In 1996, Toby Gard introduced the world of video gaming to one of its new icons: Lara Croft, The Tomb Raider. Gard and the rest of his team at Core Designs took the risk of featuring a female protagonist in their new archeological adventure game—a risk that paid off with a franchise that now carries 17 games (and counting), multiple films, and a huge number of various tie-in properties under its dual pistol-packing belt. The original Tomb Raider turned a large profit for video game company Eidos, became one of the PlayStation’s top-selling titles, and won numerous industry awards. Its popularity made Tomb Raider an instant name in gaming, and its sequel(s) some of the most anticipated releases of the decade—until just a few years later, when, just as suddenly, they weren’t. But while the brash, self-confident, improbably proportioned heroine of yesteryear has been replaced by a more human incarnation by the march of time, the version of Lara Croft that existed in games like the largely forgotten Tomb Raider: Chronicles, which turns 20 years old this week, remains indelibly larger than life, and a hero worth remembering.
Despite being well received in the gaming world, Croft drummed up controversy almost immediately over her dramatic curves (which Gard said was a design mistake they decided to leave in the game—take that as you will), and her growing popularity as a gaming sex symbol. Unlike many overtly sexualized female characters at the time, Lara was written to be a strong, independent lead with an ego and skillset to match. Gard’s biggest inspirations for the character came from two well-known tough guys: Tank Girl and Indiana Jones. (You can, in fact, find Easter eggs of both characters hidden throughout the series.)
More than that, though, Lara (never Laura, god help you) became an unlikely role model—even with all her body design flaws. Kids who cut their teeth on the original Tomb Raider had a new superhero, one armed with dual pistols, a sharp wit, and a stereotypical English upbringing. None of it was relatable to the kids cosplaying as or trick-or-treating as her in the years to come, but, then, neither is Batman—another orphaned, rich, stuck-up, overly confident adventurer who found themselves in ridiculously over-the-top scenarios fighting the most unlikely enemies. Looking past her dramatically large chest and skimpy clothing, the original Lara Croft was a badass, and the ultimate femme fatale.
This particular portrayal of the character lasted—through a series of tepidly received sequels— until November 24, 2000, when Tomb Raider: Chronicles was released as the last of Lara’s adventures to be played on Sony’s PlayStation. By the time Chronicles rolled around, Croft 1.0 was already a dead woman running, jumping, and rolling; her developers at Core had wanted to kill her off with the previous year’s Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, closing the franchise at four games, but publisher Eidos had other plans. It was decided that the more veteran team of developers would create one last PS One story for Lara—Chronicles—while a new team would develop Tomb Raider: The Angel Of Darkness for the PlayStation 2. At the time, many of the Chronicles developers expressed lack of interest in the game’s creation, having already released four Tomb Raider games to increasingly diminished returns.
Perhaps out of boredom, or possibly just fulfilling the developers’ sincere desire to see the character dead at last, Chronicles broke with the series’ narrative tradition. In the opening cinematics, we’re told that Lara is dead, and that we are simply replaying past adventures in honor of the fallen heroine while her friends and allies reminisce. As with its predecessor, Chronicles offers a brief glimpse into the life of young Lara, introducing the player to new combat tactics and environmental interactions. You fought demons and dragons, blew up submarines, and broke into high-security vaults while looking for artifacts like the Philosopher’s Stone and the Spear Of Destiny. It was just as silly and whimsical as the previous games, but every bit as challenging and engaging.
Released to shrugs in late 2000 (after the U.S. release of the PS2, it’s worth noting), Chronicles garnered mixed reviews, and was widely ill-received by critics and fans alike. The arguments against the title tended to sidestep questions of whether it was “good” in favor of whether it was “necessary,” continuing as it did a franchise that was getting decidedly long in the tooth—and with the same old clunky engine and mechanics, to boot. What many didn’t realize was that Chronicles would be one of the last outings of the original Lara Croft. While the notoriously bad Angel Of Darkness was technically the final chapter in Lara 1.0's story, Chronicles is the last game to feature some of the original graphics and controls that would later be “improved” for the newer consoles.
Many criticized the fact that Chronicles’ gameplay remained static, but there’s a lot to be said for that original game engine, warts and all. Sure, the controls were choppy and difficult to master, but those same difficulties are what gave the original PlayStation 3D games their edge—and Chronicles is no exception. The added difficulty made reaching the final boss battles all the sweeter, and this concept of a real challenge is lost on the newer installments in the franchise. Their cinematic storylines and smooth game operations lose the charm the originals had. While the controls and graphics improved, we lost Tomb Raider’s intricate puzzles, challenging boss fights, and, in many ways, the better Lara Croft.
Because while Tomb Raider as a franchise is still going strong, Lara herself has seen a more humbling facelift in recent years, replacing the casual super-adventurer who laughs at danger with something far more vulnerable. The newer releases (heralded by the 2013 hard reboot of the series) have been praised among fans, but it is hard to say if this version of Lara is ultimately superior to her predecessor. With 2013’s Tomb Raider, Square Enix cast aside Lara’s thievery and ass-kicking and put a younger, inexperienced, and more selfless version of her in its place. This Lara was a product of a broken home where her mother mysteriously disappeared and her father allegedly committed suicide while she was a young girl. She inherited her family’s wealth and name and set off to follow in her father’s footsteps. Rather than keeping her troves of artifacts for herself, she became a champion of history, focused on restoring balance to good and evil.
This is all fine and good—except that the roguish, cocky, distinctly un-humanized elements of Lara Croft were what first made us fall in love with her. What the new games lack in story and character, of course, they make up for with stunning graphics. (And controls that aren’t absurdly clunky, where nearly everything around you could inadvertently kill you if you so much as pressed the wrong button.) But those older games, for all their flaws, cast a brighter light on Lara’s character. The new games surround her with tragedy and a dark past, but the originals had her surrounded by her own confidence and infamous reputation. She didn’t need her father’s estate, and made her living off of discovered treasure and her own experiences. Yes, the new Lara overcoming her own tragic story is “inspiring.” But it hardly packs the same immediate, “I want to be her for Halloween” punch as Lara from the 1990s. The new games have stripped Lara Croft of everything that made her a superhero, and gave her relatable characteristics that, in turn, cranked the dial backward on her iconic journey to the top. Back then, Lara didn’t need a reason to be legendary—she just was. And now, that iconic version of her only lives on through our memories of those earlier, imperfect, but fondly remembered games.