The Playstation was a console for grown-ups. It’s flagship titles were not populated by smiling plumbers or colourful hedgehogs but by sleek vehicles and tough heroes. PSOnes were set up in nightclubs so that clubbers could play WipeOut which featured the same throbbing techno they were dancing to, hardly the kind of place you would find a child. Gran Turismo featured driving tests and car customisation instead of the usual roster of wacky racers and explosive power-ups. Even the more light-hearted Abes Oddysee carried a message about environmental sustainability amongst the fart jokes. Young gamers had become adults and Sony provided a console to take us into our early twenties with Lara Croft was a perfect figurehead.
It was at an out of the way Dixons that I finally got my hands on Lara. I had managed to get a pretty sweet deal on a console bundle that included a handful of games including V-Rally and Colony Wars but it would be Tomb Raider that would be the most enduring title from that promising line-up. Having heard a lot about the game already I was keen to try it and was impressed from the start. Although the flickering PSOne visuals look incredibly rudimentary now, the barren rock textures and sharp-edged animals looked magical to me in 1998. The game starts on a snowy mountain cave and right from the outset the atmosphere captures the creepiest parts of Indiana Jones that were undoubtedly it’s inspiration.
1: The Bear After getting charged by a couple of wimpy bats and nimble wolves I come to an area with a small pool in the centre which I will need to swim down into. A quick look around for treasure and health packs (classic gaming nonsense – who leaves these everywhere) reveals an enclosure for a large animal. I jump off my sofa as the bear jumps on Lara. A retreat to the pool is a must. (Note: it took a good 15 years to get a better bear moment than this when Condemned 2 really gave me a shock).
Tomb Raider was a tough game for me. Enemies like the bear were very powerful and Lara’s fragility became even more a problem as bears made way for gorillas, dinosaurs and slender mummified demons but Laras gymnastics evened the fight and bouncing around these 3D arenas was a pleasure. Max Payne featured dramatic leaps but they were strictly limited whereas Lara could bound around without penalty. Lara was tough, a tough woman no less and one who definitely held her own in a man’s world. There’s no doubt that she has been portrayed as the pin-up girl but it’s also important to remember that she had a strong and independent character.
2: The T-Rex It’s a bit of a surprise to get rushed by a couple of Velociraptors but I manage to fight them off and after some further exploration I find a shotgun and a few shells behind a stunning waterfall. When I wander into a massive underground cavern the screen starts to tremble, then shake, then an enormous Tyrannosaurus appears out of the gloom heading straight at me. I panic and start to somersault backwards firing off shotgun shells in a desperate attempt to flee to safety and inflict some damage on the beast. Eventually it slumps to the ground and I realise I have just managed to survive a close call with an enormous dinosaur.
So the game had some tough fights but it taxed the brain as well. Puzzles were a lot different to how they are in similar games today and Tomb Raider had little or no signposting so could require a lot of trial and error to get through. I remember one particular room (Tomb Raiders very own water temple) that took a lot of headscratching and even getting around these enormous riddles could prove tricky. However it was worth remembering the game had a deceptively simple set up and was essentially built on blocks much like Minecraft is. This meant that you could measure how far that jump could get you (two blocks for a standing jump and three with a run-up) and work out whether to take the risk or not. Plus all those dusty corridors and creaking machinery really made you feel you were getting deeper into the secret lairs off a long dead civilisation.
3: The Sphinx After a long series of corridors and block climbing I see a hole in the ceiling. As I climb out, the camera pans back, and back, and back and just keeps going. I realise I am standing on top of a full sized sphinx which has been built inside a colossal cavern. The scale is immense and below I can see one of those mummified demons gambolling about like a little white rabbit. Hes not though, hes a 7 foot monster.
Tomb Raider had plenty of great moments and by the end of Lara’s adventure you had battled, thought and jumped your way around ancient curses and greedy mercenaries. Tomb Raider was a terrific achievement in pure game mechanics but it also created a virtual star for a grown-up crowd. So much so that Lara became the face of Lucozade for a while. The adverts were terrible but the principle was very important. This wasn’t a cartoon character selling cereal or toys. This was the first true media personality that was born from a videogame. Tomb Raider may have been standing on the shoulders of 3D giants like Mario 64 or Banjo Kazooie but it was a grown up game on a brand new grown up console. As gamers came of age, so did their consoles, games and image and at the spearhead of this maturing revolution was the fantastic Tomb Raider.