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History of Tomb Raider: Blowing the dust off 17 years of Lara Croft

tomb raider 2013 screenshotIn the pantheon of popular video-game characters, Tomb Raider heroine Lara Croft has carved out a place for herself as one of the industry’s most accomplished and successful icons. Since the release of the very first Tomb Raider back in 1996, the globe-trotting adventurer has starred in more than a dozen games, a pair of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, a long-running comic-book series, an animated series, and even a set of amusement-park rides.

The legend of Lara Croft receives another chapter this week with the release of a new Tomb Raider game that reboots the character’s colorful history with a gritty adventure that explores her evolution from scared woman to battle-hardened survivor.

Even though the upcoming game will effectively reset Lara Croft’s origin, her evolution would never have reached this point without the last 17 years of adventures – good and bad – that made her a fan-favorite character around the world.

The Early Years

tomb raider 1996 screenshotThe hero of Tomb Raider wasn’t always the buxom brunette we’re familiar with now, and if any number of decisions had gone a different way during the early ’90s, we might be looking at a very different Lara Croft. Former Core Design artist Toby Gard had initially conceived of an Indiana Jones clone for the protagonist of his groundbreaking, third-person adventure in a 3D world filled with puzzles, traps, and treasure. Looking to put some distance between his game environment and the world inhabited by that famous big-screen archeologist, Gard and the Core team eventually settled on braided, pistol-packing Laura Cruz as their game’s heroine — but only after she received a change in name to reflect the company’s British ownership and became Lara Croft.

While the Tomb Raider series was a mainstay of the Sony PlayStation in the ’90s, the first installment of the franchise debuted on the Sega Saturn in 1996. Quick to see the series’ potential, Sony settled on an exclusivity deal for the game’s next two installments that many credit as one of the primary reasons the console was able to establish a foothold in the industry despite the recent debut of the Nintendo 64.

The first Tomb Raider went on to sell more than 7 million units worldwide, and served as both the herald and template for many of the 3D, third-person games that followed.

Fame, Fortune, and Frustration

To say that Lara Croft’s arrival was a success for developer Core Design and publisher Eidos Interactive is only the tip of the iceberg. Not only did Tomb Raider receive rave reviews from critics, but the game’s heroine – who broke the traditional, male-dominated hero mold in a big way – became an almost instant pop-culture icon. Lara Croft’s image adorned the covers of TIME and Newsweek, and Eidos found itself saddled with the pressures of managing a highly sought-after promotional opportunity.

In just a few short weeks, Tomb Raider had gone from an ambitious game that tested the limitations of technology to the debut vehicle for the hottest spokesperson on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.

“There is always some ‘X’ factor that can’t be quantified, but Lara is at the heart of Tomb Raider’s appeal”

“There is always some ‘X’ factor that can’t be quantified, but Lara is at the heart of Tomb Raider’s appeal,” said Noah Hughes, Creative Director for Crystal Dynamics, developer of the new Tomb Raider game. “She represents adventure; with the passion to explore and discover, the resourcefulness to solve puzzles, the agility to scale anything, and the courage and determination to fight to the end. On top of all this, as a powerful female lead in games, Lara stands out.”

The character’s newfound celebrity didn’t sit well with everyone, though – especially Gard, whose vision for the character cast her as a tough-as-nails, aristocratic heroine who would never agree to lend her image to energy drink advertisements or pose in a skimpy bikini. This prompted Gard to leave the company in 1997 and form his own video-game development company, though he was destined to cross paths with his most famous creation years later.

Sequel Surge

After the success of Tomb Raider, Eidos pushed to have a new installment of the franchise on shelves every year, with Tomb Raider II arriving almost exactly one year after its predecessor. The game was the product of a significantly larger development team and the decision to optimize the original Tomb Raider game engine instead of creating a new engine for the sequel.

