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Hard Core: A look at the original Tomb Raider games

Croft work.

The late nineties was a time of icons. For politics, it was Tony Blair. For music, it was Oasis. For fashion, it was combat trousers. And for once, even video games had a cool figurehead. Lara Croft was so cool, in fact, she appeared on the cover of The Face. (Note for younger readers: The Face was a monthly music, culture and style magazine. A magazine was like a paper version of the internet.)

This cover is like a microcosm of nineties culture. The only thing missing is Natalie Imbruglia.

But what is the secret of the Tomb Raider series' enduring success? As Britain's third-most relevant woman in games, and the one most willing to appear on television in exchange for money, this is a question I am asked approximately every 36 hours.

Well, I say knowledgeably, there's the brilliant blend of atmospheric environments, smart puzzles, challenging combat, and thrilling exploration. The better games make you feel like you are truly alone, and that you are the first human to wander through that dingy cave or abandoned temple for hundreds of years.

There's Lara herself - women want to be her, and men also want to be her. She is fierce, clever, enigmatic, and acrobatic. It's definitely these qualities that got her on the cover of The Face, of course, and not her huge knockers. I'm fascinated by them - not for the usual reasons, as a straight woman, but as a Tomb Raider fan and breast owner, I have enjoyed tracking their literal rise and fall over the years.

So I'm looking forward to the latest instalment, Rise of the Tomb Raider, out next week. But let's be honest, the Core Design games remain the original and best. (NB For the purposes of this article, we're just pretending Angel of Darkness never happened.) Here's a look back at the games that made Lara's name.

Tomb Raider (1996)

The One With The Dinosaur

'I just don't see how on EARTH they can be classed as a luxury item.'

Plot: Lara embarks on a global quest in a bid to recover a mysterious artefact said to possess magical powers, known as the Scion.

Iconic moment: Everyone remembers the T-rex bit. But true fans will recall St Francis Folly, a fiendishly designed, vertigo-inducing vertical level seemingly inspired by the drawings of M. C. Escher. Who could forget that visceral rush the first time you make it all the way to the top, only to misjudge a jump by a single pixel and fall off.

Memorable appendage: The shotgun. An extremely satisfying weapon to use, made even more precious by the scarcity of bullets.

Knockerwatch: On the box: perfectly spherical, like a silk handkerchief draped over two boiled eggs. In the game: like she shoved a Toblerone up her vest.

How it stands up today: The graphics look a bit Ceefaxy. But the ingenious puzzles, brilliant level designs and spectacular set-pieces mean this is still the best Tomb Raider game ever.

Tomb Raider 2 (1997)

The One With The Boat

Every magazine that reviewed this game featured this picture accompanied by a 'Just one Cornetto' joke. Happier, simpler times.

Plot: Lara embarks on a global quest to recover a mysterious artefact said to possess magical powers, known as the Dagger of Xian. She goes to Italy for some reason.

Iconic moment: The speedboat race through Venice. Admittedly, the vehicle handling is terrible, but there's a nice bit of Vivaldi-inspired music, and you get to smash up gondolas.

Memorable appendage: The harpoon gun, for all your shark-piercing needs. Lara also gets flares in this game. Which is weird as I remember the nineties being all about the bootcut.

Knockerwatch: Slightly more rounded, like a couple of grapefruit in one of those small blue carrier bags you only get from off licences.

How it stands up today: It doesn't have quite as many memorable moments as the first game and, once again, the visuals haven't aged well. But the trickier puzzles and varied pace mean Tomb Raider 2 is still a classic.

Tomb Raider 3 (1998)

The One With The Crap London Level


Plot: Lara embarks on a global quest in a bid to recover four mysterious artefacts said to possess magical powers, known as the Magical Beans of Rumbelow, or something. This turns out to be impossibly hard.

Iconic moment: When the Shiva statue comes to life and starts stomping towards Lara, slashing away with his many giant swords. Also the bit in the same level when you spend three hours looking for the sodding key which turns out to be hidden on the body of the dead monkey, a fact you only discover after trying to kick the monkey in a rage at the fact internet walkthroughs haven't been invented yet.

Memorable appendage: The Desert Eagle, a sleek and powerful weapon that makes a really good bangy sound.

Knockerwatch: Ludicrous.

How it stands up today: Not too well. The opening level, set in India, is great, but the later ones (London, Nevada, South Pacific) lack the atmosphere and sense of isolation that were so notable in the earlier games. Also the puzzles are just stupid.

Tomb Raider 4: The Last Revelation (1999)

The One With All The Egypt

Wondering what ever happened to Craig David? Check out his Twitter. 'Dubai you are amazing!'

Plot: Lara embarks on a quest in a bid to recover a mysterious artefact said to possess magical powers, known as the Amulet of Horus. The whole game is set in Egypt, because after the last one there's no way the publisher is paying for another "artists' research trip" to Las Vegas and Maui.

Iconic moment: Lara emerges from a tunnel to be faced with the Great Pyramid she must now climb. The strings swell as the camera swoops up and around, revealing the full scope of the challenge ahead. Players who don't like the jumpy bits do a big sigh.

Memorable appendage: A mouth that actually moves when Lara speaks. The things we take for granted in games nowadays, eh? Perhaps one day the movements will even match the words.

Knockerwatch: Like she played netball every day for ten years without wearing a bra, then breastfed three sets of twins till they were nine.

How it stands up today: It looks a bit better than the previous games, having been produced with a new engine, and the balance of puzzles and exploration is more finely tuned. To paraphrase that other great nineties icon, Craig David, can we get a remake?

Tomb Raider Chronicles (2000)

The One That Nobody Played

I mean, at least Anna and Miles enjoyed themselves. Egg and Milly just looked miserable all the time.

Plot: This game is set after Lara died, or before she died, or something. No one actually played it, and not even the people who made it can really remember what it was about.

Iconic moment: The box inlay, which is a candidate for the most nineties video game cover of all time, thanks to the crap lightning effects and appalling Noel Gallagher-style sunglasses.

Memorable appendage: That hateful Kurtis guy with the pointy hair and the beard like a pixie's minge. Actually, wasn't he was out of Angel of Darkness? Nothing, then.

Knockerwatch: They look like they're actively trying to split up and run away, and who can blame them. How it stands up today: That creepy bit where she's 16 and hanging out with a priest would never fly in the current climate.

Well, there you have it: conclusive proof that the Tomb Raider games were better in the olden days, apart from the fifth one, and the third one, and the fact the graphics are so last-last-last-gen. All the same, it's good to know that Lara's still going strong.

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About the Author
Ellie Gibson avatar

Ellie Gibson


Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.

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