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Retrospective: Tomb Raider (1996)

Welcome to the first in a new series of articles where Survivor Reborn takes you on a nostalgic trip through the entire Tomb Raider franchise, twenty years after Lara Croft made her debut.

SR Tomb Raider menu 01


The year is 1996. The Spice Girls have exploded onto the music scene with their debut album, “Wannabe”. Independence Day is storming the box office, alongside Mission: Impossible and Trainspotting. Dolly the sheep arrives as the world’s first cloned mammal, while British beef is broadsided by Mad Cow disease. A Clinton is in the White House, China is signing up to a world nuclear testing ban, and a curious Martian meteorite seems to hint that life once flourished on the Red Planet.

Then, around Hallowe’en, a new pop culture icon steps onto the world stage. She has killer looks and an attitude to match. She is highly-educated, classy, and has a backbone of steel. She’s been called an archaeologist-adventurer, grave-robber, teenage fantasy, and feminist flag-bearer. Her name is Lara Croft.


Origins of Tomb Raider

Launched in the autumn of 1996 on the Sega Saturn, MS DOS, and the brand-new Sony PlayStation, Tomb Raider was the landmark creation of Derby-based game developer, Core Design. Together with their publisher, Eidos Interactive, this small team of designers, animators, and programmers opened up a whole new world of video gaming with Tomb Raider. It was the first genuinely three-dimensional, fully-explorable, character-driven gaming experience. Gone were the 2D scrolling backgrounds of platformers like Sonic the Hedgehog, and the pseudo-3D experience of Wolfenstein and Doom. The sheer sense of isolation and freedom that Tomb Raider inspired in the gaming community at the time cannot be overstated. Even better, our avatar in this brave new world was the epitome of the ‘girl-power’ Zeitgeist of the 1990s. Lara Croft was brave, sassy, intelligent, and determined to win at whatever the cost.

SR Tomb Raider Lara pose 01

“I make my own luck!”


Work on Tomb Raider actually began in 1994. The early versions began with a male protagonist, who metamorphosed into a female of South American origin named ‘Lara Cruz’. The game’s storyline was also different; the protagonist’s ultimate objective was to find, not three pieces of the Atlantean Scion, but three pieces of a key to a so-called ‘genesis device’, a relic from a long-vanished civilisation. This early story contains echoes of the 1999’s Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation. At the game’s climax, Lara Cruz would activate the genesis device in the belief that it would save the world from an evil race (called ‘the Atlans’); however, by doing so she would unwittingly release an evil entity known as ‘Sanatkumara’, and spend the game’s finale trying to re-imprison Sanatkumara in the Master Pyramid.

Early footage of Tomb Raider‘s initial builds from late 1995 are now available to view online. The overall look is similar to the final product, but there are small but significant differences. For example, Lara sports sunglasses and a somewhat buggy ponytail-braid (the physics of Lara’s braid proved so tricky to master that, for the initial Tomb Raider‘s release, Lara was restricted to a rather fetching, over-large bun hairstyle; her true braid would make its in-game debut in Tomb Raider II). Alpha-stage screenshots and footage were previewed in late 1995/early 1996, but some suggest that Core Design actually scrapped this nearly-complete alpha build and rebuilt the game practically from scratch in time for its October ’96 release.


Puzzles, platforms, and FMVs oh my…

The plot and gameplay premise behind Tomb Raider were deceptively straightforward. Lara Croft, eminent archaeologist-adventurer, is commissioned by Jacqueline Natla, CEO of Natla Technologies, to find an ancient relic of great power. However, Lara encounters competition in the field and soon learns that there is more to the relic, and Natla herself, than meets the eye. Players would explore levels set in ancient ruins, collect artefacts, and shoot enemies. No big deal, right? Wrong.

Tomb Raider broke new ground and implemented features that nobody had seen before outside of a Hollywood blockbuster. For the first time, we actually felt like we were playing an immersive, cinematic movie. This simple premise has since become such an integral part of modern gaming that we tend to take it for granted, but at the time it was a revelation. This cinematic style was enhanced by Nathan McCree and Martin Iveson‘s gorgeous score and sound effects. We were frightened, intrigued, and elated by musical cues that perfectly complemented the locations and set-piece encounters. The context sensitivity of its score gave Tomb Raider a sweeping sense of drama that had been largely absent from the arcade-style games of yore.

