TR_CAVES

When I first started playing Tomb Raider in high school, I was briefly obsessed with the game and commented to a classmate that I would love to be a professional tomb raider when I grew up. It seemed so perfect: I had long brown hair, I was kind of a stuck-up bitch, I liked nature hikes and firearms and shiny things, so I was halfway to being Lara already.

Then this dude reminded me that another term for tomb raiding is grave robbing, and that kind of took all the fun out of that idea. It's kind of like how Pirates of the Caribbean, (or any of the dozens of Japanese RPGs that romanticize pirating), can get you really psyched up about the idea of being a pirate, until you remember that regardless of whether or not they're charming rogues, pirates are thieves. And additionally, they might even rape and pillage. It's not a pretty picture.

Suffice to say, tomb raiding is one of those pursuits best left exclusively to the world of video games. One of my ideas for this blog before I started it was to play through all of the TR games, in order, and write about them like some sort of adventure game anthropologist. Keep in mind that while this entry marks the beginning of that project, I fully expect to die somewhere in the middle of The TR4: Last Revelation-- if I'm lucky.

There are several possible interpretations of that statement, all of them macabre.

Lara's Home Lara's Home is a little mini level where Lara teaches you her moveset. We also learn how marvelously British and patrician she is. Most people do not have a "Music Room" with a baby grand piano. Also, I never noticed this until taking screens for this blog, but I think the paintings on the wall are very pixelated versions of famous paintings. The one in this picture looks like a Jacques Louis-David to me.

Before delving into the original Tomb Raider as a game, I want to address the subject of Ms. Croft herself. She's been so incredibly over-exposed as a character that it may seem like there's nothing left to say about her, but it's important to note that Lara as she appears in classic Tomb Raider is essentially a different character from the incarnation in the later games and the movies. Original Lara was a woman of few words, classy as she was concise, and only carried weapons because large jungle cats tended to try to kill her if she wasn't careful. She was primarily an archeologist and a writer with a passion for exploring, and if she was also an action hero, she performed that role as a means to an end. Basically, original Lara was far more likeable and alluring because you were given very little information about her, she handled herself very capably, and the game really wasn't trying to hit you over the head with how awesome she was. After the huge success of the first TR, from the sequel onwards Lara evolved into one of those obnoxiously self-aware movie badasses, who possesses a huge wardrobe of sexy adventuring gear and doesn't need much provocation to shoot someone in the head. I wouldn't dismiss the later games and movies, since there's a lot more to TR than just Lara, but I think you have to have a sense of this evolution of her portrayal in order to understand my tremendous affection for the original character of Lara-- When I say Lara, unless you played this game when it came out, chances are you are not associating the same character with the name.

Another thing to keep in mind about her is her age; It's very telling that Lara was conceived of as a character who was around 30 years of age, if not older. By any reasonable standard that's still pretty young, but when you sit back and think about it, it's astonishing how rare that is in video games. The last thing I ever want to do is go on some sort of indignant feminist rant (seriously, if I ever start doing that, just shoot me. Like an injured race horse), BUT, the fact remains that women tend to stop appearing in games after they hit the ripe old age of 18, or early 20s at the latest. It's getting a bit better now- in Metal Gear Solid 4 for example, both Meryl and Naomi are supposed to be post-30 and still babes, if professional ones--but in 1995, usually the only females above a certain age were the apron-adorned mothers who stayed in the house in Japanese RPGs, and sometimes doled out fruit and/or free healing. In the case of Lara, the developers were forced to make her a little older because the character type they were going for was so experienced and erudite that making her too young would have rang false. That presumed experience and intelligence is very appealing in a character, at least if you're like me and are tired of playing as either plucky ten year old boys, or virile special forces types who wouldn't know a book if it bit them on their well-muscled gluteus maximus.

Journey The journey of a thousand miles and a dozen video games begins with a single step.

Like Final Fantasy VII, Tomb Raider is a game that you can't really give it's proper due without taking into account the zeitgeist of the time. Many of the features that were so innovative at the time have become bread-and-butter features in games with any sort of adventure component, and the things that made us miss sleep to play it in the mid-90s are hard to even imagine now. I remember being motivated to beat the next set of levels as soon as a I could so I could see the next FMV of Lara in action, because you only got one cinematic for hours upon hours of gameplay, and as a result, every single one was critically important to the plot. Today, the overabundance of video game cinematics has become such an epidemic that we rate scenes on a kind of Kafkaesque "Sandwich scale", or how many sandwiches you could make and consume while the characters on your screen model and emote like first year drama majors and generally refuse to SHUT THE HELL UP.

