Tomb Raider: A true cultural phenomenon


Tiger Media Network

Nowadays, video games are not only a massive industry but one of the most popular and talked about pastimes, being right up there with movies, TV, and music. Numerous discussions have been heard about what the greatest video games of all time are, and people have loud and open discussions about what games they love to play. However, that was not always the case. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, while games were popular, they were considerably more niche, incredibly nerdy and nowhere near as big as the movie and music industry. 

Thankfully, things slowly began to change. The first game to really spring games into the spotlight was the original “Super Mario Bros.” thanks in large part to its role in pulling the video game industry out of the dust following the 1983 crash, and would later go on to become arguably the most iconic franchise of all time. There was also, of course, the then phenomenon of having a woman in the lead role, back when female protagonists were considered a significant risk. The first game to accomplish this was “Metroid,” with the reveal that the main protagonist, Samus was, in fact, a woman, being a massive cultural shock. However, while Samus Aran continues to be iconic, there was another video game woman who managed to outshine the others at the time: Lara Croft, alongside her game, “Tomb Raider.” 

I don’t think enough people realize just how massive the original “Tomb Raider” was. Lara Croft, while not the first female protagonist, was the first to receive such massive attention. She was on the covers of magazines, featured prominently in advertisements, and was one of the first video game characters to be adapted into film, with 2001’s “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” starring Angelina Jolie. “Tomb Raider,” meanwhile, was the first game to really change people’s perception on the medium. It went from a time seemingly only perpetuated by nerdy teenagers to a massive cultural phenomenon. 

The “Tomb Raider” series, with its many entries, reboots and all, continues to be one of the most beloved and popular franchises, and it all started with the 1996 original. The first “Tomb Raider” is still a childhood favorite for many, and one of the most famous games on the original PlayStation. Over time, however, the reception to it has seemingly shifted, with many reviewers deriding it as clunky and not aging well. With all that being said, while “Tomb Raider” has certainly aged, it is still, to this day, a great action-adventure title that makes great use of its console limitations, delivering a challenging, thrilling and fun puzzle platforming experience. Above anything, however, it will always be amazing for introducing the world to Lara Croft, who is still one of the greatest female protagonists in gaming, and one of the best video game heroes, period. 

Release and additional info: 

  • Released in the Fall of 1996 for the PlayStation and Sega Saturn, followed by releases for PC and mobile devices. 
  • Developed by Core Design and published by Eidos Interactive.
  • Featured a heavy advertising campaign, mainly focusing on the game’s protagonist, Lara Croft. 
  • “Unfinished Business”, an expansion pack, was released in 1997. 
  • The first in the long-running “Tomb Raider” series, followed by “Tomb Raider II” in 1997.
  • A complete remake, titled “Tomb Raider Anniversary,” was released in 2007 as part of the first reboot “Legend” trilogy. 
  • Another reboot developed by Crystal Dynamics, also titled “Tomb Raider”, released in 2013
  • Remastered, alongside “Tomb Raider II” and “Tomb Raider III,” in 2024 as part of the “Tomb Raider I-III Remastered” collection. 

“Tomb Raider” follows Lara Croft, a highly skilled British archaeologist and treasure hunter with a mysterious family history. In this game, Croft is hired by Jacqueline Natla, a wealthy businesswoman, to locate the Scion, a mysterious, ancient artifact linked to the city of Atlantis. Croft’s journey takes her to Peru, Greece, Egypt and finally, the alien city of Atlantis, dealing with hostile animals, rival archaeologists and mercenaries, and creatures beyond the human world. The main gameplay sees Lara navigating dangerous dungeons, ancient temples, and of course, Tombs, dodging traps and performing tricky platforming, all while gunning down anything in her way. 

While the story is a pretty typical “Point A to Point B” narrative, it still serves as a great adventure storyline, taking Lara and the player across various parts of the world, each new location unveiling an exciting new challenge and puzzle to complete. It admittedly goes pretty off the rails near the end, going from Peruvian tombs and Egyptian pyramids to a massive alien structure composed of bone and muscle, completely with hostile mummified animals and zombie centaurs. Nevertheless, the first half of the game maintains that sense of pulpy adventure, wearing its “Indiana Jones” influence on its sleeve. 

