has now become a blocky mess. Lara’s character lacks any sort of definition, her proportions looking even more ridiculous all these years later. Scenery is a mess of blurry textures, which makes it more difficult to pick out the straight edges that represent a block you can move or a ledge you can grab. Bits of walls flash in and out of existence depending on where you stand, sometimes allowing you a forbidden glimpse of the contents of a hidden secret. Enemies meanwhile consist of fuzzy animals and disjointed limbs that vaguely resemble a collection of gurning human parts.

And yet despite all of that, it still somehow works. From the opening scenes, you really feel that you are in these ancient, hidden tombs, the game drawing you in to its atmosphere. The camera is a little clunky compared to modern standards (no right stick control here) but is serviceable and allows you to see enough of your environment to ensure that there are no leaps of faith.

Draw distances are understandably limited compared to modern games but there are no mid-level loading pauses, Lara running, jumping and swimming seamlessly between locations.

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Gameplay

As with the visuals, controls are initially jarring. Modern games have spoiled us with analogue control, slick movement and a, ‘If it looks possible let’s try it,’ approach.

Having played Tomb Raider Anniversary, Uncharted and Prince of Persia among others, your instinct is to expect to be able to leap onto any object, traverse the slightest of poles or deftly dispatch an enemy with an array of hand-to-hand moves.

Not so here. Control is of the Resident Evil tank like flavour. Move set is limited to run, walk, jump and lower (with some swimming chucked in too). Absent are the crawl, cover or grappling hook mechanics available in later games. Combat variation is limited to collecting more powerful guns, Lara having no direct fighting moves. It is frustrating when you expect to be able to use a series of broken pillars to hop across a chasm, only to realise that you have to go the long way round.

In a sense this is a harsh criticism. At the time, what was on offer was ground breaking, time has naturally seen evolution and improvement. But at the same time, retro gaming is a window to the past, not a time machine. Context is fine but I’m playing in 2015, not 1996, and the experience suffers as a result.

But the mood changes, the quality of the game overcoming these perceived shortcomings. Once set aside, you will be flipping and rolling your way to the level’s end.

And it is the quality of the levels themselves that shines through. They are simple in theory, often little more than elaborate fetch and carry quests. But the combination of puzzle solving, gun play and acrobatics is a satisfying blend. More than once you will be stumped for a solution to open a locked door (I must confess to having succumbed to the temptation of an online walkthrough on occasion) but through perseverance, common sense and some good old fashioned exploration, you can usually find a way forward, and maybe find a few secrets along the way. Solutions will often involve the pushing or pulling of seemingly impossibly heavy blocks to aid a climb to a higher level or the exploration of near endless tunnels to find the switch that unlocks the door that bars your progress. The game is linear in the sense that a set of specific objectives must be achieved before you can progress but as a result you are rarely asked to traverse the same terrain twice; once an area is explored, it’s secret or switch uncovered, it is on to the next area.

And the levels are big! You can speed through quicker but the 15 or so levels will each take you an hour or more to play through. You may be all alone in these tombs (aside from a few animals) but you rarely feel lonely, there is always a new area to explore or a task to accomplish.

One drawback to this approach is that levels can occasionally feel like a slog. A title like Uncharted, strongly influenced by Tomb Raider, includes puzzle sections but the game is driven by narrative and action set pieces, puzzles acting as an interlude between the main game. Here, puzzling and exploration are the main course, combat very much a side order, reflected in the lack of options other than shooting. As a result, starting a new area means resigning yourself to the fact that you will be here for a while, only moving on when all requirements have been met. The shooting itself is occasionally frustrating too. The weapons themselves are nice enough – pistols, magnum, shotgun and uzi – but certain enemies take a ridiculous amount of shots to put down. This is understandable, if annoying, when it is some underground, beastly throwback, especially towards the end of the game, but it is jarring when you stand toe-to-toe with a human, pumping them full of lead, only for them to run away round the corner.

The save mechanic is a pain too, the save crystals on the PS1 version a legacy of the memory cards utilised for game saves during this era. There should be an element of risk and reward to games or else the excitement is lost but having to replay great swathes of a level just because you mis-timed one jump is incredibly frustrating.

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Sound

If time has not been kind to Tomb Raider visually, the music remains timeless, fully vindicating my decision to opt for the slightly clumsier control of the PS1 version over the aurally deficient PC version

From the opening theme, a hauntingly beautiful clarinet that soon gives way to a light piano piece, perfectly capturing the mood. Then the spot music that plays througout your journey; the jingle that marks a secret uncovered, the blaring tune that signals a trap sprung or the revisiting of the haunting melodies of the title screen as a new part of the mystery is uncovered. Each plays a part in creating a truly incredible atmosphere of awe and wonder.

Speech is used too. Lara does not have cause to talk much during the adventure itself, other than a forthright, ‘NO!’ when you try to use an item in the wrong place. But cut-scenes are punctuated with a serviceable, professional voice cast.

And of course your adventures are accompanied by all the grunts, squeals and shrieks you remember as Lara runs, pulls, shimmies and tumbles around her underground play centre.

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Bottom Line

Revisiting Tomb Raider is a difficult experience to quantify. On the one hand, it is a bit like finding out that your favourite chocolate bar as a kid has been re-released and you rush out to buy it only to find that it no longer tastes as good as you remember and you wish you had left it alone.

On the other hand, when you get past the disappointment and the limitations of design, underneath is the beating heart of one of the most fulfilling, atmospheric and important games of the modern era.

In truth, it is a game surpassed by itself, Tomb Raider Anniversary offering much the same game but with a vastly improved experience. In a sense, it is fast becoming a historical curiosity, a title worthy of respect for the new ground it paved more than something you would want to necessarily play.

This remains one of the most important games of its generation and deserves respect accordingly. But those wishing to experience it should do so now, before it becomes just a footnote in history.

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