The world that the game takes place in feels steeped in history. Walking through the lost city of Vilcabamba, you see animal skins stretched out on frames, pass earthenware pots on the floor and walk across hay-strewn wood in the now empty stables. Wooden beams in the ceiling have a rustic quality that makes you feel like someone spent time crafting them. And when you start getting into the Indiana Jones-style temples with swinging blades and booby traps, that's it. The game's got you enthralled.
These locations were abandoned in subsequent games, of course, but those same games are where the series started to go wrong. Why? Because they moved away from the very simple premise of raiding tombs. Tomb Raider 3's Area 51 section was utter nonsense compared to the beauty and haunting majesty of the vast majority of Tomb Raider's levels.
Above: Fighting a bear in an underground city in TR1 is better than avoiding security cams in TR3. Fact
And haunting really is the word. Even with all the bells and whistles offered by modern hardware, no Tomb Raider game has ever come close to matching the atmosphere of the original. Nathan McCree's score is utterly sensational, with incidental flourishes and short passages of music used in favour of the traditional 'level music' in other games. And when the monks start chanting, you really get what the team was trying to instil. A sense of awe, beauty and reverence. You should keep your voice down in here.
It was a trick used in Delphine Software's Flashback (pictured), which kept the audio track sparse for the most part. And, like Flashback, the gameplay was similarly-paced. It was all about lining up your jumps and then executing them perfectly instead of just running around and jumping blindly, relying on the game to catch you if you fall (like Nolan North era Prince of Persia) or just letting you rewind your mistakes (like Sands of Time-era Prince of Persia).
There's something to be said for both of those approaches to game design - probably something insulting in the case of the former - but Tomb Raider's extremely harsh treatment of failure is one of its greatest triumphs.
Yes, it's annoying when you die and you realise you haven't saved for half an hour, but if that doesn't give you a damn good reason to value your virtual life, I'm not sure what will. Why should you get a second chance, explorer? If this adventure's too much for you, why are you even here?
Above: One of the first major jumps has a mercifully shallow pit beneath. It's about the last one that does
I'm aware the control system is antiquated and awful and annoying and every other negative word beginning with 'A', but I like it. I like having to carefully line up jumps, hop backwards once, then run, leap and then hold a button to catch the ledge on the other side. It requires effort, finesse and patience. And because you have to take your time, you take in your surroundings more than if you could just dash across a room in 20 seconds like you do in today's games. Which, again, adds to that atmosphere - and feeling that you're going through all of this very much on your own.
To the end?
I actually doubt many players ever reached the end of Tomb Raider. Its later levels get ludicrously difficult, a problem exacerbated by the conservative distribution of save points (that can only be used once). But that's probably for the best. Aside from the ultra-scary torso boss…
…the final couple of levels seem to run out of ideas. The pulsating walls of the final area are a real WTF moment and Egypt, with its scattergun iconography and stretched level design, is perhaps one area too far. I appreciate the plot does involve supernatural elements, but the concept is frankly stretched to breaking point by the time you reach the conversation with Natla and perhaps it was too ambitious for the hardware to deliver. All that carefully-constructed credibility is undone by crude animated wall textures and underground palm trees.
Compare that to the genius touches of the rest of the game. The trigger moment of the T-Rex or the mythological hammer of Thor that you have to trigger by standing on the exact spot the hammer will fall. The way you get hurt running through spikes, but walking won't harm you. And as for that amazing bit with the fallen hand of the Midas statue...
Above: Everything he touched turned to gold. So standing on the hand of his statue is probably a bad idea
Playing Tomb Raider was a family pastime in my house - we'd all think about the puzzles (some of which had us stumped for a while). So when the Midas bit came on, my dad said to me 'you know the myth, right?' and I said 'yes, of course I do'. And I did. Then I climbed on the hand anyway. It was a Pike/Mainwaring moment. "You stupid boy".
Raiders of the lost art
It may be a cliche, but they literally don't make games like this any more. So I can forgive its flaky finale because the main bulk of the game is so perfect. From the wonder of Lost Valley and its T-Rex battle, through St Francis' Folly and the Coliseum, it's superb escapism. Perhaps not superlative, as Uncharted exists, but it only takes the best bits of Tomb Raider and improves on its few shortcomings.
And that's the problem, really. Uncharted is the worthy successor to Tomb Raider. Sure, I like the Tomb Raider Anniversary remake and appreciate the quality of Underworld, but there's only ever been one true Tomb Raider game in my mind - the original.
And, like Ridge Racer Type 4, you can buy it on PSN and enjoy it now. With some control remapping to make it more like the Saturn pad's layout, it works an absolute treat on PSP. There's no point buying it if you have no patience. This is like a fine wine. It should be approached slowly, sipped and savoured. Because like a vintage tipple, a game like this may never come around again - so let's be thankful that those first 3D grapes were fermented so exquisitely.
18 Aug, 2011
Appreciation section: Doom 3
It's not the Doom you remember, but it is the Doom you'll never forget
Appreciation section: Ridge Racer Type 4
It's Riiiiidge Raaaacer!!! Drifting straight into the racing hall of fame
Appreciation Section: Panzer Dragoon Zwei
One of about two good dragon games ever