A Look Back at 20 Years of Tomb Raider

“You don’t know how far I’ve come.” - Lara Croft, Rise of the Tomb Raider

October 25th, 1996. On that day in history, a gun-toting archaeologist by the name of Lara Croft was gifted to the gaming world. 10/25/96 also happened to be the day I was cradled in my parents’ arms for the very first time. Not to make this about me, but the fact that I was born on the same day as Lara Croft goes to show how far the Tomb Raider has come in comparison to little wordsmith me.

Lara Croft may just be a fictional gaming heroine, but since that fateful October midnight, she has won over millions of hearts around the world, been the subject of countless magazine features and has had plenty of books written about her worldwide crusades. And did I already mention that she stars in a multi-billion-dollar gaming franchise that has shipped over 45 million copies globally? I, for one, have only conquered a few hearts in my time – few enough that I can count them with a hand or two – and I’ve yet to appear in any press profiles worth mentioning. No shame in either, I suppose, but my achievements sure do pale in comparison to ol’ Lara.

Lara's origins

My deflated ego aside, Lara Croft is without a doubt the most famous female video game character on our planet. The story of Lara Croft begins with a British game developer by the name of Core Design. During development, Core Design scrapped the name of Laura Cruz, dropping the “u” in favour of Lara Cruz, because, apparently, Americans had a hard time pronouncing the extra vowel. Later on, they settled upon Lara Croft, as white folks just had a difficult time relating to Lara Cruz.

 Lara Croft or Lara Cruz?

Lara Croft or Lara Cruz?

As for her look, the ponytail was the only long hairstyle developers could implement due to the weaker technology they had at the time, so that’s what stuck. Lara carried two guns in a double-gun holster for twice the killing power, suited herself up in a leotard to emphasize her voluptuous curves and wore brown hiking boots for practicality. The team at Core Design wanted to make Lara as “quintessentially British” as possible, so they gave her a very privileged upbringing – a hefty inheritance from her father, Lord Croft, as well as an education from both a boarding and finishing school. And with the release of Tomb Raider, they kicked off her very first adventure in Calcutta, India.

In Lara’s first expedition, she is propositioned by a rich businesswoman by the name of Jacqueline Natla to recover an ancient artifact called the Scion. Lara proceeds to travel to Peru, Greece and Egypt to recover the artifact, discovering along the way that Natla intends to pry the Scion from her dead body. Tomb Raider laid the groundwork for its many sequels in terms of game mechanics, packing the levels with a combination of platforming, tough puzzles and ferocious enemies – dual and quad-legged alike. The reception to the 1996 Tomb Raider was nothing short of extraordinary. Publisher Eidos Interactive’s pre-tax loss of $2.6 million in the same year was turned into a $14.5 million profit after launch, as the game soared to the top of the sales charts in both America and the UK. Tomb Raider was a massive success, riding the late 90s wave of “girl power,” but no one could have predicted the success that was yet to cement Lara Croft as a pop culture superstar for decades to come.

The following year, Tomb Raider II was released, with Lara jetting off to the Great Wall of China, the rivers of Venice, and the monasteries of Tibet. It was another immediate success, selling 7-8 million copies, this time aided by the hype injected by its predecessor. Tomb Raider III, released in ’98, was well-received by fans but scored only in the mid-70s by critics, whereas the prequels landed in and above the 80s. It put Lara on the course for another artifact which she had again tracked to India, the Infada Stone, carved from a meteorite that impacted in Antarctica a millennium ago.

 Lara in  Tomb Raider III.

Lara in Tomb Raider III.

A year before the turn of the century, with the release of another Tomb Raider game: Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, Core Design decided to put a little twist in the archaeologist’s tale – they ostensibly killed Lara off, crushing her underneath a collapsed pyramid. The cliff-hanger ending had more than a few fans worried about whether or not they’d ever see their gun-slinging heroine again, but their fears were quickly quelled as Lara returned the next year in Tomb Raider: Chronicles. By then, the Lara Croft brand had blown up in every corner of the universe. Angelina Jolie was set to star in a Hollywood spinoff of the franchise entries – even though that turned out to be complete dog crap – and Lara herself had already appeared on 400 magazine covers to date.

Lara returns in supernatural fashion in Chronicles – presumed dead by the public, lost under a pile of pyramid rubble, the game opens with a memorial service that fades into dream sequences of past events in her life. But the fact that Lara turned out to still be alive and well was overshadowed by mixed reviews, and its sequel, Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness – which served as the dawn of the franchise’s next-gen titles – was met with even dimmer reviews and fewer sales. Tomb Raider needed an overhaul, and, unfortunately, that overhaul did not include developer Core Design.

Exit Core Design, enter Crystal Dynamics

And so, six years later, with the release of Tomb Raider: Legend at the helm of its new developer Crystal Dynamics, Lara Croft dropped a few cup sizes and returned slimmer and sexier than ever. Although her proportions were still not yet fully realistic, her polygon count had increased exponentially since her inception in ’96, with 6292 in her model alone, compared to a measly 250 in the original Tomb Raider.

 Concept art for  Tomb Raider: Legend .

Concept art for Tomb Raider: Legend.

