Does It Hold Up is not a series about whether a game is good by today’s standards, but rather how close it was to getting things right, and what those things were. Which games innovated well for their time, and which games still hold up even in this day and age?
1996 Release Date
It is truly quite astonishing that we are slowly approaching its 25th anniversary; quite a feat granted it is probably older than a lot of gamers nowadays. So for the anniversary of the original Tomb Raider, I truly wanted to visit the game at its very roots and see how it feels to play it, how it held up, and apart from that, I decided to do some research on my own.
Released in 1996, the game received a ton of praise by videogame magazines for its variety, the graphics that were at the time considered revolutionary with intriguing environments, and the use of combat to keep tension high and the general atmosphere feeling dangerous.
Ryan MacDonald of GameSpot summarised the game with the following: “Take the puzzle solving of Resident Evil, the gory action of Loaded, and the 360-degree freedom most gamers only dream of, and you have Tomb Raider, the closest thing to a 'Super Mario 64 killer' to date.” Tomb Raider also tied with the Saturn version of Street Fighter Alpha 2 for Electronic Gaming’s Monthly “Game of the Month”; honestly, it’s funny to see how unambitious those times were, given that we now pit an entire year's worth of games against each other.
It is truly incredible that back then, 360-degree gameplay was something revolutionary, while it’s something that we take for granted nowadays. Although Super Mario 64 had the same mechanics, you need not look further than the original Resident Evil—released in the same year—with its fixed camera angles, and you’ll see why freedom to look around was so fascinating.
I believe it is safe to say that Tomb Raider came out to be a massive success, also being one of the first games to feature a female protagonist, alongside the likes of Samus Aran and Ms. Pac-Man.
Here’s an interesting thing, however. Lara Croft was originally going to be of South American ethnicity, and her name was actually intended to be Laura Cruz. However, Eidos Interactive decided that it wanted a more British-oriented character and story, so she was rehauled to fit that description. Personally, she will always be Laura Cruz in my heart.
How did it feel to play it?
I want to be kind and forgiving to Tomb Raider, not only because I absolutely adore the franchise but because we have to keep in mind that the game was released almost 25 years ago. So I will be keeping in mind the age of the game and trying not to be biased in that area.
Given the graphics and the oversexualization of Lara’s honkers, I think it’s safe to say that her design might not have been well received by today’s audiences. The controls are clunky as all hell; three hours into my gaming session I had to take a break because my thumb began hurting from keeping the d-pad pressed trying to make her move right. The controls are almost downright unplayable, but I really do need to give props to the game for the way it must have been back in its era, and overall the level design.
I love taking a walk down memory lane and seeing just how much games have changed. Your objectives in Tomb Raider are not obvious, and I found myself scratching my head a bit trying to figure out what to do next, running around like a headless chicken until I found the right path. But that’s one of the endearing things of the game. I didn’t feel like it was holding my hand and it really did bring some puzzling elements that had me trying different approaches until something worked. It is a missing element in games nowadays, where most titles spoon feed players their objectives, and a lot of the exploration aspects of trying to find out what to do have mostly been taken away.
That’s something that Tomb Raider really did ace despite its age. Each level has a set amount of hidden secrets that can be recognized by an audio cue. The game feels nonlinear and throws you into the caves expecting you’ll know what to do - granted, Lara would know, but I was lost and I loved it. Finding secrets felt really nice, especially because of the little extra rewards to make your battle against the controls (because really, you fight the controls more than enemies in this game) all that easier.
The combat was absolutely abysmal; Lara didn’t react properly whenever shooting enemies and honestly, I just felt bad killing wolves, and then a bear, and something that seemed like… I wanna say lions? And a gorilla, or maybe it was a monkey... Point is, the graphics (or my intellect) don’t really let me tell you what it was, just what kind of species it was. I fought a lot of canines, felines, and primates. Not to forget the dinosaurs, but that’s another matter.
The audio design was not so much bad as it was almost downright missing. I mean, there are sounds, but I probably couldn’t tell you what those sounds even were, which really is yet another reason for my confusion between the lion and whatever it is they actually intended to make.
The story in Tomb Raider took me aback. Honestly, I truly didn’t expect it to have… nothing. I mean, the game does have a story, but I was shocked that the beginning cutscene had absolutely no voice lines and just shows Lara watch someone (who I assume was her friend or something) die to wolves—although it could have easily been Lara’s rampant shooting—and then not say anything, instead walking straight into the caves. Like a sociopath.
Does it hold up?
Although the controls and graphics have been quite dated with the passage of time, the controls just feeling downright wrong due to some buttons feeling mixed to today’s standards, it is undeniable that Tomb Raider’s level design has risen to be successful in this day and age. With 15 levels and secrets within them that reward you with ways to make your time easier, it’s safe to say that the level design certainly performs better than some of the games from today’s era.
I can’t say I loved everything about Tomb Raider as a lot of things felt broken and bad, but for a game that’s celebrating its 25th anniversary it plays surprisingly nicely. The level design in particular caught me by surprise - although it is linear, it had me solving some puzzles that I quite enjoyed, forcing me to explore and find my way around. I genuinely had a ton of fun playing it, despite so many of the other elements being uncomfortable.
If Tomb Raider was released with a patch to help ease the controls for the newer audiences, I could even swallow the graphic design because it has a form of charm to it, reminding you of the humble beginnings of Lara and her infamous jugs. With a patch, I would definitely recommend the game with much more confidence because everything else—although clearly dated—is passable.
Overall, I did enjoy my time with Tomb Raider despite my thumb suffering greatly. It brought back my itch for replaying the remakes for the fourth time now. And if you’re a fan of the Tomb Raider franchise or are a nut for seeing how games were made back in the old ages, this game is definitely something I’d recommend. For the broader audience, I’d suggest skipping it, solely due to the uncomfortable controls.