Gavin Rummery’s ground-breaking grid-based engine of interlocking rooms might seem limited by modern standards. However, half of the fun in Tomb Raider lay in figuring out what moves to use, when, and how in order to explore and progress. The game was deliberately hesitant over offering clues to the player; Lara herself would only utter a simple ‘no’ when we tried to do something impossible, like use the wrong key on a door. Before social media, forums, or the ‘survival instinct’ feature, players had to rely on their own wits to conquer the game. When we finally did beat a section of the game, we were rewarded with cutscenes or an FMV that was both a joy to behold and served to advance the plot onto the next playable stage.

SR Tomb Raider game 01

“Half of the fun in Tomb Raider lay in figuring out what moves to use, when, and how in order to explore and progress.”


As a playable character, the athletic Lara Croft offered gamers unprecedented freedom to explore Tomb Raider’s environments. In the days before auto-grab, players had to master a basic set of movements (practising in the relative safety of Lara’s manor), and then take advantage of the scenery to pull off some surprisingly complicated manoeuvres. As Hamish Todd described in detail in his excellent article Untold Riches: The Intricate Platforming of Tomb Raider, this seemingly simple grid-based system and ‘tank-like’ Lara Croft actually allowed the designers to create some really devious puzzles. To this day, the original Tomb Raider and its grid-based descendants present a tough challenge, but repay our patience and persistence with a terrific sense of accomplishment.


Lara Croft, I presume?

As ground-breaking as Tomb Raider’s gameplay was, the real selling point – as far as marketing departments were concerned – was Lara Croft herself. Designed by Toby Gard, the character of Lara Croft underwent several revisions before finally settling on the signature female, upper-class, British archaeologist that we know and love. Voice actress Shelley Blond perfectly captured Lara’s sardonic wit and no-nonsense temperament, whilst still being impeccably British and polite. Here was a character who could convey more with a single one-liner than most video game characters, even today, can manage with whole paragraphs of exposition.

Lara Croft started out with a fairly minimal backstory by today’s standards. Disowned from the aristocracy into which she had been born, Lara Croft was a gung-ho adventurer with an insatiable appetite for ancient relics and untouched wildernesses. Her exploits were funded solely from writing travel books and the occasional commission, but she had fortunately inherited a handsome manor tucked away in the English countryside where she could store her many treasures. Indiana Jones might have been more than a little jealous, not to mention suspicious, that the Ark of the Covenant ended up tucked away in Lara’s trophy room!

SR Tomb Raider game 02

And you’re really here… *coughs* And really, REALLY dead!


Birth of an icon

Tomb Raider spawned two additional mini-titles – “Shadow of the Cat” and “Unfinished Business” as part of Tomb Raider Gold – and its sequel, Tomb Raider II, was released in 1997. Almost overnight, Lara Croft achieved celebrity status – an unheard-of proposition for a mere video game character. Tomb Raider was an instant commercial and critical success; by 2006, Tomb Raider had sold an estimated 7.5 million copies worldwide. Its fresh, original gameplay and graphics earned it high praise from reviewers and the game won numerous awards, including Game of the Year and the Origins Award Best Action Computer Game (1997).

The Lara Croft who appeared in bikinis and provocative, sexualised poses was certainly a boon to the advertising industry. Almost from the day Tomb Raider hit shelves, Lara started appearing on everything from motorcycle helmets to bottles of shower gel. She was the first fictional person to grace the covers of magazines such as The Face and Playboy – titles that normally didn’t have anything to do with video games. From a practical point of view, it’s easy to see why this version of Lara was so successful; to paraphrase Jeremy Heath-Smith in the 2001 documentary Lara Croft: Lethal and Loaded, she had all of the appeal and none of the flaws of a flesh-and-blood celebrity. She wasn’t going to be caught out by a sex scandal, or turn up to a photo-shoot with a hangover.

