The history of Tomb Raider games
A look back at the ever-popular franchise and Lara's many adventures
It doesn’t matter who you are, it’s likely you know of Lara Croft. Either from the best-selling videogame series, or from dodgy 90’s TV adverts in the UK, maybe even from the sides of sports drinks bottles.
As players entered a new era of gaming, leaping from SEGA and Nintendo, they wanted more from the graphics, more from the games. Something to try and rival PC games. They needed to look to South American lost cities or in the canals of Venice.
It has been 25 years since Lara first cartwheeled onto our TVs and monitors, first appearing in Tomb Raider in 1996 for the PlayStation, Saturn and PC. Since then, Lara has travelled the world, been embodied by Angelina Jolie and Alicia Vikander for film and graced hundreds of magazine front covers.
In fact, that first game developed by Core Design, took the world by storm. Millions of players took control of Lara and her somewhat disproportionately shaped physique.
Tomb Raider had a dash of Prince of Persia in its precise platforming, while the gunplay felt entirely fresh in the 32bit era. Nobody knew this young and rather posh lady would capture an audience. Certainly not creator Toby Gard.
Perhaps because Lara grounded players in a more realistic world - aside from the deadly T-rex and ever-expanding tombs. Controlling Lara felt great; it was different.
At the time, the tombs were awe-inspiring and fiendish. It did not take long for Sony to order a sequel and production started on Tomb Raider II.
Still on the original PlayStation and SEGA Saturn, Tomb Raider II took players to even more locales in search of more complicated tombs and secrets. This time however, Toby Gard wouldn’t oversee the game. He wasn’t particularly happy with how Lara was being sexualised.
Lara Croft wasn't only reaching gamers, she was reaching the public as a whole. She appeared semi-naked on men’s magazines, was being cosplayed by people worldwide and the perhaps inevitable happened…
On internet forums, rumour started that a sequence of button presses would strip Lara of her clothes. Gard had only created Lara Croft because a male lead would have seemed too much like Indiana Jones.
The sequel launched in 1997 and outsold the original game. This time, the game would not appear on the SEGA Saturn as publisher Eidos had signed a console exclusivity deal with Sony. While Sony had been looking for mascots for their console, they’d tried Rayman and Crash Bandicoot, but not a lady from middle England.
This exclusive deal lasted until 2000, when Tomb Raider skipped on Dreamcast. In those middle years, Lara appeared in Tomb Raider III and Tomb Raider IV: The Last Revelation. Both games took Lara further, explored more countries and added new levels of action.
Tomb Raider V: Chronicles took a different approach to the narrative of Lara, who in this entry was presumed dead after going missing in Egypt - with her closest friends gathering at the Croft Estate to tell stories of her past exploits - triggering moments in Lara's past for players to jump into.
Players were seeing more and more action games release and nearly all of them focused on shooting large guns. It was perhaps inevitable that with each iteration, Lara would face off against goons with more than just her trademark pistols.
It seemed that Core Design was taking Lara in a new direction. This perhaps came to a crux point as Lara jumped over to PlayStation 2 with Tomb Raider VI: The Angel of Darkness.
Angel of Darkness never seemed to know what it was. It was tomb exploring, enemy shooting, new stealth mechanics and a new direction for Lara. While some critics enjoyed the story, the game was a flop compared to the previous titles.
At this point, the franchise felt dated - the gaming world was moving on and Lara could not sell games anymore. The camera control felt awful, the controls were dated compared to new action games coming to PC and PS2... and it earned a place in the list ‘top 10 worst sequels” taking 5th place. It was a low point in the franchise.
Following the panning of Angel of Darkness, Lara took some time off. Maybe she was exploring her mansion and locking the butler in the fridge. We all did that, right? The most recent Hollywood film flopped at the box office (the studio partly blamed Angel of Darkness) and nobody really knew what to do with Lara and the Tomb Raider series.
Eidos made the decision to take the game away from Core and pass it to Crystal Dynamics instead. The aim was to regain the trust of the fanbase and deliver something fitting for the mid-2000’s audience.
Tomb Raider: Legend came to PC, and all consoles, including the Nintendo DS - it was a return to form for series. In addition, Toby Gard was back and heavily involved.
The story was praised for its excitement and controlling Lara felt more fluid, taking cues from the success of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Though this entry still had a few issues. The PC version suffered from frame drops and a low framerate overall, caused by a ‘next gen content’ option.
Players and critics alike also still couldn’t decide whether Lara should be wielding weapons so often, when the game was about exploration. This point still reigns today.
In 2007, the franchise celebrated its anniversary with the aptly named, Tomb Raider: Anniversary, which remade the original game with all new graphics. A bit of nostalgia never does any harm and sales were good.
Crystal Dynamics, with a spring in their step, brought us Tomb Raider: Underworld. This entry was a breath of fresh air - the environments were more detailed, puzzles felt innovative, and the controls and combat were smooth. Underworld tried and succeeded to add more realism into Lara’s adventures.
The power of PCs and consoles meant that AI would react smarter, that small details like slippery ledges could be used. It achieved something the series hadn’t for some time - it made players excited and tense.
In 2009, everything changed. Underworld had done wonders for the franchise, but the gaming sphere was changing. Square Enix stepped in and bought Eidos.
This sparked a period of quiet for Lara Croft. Aside from the brilliant isometric adventure Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, which allowed for co-op play and experimented with a whole new style of play, the Tomb Raider franchise was shelved. It would be five years after Underworld when we’d finally see Lara again. This time, she looked completely different.
In 2013 the franchise was rebooted by Square Enix. Lara took on a new look - a more grounded look. Taking cues from the Uncharted series, Lara was made to look like a real person and less of a caricature.
She was also about to enter a world of pain. Showcased at E3, Lara was seen exploring tombs again. But, she was also shown being beaten up, cut open, partially drowned and impaled. Tomb Raider had gone dark. It was the first game in the series to earn a mature rating.
The themes of games at this point were brooding and Lara joined in. The reboot became the first of a trilogy, across all platforms.
Critics and fans loved this new direction. Maybe not for the gritty stylings, but for the ‘feel’ of the game: slightly more open-world, full motion capture for Lara, weapon and equipment upgrading. The series truly stepped up alongside so many other games.
Stealth was the big factor in these games now. And Lara became deft at watching from the shadows, picking off enemies with a bow. While it was a brutal departure from the original games, it suited the industry.
Throughout the rebooted trilogies launch windows, we got a bunch of spin-offs. More isometric adventures came in Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, we got an endless runner on mobile - Lara Croft: Relic Run and also on mobile Lara Croft GO, which took the series into turn-based adventures.
Throughout all of these iterations and developers, one thing stayed: Lara. Most returned to the games each time to see Lara and find out more about her and explore with her. Now, we wait again, for the new game – Tomb Raider Reloaded, hoping that Lara takes us to some wonderful locations once again.