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Remembering Crystal Dynamics' original Tomb Raider trilogy

A thank-you for some wonderful games.

I am the right age to measure out a lot of my life in Tomb Raiders. The Core games took me through university - back when 3D itself felt weird and experimental and slightly (thrillingly!) unstable, with those jagged edges around the sides of the screen when Lara was exploring underground corridors. The long wait for a proper gen-hopping follow-up took place when I shuffled through temp jobs, then the eventual release of The Angel of Darkness.

Over the last decade we've had rebooted Lara: close-up, crafting her own arrows, skinning wolves and falling on rusty spikes. A Lara who fills the screen, who reaches out a hand to steady herself when she makes her way through a flooding cave: such a lovely human detail. I like these games a lot: I like their obvious production values and blockbuster sense of occasion, their sense of someone on their way to becoming the person they hope to be. But in between both extremes - marquee, character-arc Lara Croft and crackling, mysterious, old-school Tomb Raider - we got another version too.

This was Crystal Dynamic's first outing with the series once they took it on: Tomb Raider: Legend, Tomb Raider: Anniversary (co-developed with Buzz Monkey Software), and Tomb Raider: Underworld. I love these games. I properly love them.

Cover image for YouTube videoTomb Raider: Underworld Teaser Trailer (2008)
Tomb Raider: Underworld trailer.

And I thought of them on Monday when I read the news that Square-Enix was selling off studios and licenses, including Crystal Dynamics and Tomb Raider in general. At first I thought of an old press trip when I went to see Crystal, which was developing the reboot at the time: how lovely everyone was, how kind to me and my idiotic questions, despite the obvious exhaustion of working on a game like this. More than anything how enthused they seemed for what they were doing.

But then real-life memories gave way to game memories, and I realised how much more I had to thank Crystal Dynamics for. For the reboot, yes, but also for that trilogy the studio completed just after it took over the franchise, back when Tomb Raider still belonged to Eidos. Legend. Anniversary. Underworld. Let's celebrate these wonderful games.

For me, the true measure of a Tomb Raider game is if it exists in the mind as a stark, almost isolated, memory of being in a space - often an audaciously crafted space. These games are transporting. The bottom of the ocean in Tomb Raider 2, or the upside-down ship from the same game with tables and chairs bolted to the ceiling and a shark patrolling outside. The buried Sphinx in Tomb Raider 1, the leap from the summit revealing its face.

The first Crystal trilogy holds up extremely well in this regard. From Anniversary, the middle game, I think of that wonderful puzzle-box version of Croft Manor. Night has fallen and there are tricks everywhere: a statue with missing pieces down in the garden, twin pistols hidden behind a moving bookcase in the library. Casting around I remember a bear lunging at me as I explored an underground village, long forgotten and left to the elements. And that assault course in Midas' palace which required perfect understanding of the Croft moveset. The whole game is that thing which is so often promised but which so rarely turns up: a remake of a classic that genuinely feels like a thank-you to the people who loved it.

Tomb Raider: Anniversary - back to where it all began

Underworld next in my out-of-order memory tour. I remember dripping caverns with a brilliant - truly brilliant - roping puzzle. I remember Croft Manor ablaze - a mark of how much these games mean to me that seeing a cherished location on fire was a surprisingly crushing experience. I remember climbing an anchor onto a huge freighter whose stacks of shipping containers reminded me, to my delight, that this was a platformer at heart rather than a shooter. And I remember a tool that allowed me - allowed Lara - to move truly huge pieces of stone around. The scale of it, the ambition, the glorious design of clockwork spaces. What a marvelous, imaginative, generous game.

Finally, memories of Legend, the first of the trilogy and, in truth, my absolute favourite. This is a Lara Croft who came fully-formed: capable, a joy to move through the world, and warmly voiced by Keeley Hawes, a performance that fully understands that this particular Tomb Raider should sound like Mary Poppins even when called upon to dispatch an alligator.

Legend was an introduction to this slightly new Croft. Familiar moves, like that spiraling sideways jump, that special flip-over mantling thing, but always with a new sense of muscular elasticity, of human tension behind them. And a slightly new world for her. The directedness that people expected from a game in, what, 2006, but still set within levels that felt vast even as they guided you. A new emphasis on proper physics puzzles, but the same sense of silent-movie spectacle that only Tomb Raider can make its own: a waterfall in Ghana that splits to reveal a hidden temple, a hectic race through the desert, a snowy finale as you leap from one spar of ice to the next.

Tomb Raider: Underworld is a run of really great moments.

What I think of most often with Legend, though, is Tokyo. Night again - Tomb Raider's always been wonderful with night. Climbing a skyscraper to a boss fight at the top. But, because this is Tomb Raider, climbing it from the outside, pulling gantries into position with the newly weaponised zipline tool, leaping from one ledge to the next, heading higher as a great Xbox-era skybox twinkles around us. Gunfights now and then, sure, and a voice in the ear providing a sense of urgency, but still that crucial Lara Croft element: loneliness. Loneliness and isolating scale: a hero rendered tiny on the screen, surrounded by vast canyons - glass and steel rather than rock, but then, Tomb Raider has always understood that both share crucial, numinous qualities.

Going back now, I'm surprised how much remained from the Core era. The Core games were almost like movement puzzles once you understood the grid system that Lara moved within, the invisible chessboard that surrounded her and governed her interactions with the world. But while the grid did not survive here, its focus on Lara herself as a sort of chess piece - one of the tricksy ones; a knight perhaps - with moves that had to be fully understood remained. There are platforming runs in all three of the first Crystal games that require you to know exactly how Lara behaves when she slides to the end of a ramp, how far she can easily jump to a distant ledge and how you can encourage her to leap just a little bit further.

The reward for this is not just a sense of continuity - these games are, in many ways, a transition series, between the luminous wilfulness of the Core games and the self-conscious triple-A grit of the reboots - but a game series that crosses over into the real world with embarrassing ease. Lara Croft is wonderfully unreal here, a vision of impossible competence and grace. But as she moves through these distant remote places where the geometry and her moveset came together to create a kind of mechanism - a mechanism that always hinges on understanding of how things fit into place - it can bleed out into our every day experience.

Which is to say: after playing these games, I see the world a little differently. The school run reveals ledges on walls which look like I could climb across them, leaping from one point to the next. A hook in the ceiling of a restaurant or mall looks like a grapple point - a place to swing from, or perhaps pull the whole thing down.

Just a second lost in this silly fantasy. And then I'm back to mundane reality again, but fizzing, slightly, from the proximity to such adventures. Thanks for that, Crystal D. Thank you so much.