The sparse use of music in TR caused you to have strong emotional connections to individual music cues, whereas now games have full Hans Zimmer scores and hearing a full orchestral track in the background of the most mundane parts of a game is completely normal. The graphics had just reached the level where you could believe you were in an immersive world if you engaged your imagination and pretended that ammunition totally would be at the bottom of a pristine mountain lake and the whole world is made up of squares-- nowadays, if you have to use your imagination at all, the graphics have failed. The world of TR was like an impressionist painting, the graphics we see now are a hyper-real simulation. It's a very different aesthetic.

Secret Room This little secret room tucked into the first level is a good example of the secrets in the game-- the items you got were unimportant, it was finding a hidden realm within a hidden realm that was satisfying. Also, you can see some of the Incan style on the giant idol.

At the time, TR opened the door for the future of gaming, while thematically being based on nostalgia for the past. You were using the newest technology of the time to explore the ruins of human civilization, and there was a certain reverence there for the past that was moving in a way that I've never encountered in another game. The TR franchise, and others as well, have explored environments drawn from lost cultures since, but never with the same perfect meeting of the future and the past. Current game environments tell us with authority what they think the past was like; the blocky, pointellistic environments of Tomb Raider were not a statement, but a suggestion:

Wouldn't it be nice if it had been like this.

Level 1: Caves

stairs_flipping In this area some wolves rush at you and you hear the rousing action music for the first time. It's pretty surprising the first time you play because the dead world of Caves has lulled you into a false sense of security by this point. Unfortunately, the wolves are not in this screen because I killed them already. Whoops.

If I were to go into great depth about every individual level, this TR project would be about 50,000 pages, so I'm going to give most levels a cursory inspection and only spend time on the ones that strike me as something special. I will also give all levels a rating out of five (medipacks? Uzi clips?), and do a best/worst section. In the event that I have nothing much to say about a level, I'll just do the rating and the best/worst. Also, I'm not including the bonus levels that were added in the later PC versions because I have the PS originals. If I can find a version of TR Gold that works on my computer, I'll play the bonus levels.

Caves doesn't appear to have much going for it; graphically it's the blandest level ever. Since it's the first level, there isn't much difficulty, and Lara is still on the outskirts of the ancient city, so there's a lot of stone and grass and only small touches of Incan artwork. However, what it does do marvelously well is establish a mood that will persist throughout the entire game. Lara is alone, in a cave, exploring areas that haven't been seen by human eyes in decades, if not longer. The architecture, what's left of it, is grown over, if still majestic at times. Except for occasional whispers of sound, it is silent. Lara is a breath of life in a dead world. Even the presence of animal life doesn't add any warmth; starvation has driven the wolves hostile. Anything that survives here, does so just barely.

Switch This image demonstrates a big problem with TR: Since side-stepping was not introduced until TR2, it was very easy to walk up to a switch, be out of position to pull it, and have to hop back a few steps in order to position Lara properly. It's infuriating. Out of all the tweaks that were made to the controls in subsequent games, the addition of the sidestep was the only one that was absolutely necessary.

They also introduce all of the most significant exploration features: Lara turns her head to look at a significant area (from the very beginning she always mysteriously knows things that you do not), music is rare and only appears when something important is about to happen and you need to step up your game, and if you're thorough, you can hear that deeply satisfying "ta-dah!" sound that heralds a secret multiple times. We also get the first Bear of the game, who functions as a kind of hidden mini-boss (it's not necessary to kill him, but you get access to another medipack if you do), showing that Tomb Raider was taking the fight to the bears ten years before Stephen Colbert made it cool. Should you make the mistake of fighting the bear up close and personal instead of plinking away at it from a safe perch, you will learn very swiftly that the only good bear in Tomb Raider is a dead bear. The same applies to T-Rexes, but that's later.

Bears! BEARS! I didn't have to go out of my way to kill this guy, but I did out of a sense of duty. I watch the Colbert Report.

Best: Backflipping up the marble stairs away from the wolves while the TR action theme plays. Still exhilarating after all these years.

Worst: The timed switch puzzle. In some respects it's good because it forces you to get a little tighter with the controls if you've just been winging it up to now, but the controls in TR aren't well suited for this sort of puzzle. Fortunately the grand majority of the puzzles in the game are not timed.

Overall Ranking: 2 Uzi Clips out of 5. It's simple, but it has to score higher than 1 because a)It's good enough to lure you into playing the rest of the game b) the simplicity is intentional and c)the occasional musical cues add a lot of atmosphere.

Cavesstats I'm going to try to get all the secrets, but I make no promises. Also, keep in mind that my times on these statistics screens are misleading because I'm constantly setting up and editing screen shots. I could blow through this level in a few minutes, but where's the fun in that?

Next Time: City of Vilacamba. I warn you: There is another bear. Prepare yourself.