Tomb Raider (1996) Is A Really Frustrating Game

I did it, guys. I completed the original Tomb Raider. It took me weeks, it subjected me to psychological fatigue I thought I would never experience with a video game and there was a point in playing Tomb Raider where I was considering if it was even worth continuing. I decided to press on and I’m glad I did; completing this game was one of my personal best achievements of my life so far – but only because I didn’t think I could do it.

I started this journey over a month ago. I wanted more games for my PlayStation, and I decided, since I’m such a fan of the two most recent Tomb Raiders (2013 and Rise Of) and how those are the only ones I’ve played, that I should play every Tomb Raider game released on a PlayStation console. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I’ve completed the first one, but there are still five more before I even get to the Crystal Dynamics titles. It’s a daunting task but I’m not giving up now.

The story of this game is simple. Or it isn’t. I wasn’t really that clear on what was going on and when, but I don’t think it was actually that complicated – just told badly. I would show up to a level and not bother wondering why I was there, and eventually, I would get to a cutscene and vaguely watch without really knowing what was going on. Some of the cutscenes are right weird. It has to be forgiven, however; the game was developed by a six-person team and FMV CG cutscenes were hard to do in the mid-’90s. Still, the story is creative and takes Lara to interesting places and it’s better than no story at all I suppose.

I think that this is a game that everyone in the world has heard of, but not a lot of people I know have actually played it. Occasionally I would bring my PS1 into the living room of my house to play the game on a large screen. Almost every person who walked by would make the remark, “Oh yeah, the triangle-tits game.” I think that for most people, that is the only thing they really know about the first Tomb Raider. It’s not even something that’s noticeable most of the time; it’s very rare that the camera will point at the front of Lara, and the cutscenes use a model of Lara which has a much higher polygon count. In any case, the shape of Lara’s breasts is not something which should be the main point of discussion when there is so much more to this game.

Tomb Raider came out in a time where the DualShock controller did not yet exist, so no analogue controls for you. Now, you can imagine the difficulty in designing controls for an open 3D action platformer type thing, but I’d be lying if I wrote that Core Design did the best job they could have done with the limitations they were dealing with. Fighting with the terrible controls is a challenge in itself, let alone the actual intended challenges of the game. By the time I got halfway through the game I was just about starting to get the hang of it. I only really understood how I was supposed to be using the controls by watching videos of other people playing the game and by reading a walkthrough.

Moving Lara around can only be done slowly and carefully – not helpful when a lion pounces on Lara and you need to move around fast to survive or a puzzle requires a complex series of jumps to avoid a rolling boulder or swinging blades intent on destroying the very core or Lara’s being. Moves are completed using a sequence of buttons rather than a combination. For example, to jump in any direction you need to press the jump button followed by the direction you want to jump, but you have to do it quickly or she’ll just jump upwards. Try to press them at the same time and she’ll do one or the other and probably run off a cliff to her death. This isn’t even a limitation of the PlayStation’s hardware – just bad design.

The controls are also made more difficult due to the fact they use the ‘Dark Souls’ system (Tomb Raider is the Dark Souls of action-platformer-puzzle games!). The Dark Souls system is simply that if you press a button, Lara does an associated action. There is no backing out when you press the button. Accidentally press forward? You cannot quickly press backwards to cancel. This system has caused my death many uncountable times. I don’t even want to think about it – there is only darkness and anger there.

I found that the only real way to complete this game was by consulting a walkthrough at multiple intervals. I could have done the whole game blind, but it might have taken me at least 3 times as long, and I don’t think I would have had the patience for some of the puzzles which require you to sort of just know how to complete them for you to even have a chance. The walkthrough isn’t even just for the puzzles, it also helpfully tells you what types of jumps you have to do at what points. Depending on how far you need to go, you might need to perform a standing jump or a running jump. Do a standing jump when you needed to do a running jump and you fall short and probably die, do a running jump when you only needed to do a standing jump and you’ll overshoot and probably die, and it’s not always obvious which you need to do. Following a walkthrough makes this a lot less frustrating – the walkthrough I followed has a page dedicated to how to perform jumps in this game.

There are many enemies in this game which are hell-bent on murdering you as fast as possible – wolves, tigers, lions, bears, mutants, other people etc – but they are often quite unsuccessful. What is much more likely to kill you are the many, many, many platforming sections. Normally I like the platforming parts of these games as a bit of a break from the endless fighting but in this game, the fighting provides a break from the platforming. The final boss of this game was extremely easy to kill – just jump around and hold the shoot button – the only reason I did it four times was because of the short platforming section just after it.

The game isn’t that long if it weren’t for the many instakill platforming sections and the sparse save point system. Most levels took me at least an hour to complete and have about three save points per level. Finding a save point is a moment of great relief because you won’t need to do anything up to that point ever again. Save points are so rare that I started to use them strategically – if I found one soon after I last saved I would wonder whether it would be better to not use the save point so I could use it later. I had once saved and then realised that it would have been much better to wait to use the save point just before a very tricky bit and I ended up wasting a load of time having to redo a short section of platforming (but even a short section takes ages to do in this game). The whole experience was just so unnecessarily frustrating that I could only play it for an hour at a time before needing to take a break.

And yet there was something that always led me back to it. There was a point in the game where I questioned if it was even worth continuing or just skip to the next game, but I soldiered on and I think I’m glad I did. If I can really say that I enjoyed the experience I’m not sure, but I didn’t hate it nor did I even really dislike it. I can see why it took off at the time, but it hasn’t aged well. Tomb Raider 2 is apparently where it gets much better – you can save whenever you want. The controls haven’t changed though.

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