The people who hate advertising the most are generally those who fear that it actually works. From that perspective, it’s easy to see Tomb Raider as some manner of grimly evolved exploitation flick: a title that owes its success to anatomy rather than level design; a series to prove that, just so long as you can work an improbably curvy lady into the box art, the drooling masses will spend money on almost anything.
There are some problems with that hypothesis – not least the fact that there are plenty of examples of sultry sirens aimed squarely at the top ten charts who subsequently went on to land in the bargain bins instead. In fact, Tomb Raider’s very own publisher Eidos did a pretty good job of reinforcing the point that sex wasn’t a force that could shift videogames in vast quantities by the mid-’90s, with an enthusiastic parade of pneumatic travesties. They all ended up heavily discounted and with little but studio closures and a shared history of lower back pain to show for their efforts.
Besides, there’s an even knottier problem awaiting anyone who’s looking to pin the success of Tomb Raider solely on its leading lady. Lara Croft may have been an instant videogame superstar, but she didn’t really take shape as a genuine character until long after the series’ heyday. It took a narrative-centred reboot and the arrival of Crystal Dynamics to finally bring her into focus.
But if the series’ early appeal can’t be entirely traced back to Croft, what was it that made the games so staggeringly popular? After all, Core Design was no Nintendo, and even in its true blockbuster period there was something undeniably crude about Tomb Raider. Take into account the stuttering cutscenes, the fumbling lunges for an air of sophisticated sexiness or the fact that, beneath the fur, scales or costume-shop outfits, the game’s enemies tended to be drab chunks of health bar that either stayed put (which was bad enough) or moved around in circles (which was even worse) while you stoically slogged through the business of shooting them to death. It can be difficult to see what kept fans coming back for in each new instalment.
Tomb Raider II should be one of the worst of the bunch. Lara Croft’s Chinese adventure flings mindless foes, wonky cinematics and faux-sultry non-sequiturs at you with a distinctly foolish enthusiasm. And yet, somehow, the end result stands out as the best example of the one perfect thing that Core Design always got right: the single sharp idea that makes up for all those rough edges.
Lara Croft’s second outing understands that Tomb Raider’s a power fantasy – even if it’s not exactly the kind of power fantasy that players might have been expecting. It’s a pleasure to fill the shoes of someone gymnastic enough to scale all those epic environments, certainly, but a crucial aspect of the series’ appeal is that Croft’s rich enough to get there in the first place. This dream of easy wealth underpins Eidos’ money-spinner, and helps to explain why one of the greatest pleasures of any Tomb Raider has always been Croft Manor, that shifting sprawl of semi-familiar real estate that feels both aimless and an essential inclusion. The manor’s a place to practise moves, of course – long before Croft had a personality, she had that breezy, elegant sideways jump for players to latch on to – but it’s also to prepare you for the game’s true focus: underneath the tiger-shooting and the platform-hopping, Tomb Raider’s a lifestyle title in the truest sense of the term, and each matinee adventure is an open invitation to indulge in a prolonged burst of virtual tourism.
And if it’s Croft who takes us to some of the best places in western gaming, then none of her exploits have been quite as generous – or quite as inventive – as Tomb Raider II. Forget the plot, this time hinging on a mystical dagger with the power to turn its owner into a dragon: what marks the second game in the series out is the quality of the itinerary. Core Design’s first Tomb Raider gave the team a reputation for getting the temples and ruins right, but the sequel’s unusual eastern influence made a welcome change for anyone suffering from the early onset of Sphinx fatigue. The game’s bright red pagodas, rickety walkways, vigilant monks, chilly mountaintop monasteries and devious death traps walk the perfect line between caricature and holiday snaps, much as the previous game’s underground burial chambers and yawning expanses of hieroglyphics had effortlessly proved that anywhere mainstream cinema could go, games could follow – and follow with style.
In the final stages of Tomb Raider II, in fact, Croft’s travels take her far beyond the confines of virtual film sets, as the sloping tiled roofs, flaming spike walls and shimmering gilt of Chinese ossuaries give way to the kind of environments Mario would probably recognise. The mystical Floating Islands of the endgame provide a missing link between Mario Galaxy’s Gusty Garden and the intricate climbing-frame jungles of Uncharted, as chunks of bright green grass hover in mid air, transforming every jump into a matter of life and death, and bending gravity into a succession of strange new shapes in the process.
But perhaps the game’s most inspired move lay not within the realms of such fantastical geometry, but with the moments when the developers turned back towards the present day for inspiration. Tomb Raider II’s designers were smart enough to realise that the core of the series’ environmental appeal was a sense of mystery rather than mere antiquity, and in turn they offered up a range of modern locations that still managed to provide the vital sense of dereliction – and the inhuman scale – that the game required to draw together its sense of lonely exploration.
And, paradoxically, it’s in the game’s more contemporary spaces that you can really see the design team earning its money. Whether it’s by marooning you on a creaking, echoing oil rig, sending you scrambling through the dark labyrinths and crumbling rooftop gantries of a dusty Venetian opera house or – best of all – dropping you deep into the ocean to poke about the rusting hulk of a wrecked ship, each new level of Tomb Raider II takes players somewhere no other games would think to go. Certainly, the puzzles you then find within these rambling dungeons are exclusively of the lock and key, switch and sliding door variety, but the detailing – the tables and chairs bolted to the ceiling in a capsized ocean liner ballroom, the scalable platforms built from the pistons and pulleys lurking deep in a leaking engine room – still ensures that the whole thing plays brilliantly in your memory long after your frustrations at careless difficulty spikes, awful gunplay and multi-part fuse hunts have had time to fade.
If it’s that masterful range of diverse environments that gives Tomb Raider the elusive sense of genuine adventure missing from so many action games, Core Design’s lovably rigid grid system brought order to the ensuing chaos, and turned sprawling underground caves into precision gymnasiums, clarifying exactly which distant platforms could be reached in a single jump, and which sudden drops would result in a crunchy tangle of broken bones at the bottom. The shift to contemporary, often industrial, settings made the chunky, rectangular surfaces favoured by the early 3D technology seem more forgivable, if still not entirely convincing, while fractal patterns of rust or repeating blocks of carpet provided much more sympathetic targets for the texturing than the ancient tumbledown masonry and bleeding alien architecture of the first game ever could.
And so even while, in terms of its combat and puzzles at least, Tomb Raider II is as precariously constructed as any of Croft’s other Core Design adventures, the end result seems strangely harmonious. Just as the treasure hunt plot ties eastern mythology together with an entirely western brand of avarice, the art team managed to create a graceful blend of old and new architecture without losing that crucial sense of the unknown.
It was a balance that subsequent games would struggle to maintain, with later instalments either caricaturing the contemporary a little too sharply with assaults on futuristic skyscrapers and a misguided trip to Area 51, or losing their way deep within the ancient twisting pathways of a dozen identical mausolea. Such disappointments were to follow, then, but in Tomb Raider II, under the shadow of the Great Wall of China or inside a rusting labyrinth deep beneath the ocean, the game achieved an enviable blend of inspirations and influences. For this one particular game the stars aligned, and there was nothing else quite like it.