Even with a new developer and a six-year franchise hiatus, Tomb Raider: Legend was not considered a reboot, rather a re-imagining of the foundation that had been laid by the previous games with some alterations here and there. These alterations included a focus on physics-based puzzles which would carry over to the most recent Tomb Raider games, with a focus on Lara’s intellect and her use of gear. As with other action games that were built upon the new technology of the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360, there was an emphasis on her motion fluidity and how she felt on the joysticks. Her look was also somewhat revamped, with Crystal Dynamics retaining her signature long legs, large eyes, small nose, M-shaped lips and exaggerated curves, while also making her less angular and chiselled.

The 2006 Tomb Raider: Legend was well-received by critics and fans alike, regarded as an evolution which promised a step in the right direction for the franchise. Along with this new game, a new biography was also released for Lara, which expanded on details previously given about her personal and family history, revealing her reputation as both an accredited genius and an Olympic-standard gymnast.

With the ten-year anniversary of Tomb Raider fast approaching, Crystal Dynamics decided to tackle a reboot of the very first game, a daunting task to say the least. Titled Tomb Raider: Anniversary, the storyline, setting and game design were modelled after the original, with the physics-based gameplay and Lara’s grapple hook factoring heavily into the puzzle gameplay. Her classic teal leotard was also given a set fresh textures, and movement mechanics including slow-motion combat rolls and strafing were added, making kills and dodges that much more satisfying to execute.

While a team at Crystal Dynamics was still working on Tomb Raider: Anniversary, Tomb Raider: Underworld was already in production. With the boom of motion capture in the industry, Crystal Dynamics hired gymnastics champion turned Hollywood stuntwoman Heidi Moneymaker as the mo-cap actor for Lara. The new hardware also meant that Lara’s polygon count soared to almost 32,000 from 6292 in Tomb Raider: Legend, making her appear more realistic than ever before. The abundant polygon count led to Lara receiving the Guinness World Record accolade of “Most Detailed Video Game Character” in 2010.

 Swinging around in  Tomb Raider: Underworld

Swinging around in Tomb Raider: Underworld

Set initially in the Mediterranean Sea, Lara discovers a mystical gauntlet that belonged to Thor, the god of thunder, and she spends the next chunk of the game searching for the missing artifacts that would allow her to wield Thor’s hammer. A motorbike could also be used to travel Mexican terrain and the icy Jan Mayen Island, and a spear gun could be used to take out underwater baddies. Although Tomb Raider: Underworld was warmly received by both fans and critics, the gaming world knew it was time for the franchise’s next big leap – a reboot, for real this time.

This sorely needed reboot came in part via famed publisher Square Enix – of the legendary Final Fantasy series – which acquired Eidos Interactive in 2009. After the 2010 release of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, which introduced co-op play and a top-down view, jetting Lara and her companion Totec off to the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, Crystal Dynamics and its new publisher were ready a fully modern take on the beloved franchise.

2013 reboot

Four years ago, as the last generation of consoles was coming to an end, Crystal Dynamics released Tomb Raider, a story of survival and origin. Constraining the story to a single island, where Lara was stranded with her crew after being marooned in a shipwreck, the game pulled her back to her roots while still appealing to a fan base that had grown up and matured with her over the last 17 years. Lara returned as something of a guerrilla fighter, trading in her dual pistols for a bow, a climbing axe, a combat knife, and weapons of war.

 Lara Croft in the 2013 reboot:  Tomb Raider .

Lara Croft in the 2013 reboot: Tomb Raider.

As she searched for her lost crew members on the island of Dragon’s Triangle off the coast of Japan, she would have to overcome both supernatural foes and earthly ones, while also tackling physics-based puzzles with her new tools. The reboot – the first M-rated Tomb Raider in the franchise’s history - sold 9 million copies worldwide and was lauded for its titular character’s realism, and the humanity of the relationships forged on the Japanese island. Critics and fans loved this new Lara, anchored by strength, intellect and vulnerability, the latter of which was rarely on display in the prequels.

A year later, Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris was released, another well-received top-down tomb raiding adventure that built upon the foundation of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. But it was the sequel to the 2013 reboot, Rise of the Tomb Raider, which turned heads once again, coming to life on the latest generation of consoles with its near photorealistic visuals and more believable character development, the latter being criticized in the first reboot. In Tomb Raider, Lara had evolved too quickly from a naïve, privileged archaeologist into a savage killing machine. She squirmed in guilt and discomfort after choking her first victim to death, but followed up by mercilessly killing hundreds of soldiers and samurai foes.

  Rise of the Tomb Raider

Rise of the Tomb Raider

Crystal Dynamics aimed to change that in Rise of the Tomb Raider, as well as up the level of anatomical correctness in Lara’s facial features and bodily proportions. The latest version of Lara Croft is the least sexualised of them all, her tank top less revealing than ever and her cup size reduced to normalcy. The story itself sees Lara chasing after a “divine source,” which supposedly grants immortality, detailed in her late father’s research. Her quest leads her first to Syria and then Siberia, where she is intent on uncovering the lost city of Kitezh. With its magnificent snow-covered valleys, glacial caverns, tricky tombs and savage foes, Rise of the Tomb Raider is no doubt the most beautiful and perhaps the best entry of the entire series. Upon release, the game received critical acclaim as well as the coveted Writers Guild award for video games for Outstanding Achievement in Video Game Writing.

The next installment in the series, which has not been revealed yet, is supposedly called Shadow of the Tomb Raider, unintentionally leaked by a developer in Montreal who was checking his laptop on the subway. Whatever it’s called, and wherever Lara Croft decides to go next, one can only expect more pixelated greatness from this storied, world-renowned franchise.