But really, the star of the show is Lara Croft herself. She ticks so many boxes on what makes a great protagonist: smart, capable, athletic, tough as nails, and unafraid of getting her hands dirty. She’s also quite witty and never takes herself too seriously, keeping a cool head during her expedition and treating threats with the nonchalance of a woman who’s clearly raided plenty of tombs. This is only amplified by a great voice performance from British actress Shelley Blond. Her attitude and capability make her so much fun to play, and seeing her interact with the game’s antagonists in both pre-rendered and in-game cutscenes hammers this point home. It’s no wonder they keep this original personality and charisma for the “Legend” trilogy, while the 2013 Tomb Raider’s attempts at humanizing and deconstructing Lara, while respectable, were completely needless and didn’t really do anything for the character. All in all, it’s no wonder this classic heroine has left such an impact. 

Gameplay is where things get interesting. Being a game released in 1996, there are many aspects of “Tomb Raider” that seem dated by today’s standards. The graphics, for one thing, aren’t much to look at, and the characters are as polygonal as you can imagine. Easily the most contentious part of the main gameplay is Tank Controls: a staple of classic PS1 titles, this control scheme makes it to where your character moves relative to where they’re facing, not where the camera is. It’s most famous implementation is in the original “Resident Evil” titles. In the case of “Tomb Raider,” pressing forward moves Lara forward, pressing back causes her to walk backwards, and left and right turns her, but does not move her in that direction. People nowadays have a very strong opinion against tank controls, and while they may be hard to get used to at first, I really don’t think this control scheme is as bad as people say. It may seem like a steep hurdle, but you get used to it relatively quickly.

Breaking it down, “Tomb Raider” is a puzzle platformer game that mixes tight jumps and tricky gaps with different environmental puzzles. While this may sound incredibly difficult with the aforementioned control scheme, the game makes the most of its limitations. Lara can run, jump, shimmy across ledges, and jump off of multiple surfaces in quick succession, although the last action isn’t used all that much. Navigating the different areas requires using all of these moves to their fullest, and the second you’re able to get the control scheme down, “Tomb Raider” is a very fun and rewarding experience. The entire engine works on a grid system, where each movement and placement of objects is divided into squares, and once you grasp this concept, the platforming starts to make a lot more sense. 

The main gameplay loop of “Tomb Raider” involves guiding Lara through various temples and tombs, avoiding obstacles and traps. Platforming is a very integral part of the game’s design, and requires understanding of the grid system and Lara’s movement. Making some of the jumps can be a major hurdle at first, and I admit it took me a while to actually get it down. Ultimately, everything comes together to create a really great platforming system that makes jumping and progressing through levels feel so incredibly satisfying. Puzzle solving is also a major design element, usually requiring parts to be moved and keys to be collected, often involving backtracking to find key items. 

Combat is also present, with Lara having to fight against various enemies, mainly hostile animal and occasionally human enemies. By default, Lara uses two pistols with unlimited ammo, and automatically locks onto nearby enemies. The pistols don’t do much damage, but are effective against standard enemies. Players can acquire other more powerful weapons throughout the game, including a shotgun, dual magnums and dual submachine guns. However, combat is not the game’s strongest aspect. The tank controls don’t lend themselves to fighting swarms of enemies, especially in the game’s cramped spaces. Combat quickly devolves into just spamming the fire buttons and making sure you have enough medkits. 

Really, the biggest issue present here is just how difficulty works. “Tomb Raider” is a very difficult game, but not because of the tank controls, tight platforming or tough combat. The game just straight-up hates you. Core genuinely seemed to have the mentality of wanting to throw everything they could at the player without really thinking about whether or not it was fair to the player. Indeed, there are several traps that are basically impossible to survive unless you know they’re coming beforehand, making for some of the cheapest deaths imaginable. I genuinely can’t think of another game with more unfair deaths than “Tomb Raider.” This level of unfair difficulty gets worse as you progress through the game, with the final levels guaranteed to make you pull your hair out with the amount of crap it throws at you. As much as I enjoy this game, there’s no denying this is some awful design choices. 

Other criticisms: 

  • Lackluster boss fights
  • Unclear level design (A consequence of the time) 

However, here are some more highlights

  • A great soundtrack, including the now iconic theme 
  • Great use of environments for the time 
  • Impressive scale for a lot of the stages

There’s a very good reason why “Tomb Raider” was as big as it was. It introduced an iconic heroine, completely changed the landscape of games, and proved to be an excellent action-adventure game on its own. Even with some of its dated elements and absolutely stupid difficulty at times, “Tomb Raider” is still a fun title that makes the most of the PlayStation limitations, with fun mechanics that are incredibly rewarding to master. It more than deserves its place in gaming history, as a title that massively changed the industry and as a game on its own. 

Nick McCoy is a senior at Fort Hays State University, studying digital media and journalism. An avid gamer and music listener, he reviews video games and songs and hosts the radio show “The Understanding of Nick” for KFHS.