She is one of gaming’s true global icons. That’s right, Lara Croft has been jumping, shooting and shimmying her way around the world for an impressive 25 years now, having first arrived on the scene in 1996. It’s a worrying sign of my advancing years, that so many of the gaming mascots I grew up with are hitting such milestones. On the flip side, it’s wonderful to see how far video games have moved on from relatively humble beginnings.
Lara was an unusual lead character for a video game in the mid ‘90s, simply because she was female. There wasn’t much competition, with those such as Samus Aran and Jill Valentine doing most of the heavy lifting. The British archaeologist offered something different to your typical heroine, instantly winning over fans with her feisty wit, impressive survival skills and passion for exploring. Lara’s search for knowledge behind some of the most famous legends in history took her all over the world, and made for an epic experience for the player.
Of course, it helps to be the heir to a vast estate which was consistently represented by the splendour of Croft Manor. This wealth enabled Lara to carry out her work without limits, which often collided with the interests of other shady characters. Lara Croft has been portrayed by many actresses across game, film and even TV adverts ( who else remembers those “Larazade” bottles from the late ‘90s?). There was clearly something special about the character, as big names such as Angelina Jolie and Keeley Hawes took the opportunity to play her.
It all started properly in 1996 with Tomb Raider. Contrary to popular belief, the game was actually released first on the Sega Saturn before being ported to PlayStation afterwards. It was later brought to many more platforms, before being completely remastered ten years later.
This first game set the template for the series; an action adventure game which skillfully blended exploration, platforming, combat and puzzle solving. In true globetrotting style, Lara travelled from Peru to Greece and in between during her search for the Scion artifact. What struck me most about Tomb Raider was how varied the experience on offer was. There was a mix of urban and ancient environments to explore, with supernatural and human enemies to deal with. It was a genuinely exciting roller coaster of an adventure in which you could never quite guess where you would be headed next. Oh, and you could also fight dinosaurs.
The first game also introduced the villainous Jacqueline Natla, a ruthless businesswoman and arch enemy of Lara’s. She had plans to raise an army of horrific creatures, and kill Lara once she had retrieved the Scion pieces. Of course, this plan was foiled but that didn’t stop Natla returning in the first reboot timeline from Crystal Dynamics, as short lived as it was.
The first six Tomb Raider games were developed by Core Design, a studio based in Derby. As a tribute, a road was named “Lara Croft Way” back in 2010 to recognise the heroine’s birthplace. The reigns were handed to Crystal Dynamics after the sixth game, The Angel of Darkness, flopped. Otherwise, Lara’s early adventures were consistently well received, although the fourth, The Last Revelation missed the mark for me. Tomb Raider II is my all time favourite thanks to its brilliant level design, thrilling cinematic story and the fact you get to ride a snowmobile in Tibet, and a speedboat through Venice.
Lara made her way from the Great Wall of China to Italy, and found time to take out baddies on an oil rig and explore a sunken ship. Your enemy, Marco Bartoli, was a delightfully insane leader of a cult who you ended up facing off against in an epic final battle. Even when you thought it was all over, an epilogue level saw Bartoli’s henchmen who, out for revenge, storm Croft Manor.
You could also explore Lara’s stately home at your own leisure away from the main story. There were secrets to find, whether it was in the gym or within the sprawling hedge maze. However, the most entertaining and possibly infamous thing to do was locking your poor butler in the walk-in fridge. You could also shoot poor Winston with your pistols, but safe in the knowledge that he would always come away unscathed thanks to his super strong tea tray he would use as a shield.
In 2006, the world of Tomb Raider was reimagined with the release of Tomb Raider: Legend. New developers Crystal Dynamics were at the helm and tweaked Lara’s backstory, with more of a focus on her than before. The well established DNA of the previous games remained, brought to life more vividly thanks to the power of a new generation of hardware.
It wasn’t long before Tomb Raider: Anniversary (the remake of the first game) was released to mark ten years of the franchise. I have really fond memories playing this and remember being struck with just how well crafted it was. Despite being faithful to the original game, elements were expanded and fleshed out, adding new details to an already familiar story. The team also made use of the engine from Tomb Raider: Legend, allowing Lara to be much more agile in combat as well as when navigating her environment.
In the end, Tomb Raider: Underworld became the final part of the Legend trilogy, coming after Anniversary. Things then went quiet for a few years, with only an arcade style spin off released which didn’t tie into the main series. In 2013 Tomb Raider was released, another reboot which this time told the story of Lara’s origins and as the title suggests, took the franchise back to its roots.
In the five years that followed, two further games would be released to complete the origins trilogy, and completely overhaul the series. Lara had huge areas to explore, littered with collectibles which filled in gaps in the story. The mix of the mythical and human elements remained, but in a much more grounded way (for the most part). Thrilling on rails sequences would be sprung on you from nowhere, and Lara could upgrade her skills to improve her chances of survival.
For me, the second game, Rise of the Tomb Raider, remains the most impressive of the latest trilogy. It builds on the original in every way, ending up bigger, bolder and better. The final act, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, was a bit of a let down due to some uneven pacing and an ultimately dissatisfying conclusion.
There is very little known about the next main game in the series, however, it looks to be continuing in the style of the most recent trilogy. Footage of a cancelled Tomb Raider horror game, Ascension, has also been released as part of the 25th anniversary celebrations. I’m still holding out for a full remake of Tomb Raider II, which would be a dream come true.
Still, despite going through constant change, the Tomb Raider series has gone from strength to strength. This is largely thanks to Lara, who remains an authentic, relatable and genuinely interesting character. She has a knack of getting you to root for her, and always surprises you just when you think you have her figured out. Whatever the future holds for the world’s most famous tomb raider, I can’t wait to go on that next adventure with her.
Let us know which of Lara’s adventures have been your favourite. The comments section is below. And if you haven’t yet played the latest games, we’d advise heading to the Xbox Store and taking in the Definitive Survivor Trilogy on Xbox One or Xbox Series X|S.