Imagine a world without Lara Croft. The ridge-climbing, relic-seeking, ass-kicking English aristocrat with the curves of a genetically enhanced Page 3 model first somersaulted onto our screens in 1996, courtesy of Core Design.
The platform genre, previously the domain of primary-coloured cartoon characters with a kleptomania for rings and coins, would never be the same again.
Lara may have been glamorous but she was also gritty and grimy. She had looks worthy of a yacht in Monte Carlo but, to a gamer’s delight, was evidently happier rolling around mothballed tombs fighting wolves and mutants than posing at cocktail parties.
Packed with paradoxes, Lara was a tough girl from the world of privilege, an empowered female with a physique that seemed custom designed to feed male fantasies.
First and foremost, though, she was great fun.
Like many groundbreaking games, Tomb Raider contained so many innovative features it’s tough to recall them all in retrospect. I first familiarised myself with Lara (on the much maligned Sega Saturn, no less) while guiding her around her English country mansion, perfecting jumping moves on her outdoor obstacle course and swimming in her pool – a creative and interactive introduction to the game controls that subsequent third person titles replicate, but rarely better.
The Tomb Raider cut scenes were cinematic and atmospheric in a way that also anticipates later games, helping build the sense of character that made Lara more than Barbie with guns. When offered a financial reward in the opening cut scene, Lara dismissively says “I’m sorry, I only play for sport,” before hiking through the Peruvian Andes to the first tomb, which kills her only companion before slamming its doors behind her.
Ready to play? Millions of us did. Tomb Raider’s 3D engine takes the jump moves and timing that made 2D platformers so addictive to the next level, while some of the game’s puzzles require considerable thought and provide great satisfaction when the pieces click into place and unlock further mysteries of the tomb.
The combat system is simple but effective, using lock-on to target enemies and rolls to dodge attacks. The killing of animals in the game may seem controversial but at least Lara does so out of survival instinct, not to pose beside them in creepy pictures like certain dismal American dentists and the other damaged souls of trophy hunting.
My favourite level in the first Tomb Raider was “The Lost Valley”, where Lara emerges from the constricted world of catacombs into a fertile crescent fed by a waterfall and teeming with dinosaurs who are, inevitably, only too happy to feed on you. I recall the sudden sense of spaciousness on this level as almost a physical sensation (a tribute to the game’s ability to evoke the atmosphere and claustrophobia of a tomb), while the chance to play in your own virtual Jurassic Park was a thrill very much of the 90s.
Ah yes, the 90s. Like Brit Pop and the Spice Girls (I dare you to say “girl power!” without wincing), Lara didn’t fare so well in the noughties. From the critical distance of the new millennium, a time when people thought Oasis were worthy of the same breath as the Beatles and that Tony Blair was a good idea seemed the work of some fanatical delusion. Lara brought gaming into mainstream culture thanks to her appearance on the cover of The Face, but her lad mag measurements and increasingly derivative sequels quickly diminished her popularity and the Angelina Jolie films brought her to an all-time low.
In recent years Lara has re-emerged. Crystal Dynamics have taken over production of the games and scored a hit with their 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. The game is an origin story, featuring a younger, more realistically proportioned Lara thrust into danger and learning survival skills from necessity in the icky, troubled way most of us would.
Though the game has been criticised by some hardcore fans for lacking the exploration of the original, in terms of its fun, action-oriented gameplay and its beautiful rendering of a variety of environments, Tomb Raider (2013) is a triumphant return to form and bodes well for the future of the series.
Lara and Crystal dynamics are poised to make the leap to the next gen with Rise of the Tomb Raider later this year on Xbox One. As she approaches her 20th anniversary Lara shows no signs of slowing up – and gaming is all the better for it.