Tomb Raider gave developer Core Design its big break. The studio had managed to eke out a few moderate 16-bit successes like Chuck Rock and BC Racers, but nothing it had produced prior to 1996 hinted at the innovative, genre-defining work that would be Tomb Raider. While thematically inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark and mechanically built on Jordan Mechner's deliberate 2D platformer Prince of Persia, Tomb Raider managed to combine both action and puzzle-platforming in a fresh, exciting and very three-dimensional fashion.
Key to the game’s appeal was its protagonist, Lara Croft, a tough, gun-toting archaeologist who had little interest in the upper-crust British life into which she had been born. Lara eschewed high tea and cocktail parties in favor of getting her hands dirty (and sometimes bloody) seeking legendary relics in the ruins of lost civilizations. Lara began life as a generic male Indiana Jones type, but Core switched around its hero’s gender midway through development — in part to downplay Indy comparisons, and in part because lead designer Toby Gard wanted some sex appeal in his game.
Gamers took notice, too, and Lara soon became far more popular than the games she starred in. Some people liked her decidedly exaggerated figure, but the simple existence of a fearless, no-nonsense woman set her apart from the rugged men and rubbery cartoon animals who dominated games in the ’90s. In an era during which girls had to settle for the likes or Barbie or Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen as video game role models, Lara gave them someone far flintier to look up to.
With both a breakout heroine and a smash sales hit on their hands, Core and publisher Eidos wasted no time building a sequel. Tomb Raider 2 arrived a year after the original game, a ludicrously short turnaround time by modern standards. Nevertheless, the sequel managed to improve on its predecessor in nearly every way, despite its accelerated schedule. It presented players with a bigger quest, more varied environments, more dazzling visuals and crazier set pieces. Even its marketing seemed sharper: The phrase “Starring Lara Croft” featured prominently on the packaging, and Eidos’ ad campaign largely revolved around Lara and players’ reactions to her.
Critics received the game warmly. It felt like a proper sequel in every respect, they said, and the future looked bright for Lara and her franchise.
Of course, in hindsight, we know that wasn’t the case. Tomb Raider 2 would be Lara’s last brush with universal plaudits for a decade or more, with each subsequent sequel subjected to increasingly harsh criticism. Eidos would ultimately wrest the franchise away from the studio that created it and put it through two separate reboots: one soft, one hard. Tomb Raider 2 did much that remains admirable two decades later, but despite its successes, it also clearly laid the foundation for the challenges that would plague Lara throughout her career ... up to and including her most recent adventure, Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Tomb Raider 2 launched almost exactly one year after the original, and therein Lara would encounter her first great nemesis: creative churn.
You can understand the rationale behind the first sequel’s quick turnaround time. After all, Lara’s debut title caught fire in an unexpected way, and Eidos wanted to strike again while the iron was hot. But then the company did the same thing the following year ... and the next ... and the one after that, too. Despite the enormous profits the company raked in from the games and its ancillary licensing (U2 toured with images of Lara splashed on their video screens, and Angelina Jolie portrayed her in two big-budget movies), Eidos set a rigorous annual schedule for the games while maintaining a minimal team. 2000’s Tomb Raider: Chronicles had a staff only twice as large as the plucky team that put together the original game, despite the series having become a cash cow. That sort of churn and austerity had taken a toll on simple 8-bit franchises like Mega Man, so it certainly did no favors for something as complex as Tomb Raider.
This lack of investment combined with the effects of rapid iteration meant that the series fell from grace hard, and in short order. The original Tomb Raider set a high standard for design and technology, yet four years later, the fifth game in the series was excoriated as a creaky relic. A second wave of 3D console action-adventure games hit in 1998, building on the principles established by Tomb Raider in a way that Core's punishing schedule made impossible for the series itself. 1998’s Tomb Raider entry, Tomb Raider 3, felt hopelessly crusty next to the likes of Metal Gear Solid and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Things wouldn’t improve until 2006’s Tomb Raider: Legend, headed up by Crystal Dynamics (whose 1999 smash Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver had been one of many Tomb Raider-inspired works that utterly humbled Lara's concurrent sequel) rather than Core Design.
Tomb Raider 2 hinted at an issue lurking at the heart of the series that was even more fundamental than mere publishing logistics, though. Although we didn’t fully realize it at the time, Tomb Raider 2 marked the beginning of Lara Croft’’s existential crisis. Namely, what precisely is Tomb Raider all about, when it comes down to it? Is the series fundamentally about exploration and tricky environmental puzzles, or should Tomb Raider really be about killing things?
Both of these elements — exploration and combat — existed in the original game, of course. In amping things up, however, Tomb Raider 2 shifted the fundamental balance of the play toward being far more combat-driven. Specifically, the action now hinged on gunplay against other human characters. The first game featured plenty of shooting action, but most of it involved wildlife: wolves, bats, bears and even a T. rex. Lara only dealt with about half a dozen human enemies in her first outing. While Tomb Raider 2 didn’t reduce the number of animals Lara had to fight, it introduced a human faction called the Fiamma Nera — a seemingly endless succession of thugs out to stop Lara’s quest to find the Dagger of Xian.
Lara’s skirmishes with these hired hands undermined Tomb Raider 2’s credibility as an action game. The Fiamma Nera tended to be fodder. Capable of soaking up a ridiculous number of bullets from Lara’s twin Desert Eagles, they were dangerous because of their durability, not their canny behavior. Melee-focused enemies in particular could be dealt with by simply climbing out of their reach and firing half-heartedly down at them as they milled about helplessly on the ground.
Despite the shoddiness of Tomb Raider 2’s combat, future games would continue to emphasize shootouts. Time and budget constraints meant that Lara’s fifth game featured gunplay as miserable as her first, but more of it. When Crystal Dynamics retooled the series for Legend and, more recently, the 2013 reboot, the studio improved Lara’s combat options and mechanics ... then used those refinements as an excuse to pile on even more enemies and encounters. The growing scale of these shootouts has resulted in increasingly protracted standoffs, culminating in the interminable final chapter of Rise of the Tomb Raider. That game totters constantly between a brilliant open-world quest and rote Uncharted-like combat, and it’s not difficult to find the roots of that instability in Tomb Raider 2.
Blame it on the medium’s obsession with bigger and better, I suppose, or the thinking that demands that big games absolutely have to be packed to the brim with violence. The original Tomb Raider treated life-or-death fights as an accent to break up the exploration, whereas they became more of a constant presence in subsequent games. Each sequel amped up the volume, putting Lara through a tougher, noisier grinder with each iteration.
But was that really what Lara was best at? Sure, she was always tough and dauntless, scowling as she dual-wielded her high-caliber pistols at threats, right from the very start. But Tomb Raider descended from Prince of Persia and Another World, games that treated conflict as something best avoided whenever possible. Tomb Raider 2 took Lara out of its predecessors’ forgotten caverns and lost villages in favor of modern-day settings — Venetian canals and oil rigs — and her tumultuous path was set for decades to come. Now, more often than not, exploration and puzzle-platforming feel like they exist to break up the action. It probably sells better, sure, but it’s difficult not to look back at Tomb Raider 2 and wonder how differently things might have turned out if Core had taken a different approach.