Tomb Raider II improved upon the formula that worked so well for the original, with Lara criss-crossing the globe in search of a magical dagger and enjoying a few new abilities (including a mid-air roll and expanding game-saving options), a visual makeover, and to go along with a noticeably improved 3D environment. The difficulty of the game was also tweaked, making the notoriously frustrating puzzles that plagued the original Tomb Raider a bit easier to navigate this time around.

These improvements to the original Tomb Raider appeared to pay off, as the sequel topped the impressive sales of its predecessor by moving more than 8 million units worldwide. The game also matched the first installment’s critical achievement, earning positive reviews and ensuring that a third installment would follow.

And just as planned, Tomb Raider III arrived on shelves one year later with a new adventure for Lara Croft. This time around, players found themselves navigating the globe in search of meteorite fragments with a host of new abilities at Lara Croft’s disposal, including a “monkey swing” and sprinting abilities.

While reviews were generally positive for Tomb Raider III, the third chapter of the series marked the first downward trend in both sales and critical assessment. The game’s 6.5 million units sold worldwide and lukewarm reception from reviewers were nothing to scoff at, but offered an early indication of some of the troubles the franchise would soon face.

Sequelitis

By the time Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation hit shelves in November 1999, the pressure placed on Core Design to produce a new Tomb Raider game each year had become increasingly apparent. The mixed reception to the previous installment prompted the Tomb Raider team to do the unthinkable: kill off Lara Croft.

“A lot of the things that we brought to the Tomb Raider reboot were things that just weren’t possible when Tomb Raider first came out”

While The Last Revelation was another critical and commercial success, selling 5 million units worldwide, the fourth chapter of the series didn’t stray too far from its predecessors when it came to technical upgrades and improvements. At this point, even the series’ diehard fans had begun to grow tired of the repetitive experiences offered by each new Tomb Raider game, and developers responded with a wide-reaching sendoff for Lara Croft that saw her trapped in a tomb and presumed dead in an epic finale.

“With a game series that has been around as long as Tomb Raider, it is difficult to maintain freshness and relevance while still catering to nostalgia,” said Hughes of what the series’ evolution can teach developers. “As a franchise like Tomb Raider evolves, it can’t just repeat the same formula over and over, but it also must not lose sight of what made it great in the first place. This is a difficult balancing act.”

Just like any popular character, though, Lara Croft didn’t stay dead for long. Tomb Raider Chronicles hit shelves in November 2000, but offered very little in the way of upgrades to the character or gameplay. Unfolding as a series of flashbacks recalled by friends and family attending Lara Croft’s funeral, Chronicles failed to impress — selling a mere 1.5 million units despite a mix of positive and negative reviews. It went on to become the second least-successful chapter in the Tomb Raider franchise.

Hollywood Calls

lara croft tomb raider movie screenshotLara Croft officially made the jump to the big screen with 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which cast Angelina Jolie as the treasure-hunting heroine. The movie was a tremendous success despite negative reviews from critics, and broke the opening-weekend record for films featuring a female protagonist. Its $274 million in ticket sales worldwide rank it as the second most-successful video-game adaptation worldwide (after Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time), and the most successful video-game adaptation in the U.S. as of the current box-office tallies.

A sequel followed in 2003, with Jolie reprising her role as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, but it failed to achieve the same box-office success as its predecessor — a result the studio blamed on troubles that carried over from the gaming side of the Tomb Raider universe.

“All of the media that features Lara Croft feeds into her general mythology, and in some ways informs the games, but the canon had become a bit fragmented,” recalled Hughes, adding that one benefit of the reboot is to provide “a clean starting point” for future installments.

Growing Pains

tomb raider angel of darkness screenshotThe move from the PlayStation to the PlayStation 2 was fraught with trouble for Core Design, and almost three years passed before the release of Tomb Raider: Angel Of Darkness in June 2003. When the game did finally hit shelves, many fans found themselves wishing it had remained in development a bit longer.