That said, Eidos Interactive were not content to make do with just posters and animations to sell their hot new product. Tomb Raider’s marketing department, for the first time, cast a real-life model for the role of Lara Croft. She would attend promotional events, have photos taken for advertisements, and generally became a walking, gun-toting, instantly-recognisable ambassador for the game. The very first official Lara Croft model was Natalie Cook, but she was replaced after only one small advertising campaign by Rhona Mitra.

SR Tomb Raider figurine 01

Not actually Natalie Cook or Rhona Mitra

Lara Croft the icon had successfully leapt out of the game and into the eager arms of multi-million-pound sponsorship deals. But not everyone was happy.


From sex-symbol, to ice queen, to role-model

From Tomb Raider’s release in 1996, not everyone got on board with the marketing department’s vision of Lara Croft. Toby Gard, her original creator, was so disappointed by her overly-sexualised presentation that he quit Core Design even before the sequel entered development in 1997. It wasn’t just officially sanctioned parties that took advantage of Lara’s sex appeal. For example, the unofficial, fan-made, and highly controversial Nude Raider patch allowed PC players to take off Lara’s clothes in-game. In the early days of the internet, people also shared fan-art of Lara that was explicit to say the least! Tame enough by today’s standards, perhaps, but following Tomb Raider and its early sequels, Core Design issued official statements that denounced this salacious treatment of Lara’s character.

Even in the early days after Tomb Raider’s release, those who only encountered the marketing version of Lara Croft often viewed her with distaste at best (I admit, I was one of them). They saw an air-headed, big-boobed bimbo whose only function was to titillate socially awkward teens. However, those who actually played the game tended to hold the opposite view – that Lara was a charismatic, independent, and resourceful adventurer whose ample brains exceeded her chest size.


SR Tomb Raider Lara pose 02

Twenty years later and we STILL don’t know what those hieroglyphics mean.

Lara Croft was born into an era when women in games – and as gamers – were still considered a minority group. Since then, she has been elevated, despised, and ridiculed by all sides in the debate over the portrayal of women in popular media – a debate that is still raging twenty years after Tomb Raider’s initial release. Many have labelled Toby Gard’s original creation an ‘ice queen’ whose apparent emotional simplicity is neither relatable or desirable. However, many of Lara’s fans disagree. A recent and highly articulate blog entry by Positively Amazonian, entitled The Girl Who Never Cried: On Lara Croft’s feelings, argues that Lara Croft’s original incarnation was actually a complex, multi-layered personality with deep emotional appeal. The author makes a powerful, evidence-based case that Toby Gard’s Lara Croft had a lot more going for her than some parties might realise; we simply have to look beyond the now-dated graphics and overly-sexualised marketing campaigns to really appreciate Toby Gard’s original vision for the character.

Even today, the first Tomb Raider and Core Design-era Lara Croft have a passionate and vocal fanbase. Many fans of Tomb Raider who grew up playing the game and its sequels have credited Lara Croft as their inspiration for their chosen career path. Even more fans cite Lara’s strength, determination, and inquisitive nature as traits that make her a worthy role model for everyone, regardless of sexuality or gender.


Legacy of Tomb Raider

To this day, the first Tomb Raider game holds a special place in the hearts of the fan community, and features prominently in just about every serious treatise on the impact of video games in modern culture. Tomb Raider marked the birth of a huge, transmedia franchise spanning books, comics, music, merchandise, and two Hollywood movies. Lara Croft swan-dived into our shared imaginations as an eternal truth-seeker, a spirit of exploration and adventure, and an icon for female empowerment. In 1996, Tomb Raider set a new benchmark for gamers and developers alike. Without Tomb Raider, it’s hard to imagine how the third-person action-adventure genre might have arisen or what form it might take today. Other developers certainly took inspiration from Tomb Raider, and the triggered-boulder-trap of innovation has continued to roll even to this day.


Written by J. R. Milward.

Images courtesy of Survivor Reborn.


Creative Commons Licence
Retrospective: Tomb Raider (1996) by J. R. Milward / Survivor Reborn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

About jrmilward (21 Articles)
Researcher, writer, editor, proofreader, voice actress, science graduate.

1 Comment on Retrospective: Tomb Raider (1996)

  1. Carlitonsp // April 15, 2016 at 00:03 // Reply

    There’s much more to Lara than People Remember.

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