Specials: Lara Croft: Raider of Tombs, Legend of Games
When most people hear the phrase "Women in Games" they think of only one person. She's not a developer, a gamer or even a certain Senator who's trying to demonize video games for her own personal gain. No, when it comes to video games the woman who stands for all women (for better or worse) is the spelunking star of Tomb Raider, Lady Lara Croft.
It has been ten years since Lara debuted on Sega's Saturn and (along with Super Mario 64) ushered in the first wave of third-person adventure titles. Some will argue that her biggest contributions to gaming weren't her games, but her influence on the "butt-kickin' female" genre and her ability to (ahem) bust out as a mainstream icon.
Released a month after the aforementioned Super Mario 64, the original Tomb Raider actually debuted on the Sega Saturn on October 31, 1996 before settling on the PC and PlayStation two weeks later. The game was praised for its breathtaking graphics, stunning full motion video sequences, great voice acting and amazing gameplay. To this day fans remember Lara's third level dive off of a waterfall into an underwater lake. As incredible as Mario 64 was, gamers had never seen anything like Lara Croft and Tomb Raider. The debate over which of these two games is better is probably still going on today.
Combining puzzle solving, bursts of action and platform jumping at perilously high heights, Tomb Raider was more than just a straight action game. It was a smash hit on all three platforms, but most so on the PlayStation. Along with some of the other early stars of the system, Lara's globetrotting adventures fighting animals, dinosaurs and other tomb raiders in search of the Atlantean Scion helped push the system. And it pushed Sony to convince Eidos to make the series a PlayStation exclusive. The game would further define the PlayStation as one of the first games enlisted for Sony's Greatest Hits line.
Lara quickly grew out of her humble beginnings as the "female Indiana Jones" and instantly became a star in her own right. If you believe Toby Gard, lead designer of Tomb Raider, the team at Core Design never went out of their way to make Lara one of the most recognizable faces in gaming. In fact, the original design for Tomb Raider featured an unnamed male hero. It was only later that she was changed to "Laura Cruz" and then the Lara Croft we know today.
Of course, you'd never guess this from Lara's almost instant fame. She appeared on the cover of the popular UK magazine The Face promoting the rise of virtual models. She was given a "real-life counterpart" in the shape of British model Rhona Mitra. Mitra has gone on to a decent acting career, but her life as Lara involved being shuttled from press party to trade show and back again while flashing her guns and displaying the patented Lara Croft sneer. While she rarely spoke "in character", fans ate up the ability to meet the real Lara Croft.
Some will say that Tomb Raider succeeded solely on Lara's image, while others would say that Lara rode the wave of late 90s grrl power and was a fantastic new feminist symbol. Whichever side you fell on, it was hard to ignore Lara's figure, which even made Barbie jealous. So leave it to slobbering gamers to create the Nude Raider rumor. There were several variations of this rumor, but the most common one said that if players dove off of the waterfall and input a secret code before Lara hit the water she would emerge from the lake wearing nothing but her holster and a smile. Naturally, Eidos would never include such a cheat in any of the console versions of Tomb Raider. But that didn't stop a bored young programmer from creating a Nude Raider patch for the PC that replaces Lara's character model with one where she's naked. As you'd imagine, Eidos was none too pleased and sued the patch out of existence.
With all this attention being paid to Lara, it was easy to forget that she was just a video game star. So Eidos and Core Design wasted no time in bringing out a sequel, Tomb Raider II, for the PSX and PC in 1997. Tomb Raider II upped the action quotient and expanded on the original game's platforming elements. This time, Lara was tasked with finding the Dagger of Xian and traveled throughout Venice and China searching for it. With the original still racking up sales, Tomb Raider II was a huge success.
While fans loved Lara's continuing adventures, it was at this time that the salad days were over. Core Design turned right around and started work on Tomb Raider III, which was released in the 1998 for the PlayStation and PC once again. While it was still considered a hit, fans were growing weary of Lara's new adventures. Tomb Raider III is the furthest removed from the series' archeological roots and take players through Indian and South Pacific jungles, Lodon rooftops, an Anarctic research station and Area 51! There aren't any tombs in Area 51.
In addition to the lack of tombs, Tomb Raider III also upped the body count considerably. Fans howled that Lara seemed to kill without mercy. Gone were the rabid animals and dinosaurs, Lara's double guns were now taking down people more than anything else. While the game also added considerable stealth sections to the series, the Area 51 section and the extreme violence hung over the game like a dark cloud.
A second blackeye would befall Eidos a few months after the release of Tomb Raider III. Nell McAndrew, the latest Lara Croft press model had posed for Playboy under the camouflaged guise of "Lara Croft NUDE." The spread placed naked photos of McAndrew next to digital renders of Lara Croft and artwork from the game. Eidos was angry and put up a token fight in court, but nothing seemed to come of it other than McAndrew not being asked to return as a real-life Lara.
However, Eidos and Core trudged on and would release Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation for the PlayStation and PC that fall. A Dreamcast port (Lara's first appearance outside of a Sony console since the original Tomb Raider) would appear several months later. As the title suggests, The Last Revelation put Lara in the most danger she's ever faced.
A prequel level gave players control of a teenaged Lara under the watch of her mentor, Werner Von Croy. Von Croy and Lara were searching for the Iris of Cambodia, but they are separated and the pair go their separate ways. Lara hadn't thought about Von Croy in a long time until they meet again on a trip to Egypt where the two are caught up in an attempt to bring about the Apocalypse by an Egyptian god.
The Last Revelation is the only game in the series to keep the globehopping to a minimum (aside from the prequel level the entire game takes place in Egypt) and tries to build up the legend of Lara Croft. While the game was received better than Tomb Raider III, fans still complained that it was more of the same and that the series hadn't really progressed much beyond the first installment. But this still didn't stop a public outcry when it appeared that Lara was killed at the end of The Last Revelation.
Lara's death did not stop Eidos from exploring her past as in addition to The Last Revelation, 1999 saw the release of Gold versions of the first three PC titles. Each gold title included a bonus set of levels and a reduced price to lure both Tomb Raider fans and newcomers to check out the original adventures of Lara Croft.
Lara's past would be further mined the next year when Eidos revealed that while Lara might be dead, her spirit lived on in the hearts of her friends. Tomb Raider Chronicles for the PC, PSX and Dreamcast opened at Lara's funeral at Croft Manor as her friends told rousing tales of Lara Croft pre-Tomb Raider. Each of these tales (a search for the Philosopher's Stone, seeking out the Spear of Destiny and demonic possession in Ireland) takes us back to Lara at three different times in her life. This all leads to the finale, where it is revealed that Lara is alive. She promptly takes off for Von Croy's headquarters to take back the Iris and to set out for new adventures.
While The Last Revelation was lambasted for its "more of the same" approach, Chronicles was absolutely roasted. While taking as young Lara was new and the grappling hook was a nice touch, fans had cooled to Croft. The game even felt old as the original Tomb Raider engine, and it's ?grid system? of level design, was definitely showing its age.