Angel of Darkness was heavily criticized for its buggy play, frustrating controls, and messy narrative. The game still managed to sell 2.5 million units despite its well-publicized flaws, but its failure to capitalize on the character’s success – and Hollywood’s insistence that the game’s shortcoming had killed the franchise’s big-screen potential – resulted in one of the biggest shifts in the series’ history.

New Ownership

The failure of Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness and Cradle of Life were followed by a shakeup at Eidos that saw the franchise move from Core Design to a new developer, Crystal Dynamics.

Known for their success with the Legacy of Kain franchise, the U.S.-based developer decided to bring the franchise back to its roots by hiring Gard back on as a consultant for Tomb Raider: Legend the next installment of the series.

In rebooting the series, Gard and the Crystal Dynamics team went far beyond the usual incremental upgrades and overhauled both Lara Croft and the game mechanics considerably. Adding everything from interactive cinematics to an entirely revamped backstory for Lara herself, Legend arrived on shelves in 2006 to rave reviews and sales that topped the 4.5 million-units mark.

And just like that, Lara Croft was officially back in action.

“On the story side, the brilliant, resourceful, athletic, and driven archaeologist Lara Croft always serves as the heart and soul of a Tomb Raider game,” said Hughes of the most important factors in developing a successful Tomb Raider experience for fans. “From a gameplay perspective, Tomb Raider games celebrate platforming and exploration, puzzle-solving, and combat. These are seen as core gameplay pillars.”

Crystal Dynamics followed up their success with Legend by remaking the first Tomb Raider with an improved game engine and a full scrubbing of the 1996 game’s flaws. Tomb Raider: Anniversary was a critical success, though it only sold 1.3 million units.

Going Dark

tomb raider underworld screenshotIn November 2008, Lara Croft’s darkest adventure yet arrived on shelves from Crystal Dynamics with Tomb Raider: Underworld. The eighth installment of the franchise used an entirely new engine to bring its heroine’s adventures to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, though versions for the Wii, PlayStation 2, and various other consoles were also released.

The game earned generally positive reviews in its next-gen formats and presented yet another dramatic upgrade on the technical side, with Lara Croft granted the ability to target multiple enemies simultaneously and more interactive features in the narrative. Lara herself benefited from a redesign that saw her physical form modeled on Olympic gymnast Heidi Moneymaker instead of a computer-generated figure.

Although Tomb Raider: Underworld failed to match the lofty achievements of the earliest iterations of the franchise, the game sold around 2.6 million units worldwide and earned several industry accolades, including a Writer’s Guild of America award nomination for Gard and Underworld co-writer Eric Lindstrom.

The Future is Now

tomb raider 2013 screenshotAfter the 2009 merge that saw Tomb Raider publisher Eidos absorbed into Square Enix, the next featured installment of the franchise was announced in 2012. (A downloadable spin-off game titled Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light was released in 2010 that wasn’t intended to connect with the overarching Tomb Raider continuity.)

Simply titled Tomb Raider, the new game was framed as a complete reboot of the franchise that would give players the chance to experience Lara Croft’s transformation into a famed adventurer. Boasting a story authored by novelist Rhianna Pratchett, the Tomb Raider has already earned praise from critics and a long list of awards (including Digital Trends’ “Best of E3 2011″) ahead of its release this week.

“A lot of the things that we brought to the Tomb Raider reboot were things that just weren’t possible when Tomb Raider first came out,” said Hughes. “The third-person aim system is enabled by dual stick controls that were not available at the time. The puzzles could not feature physics like they do now because of limited processing power. Large exteriors like our new hub levels were desired on the first game, but were smaller and set underground based on technical constraints.”

“Although Lara was one of the most life-like characters at the time, our new animation capturing and layering technology makes the current Lara more life-like than ever,” he added

Whether the new Tomb Raider will indeed present a fresh take on one of the industry’s most famous heroes remains to be seen, but one thing that’s certain is that there’s no small amount of history behind it. But as Lara Croft has proven time and time again, anything is possible — and it’s hard to keep a good heroine down.