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Behind the Times: Tomb Raider

Since moving from the boonies to the relatively sparkling metropolis of Chicago, I have discovered at least one of the enormous benefits of big city life: retro gaming stores. I was riding the Clark bus one day not long after moving here and spotted a storefront awning that proclaimed: People Play Games. Wandering inside, I discovered a tiny slice of mecca for old-school systems and games. In consequence, I now am slowly adding a bunch of retro games to my backlog in addition to trying to keep up with new releases. Gaming is hard, isn't it?

I left that first visit to PPG with a couple of treasures: Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures for SNES (which deserves its own writeup sometime, although psychoanalysis might be a better choice for it), and the original Tomb Raider for PS1. I finally beat it just the other day, so now let's talk about it.

My personal history with the Tomb Raider franchise started earlier, when I played through part of the first level at a friend's house. At that time, I was probably too young for it, because while I loved the idea of the game, it scared the ever-living crap out of me. Later when I got my own PS1, I had myself a copy of Tomb Raider 2, which I eventually sold for far too little in-store credit at a local gaming store. Now I kind of wish I had it back - not because it was a particularly great game, but because I wouldn't mind giving the sequel a whirl now that I've battled through the first one. Point is, I was familiar with the franchise and the control scheme before going into this one. It still had at least a couple of tricks up its sleeve, though.

First off: this game is actually pretty tough, although not in the ways you would expect. The combat basically consists of letting the game auto-target for you, and then hold down the X button until your enemy is dead. Rinse and repeat. You can also employ some very basic strategies, such as: Get to higher ground so wolves can't bite you! Jump around willy-nilly so you don't get punched by a gorilla! Flail around in the air attempting to dodge bullets from cowboys and skateboard-riding kids with Uzis! Honestly, dodging attacks doesn't really work if the game has a mind to hurt you (and when the bad guys have guns, you WILL inevitably take damage). Fortunately, there are a liberal number of medkits and ammo drops scattered throughout the world, so as long as you are slightly diligent in hunting down pickups you will never, ever run out. I was consciously saving my ammo and medkits for the last level, and it turned out there wasn't much need, as I finished up with about 20 large medkits and over 2000 uzi rounds left, not to mention ammo for my other guns. So, this is not where the challenge lies.

Rather, the difficulty arises from the simple fact that Tomb Raider is straight up, old school mean. This hostility towards the player begins straight off the bat, with nothing but a perfunctory (and optional) tutorial standing between you and the killer bats, dart blowguns, and death falls of the very first level. Seriously, they don't even teach you how to shoot your guns before things start trying to kill you. It's a bit jarring in our day and age, when we're used to our games walking us through the first hour or two with a plethora of on-screen instructions, doling out one ability at a time to make sure we can handle it. It's a bit comforting and a nice way to ease us into some crazy new game mechanic, but at the same time I think it makes us a little soft. Standing in the opposite camp is something like, say, your bionic arm in the NES Bionic Commando. You had to figure that thing out, and quick, because whether or not you could swing from ledge to ledge dispatching baddies wasn't the game's problem. Tomb Raider might not be quite that harsh, but it sure isn't going to hold your hand for you.

The other contributing factor to the game's challenge, besides the lack of directive, is its beastly level design. I understand that the sprawling, labyrinthine levels of the TR franchise have been fairly influential, but I must say that at least in this installment, they are major pains in the ass. Tomb Raider seems to subscribe to the esoteric school of design, when you have to run through a multitude of similar-looking stone corridors to throw a switch, which opens a door on the other side of the level, raising or lowering the water level and providing you with one of three rusty keys you need to progress through the end door. Or something like that. You have no idea where to begin, and also no mapping feature, which makes wrapping your mind around a level's layout an ongoing challenge. The janky save system also means that if you miss a jump or stumble into an errant spike pit at the wrong time, you may have to start some platforming or battle sequence all over again. Cursing at the TV tends to ensue.

The graphics don't really help either. Seriously, I know this game was pretty impressive back in the day for full-blown 3D environments in an age of pre-rendered backgrounds, but yikes. You've got repetitive textures, gloomy lighting, polygon tearing, a camera that swings around indiscriminately, and Lara constantly stands right between you and whatever you're trying to look at. The game is far from unplayable, but we sure put up with a lot more crap from our visuals back in the day.

It burns.

I'm beginning to sound like a hater, however. Despite all of that grousing and musing above, I really did enjoy my time playing through Tomb Raider. The big reason why is that, when a game demonstrates overt unfriendliness and hostility, there's that much more satisfaction when you triumph over it. I got this game a few months ago and just beat it the other day, because for me the perfect pace was to start a new level every week or so and do battle with Lara Croft's uncaring universe until I made it through. Then a sigh of relief, a few days to do something else, and then come back, rested, refreshed, and ready to raid that tomb even deeper.

That's what she said?


If you live in Chicago, go check out People Play Games at 3268 N Clark. I do not work there and they did not pay me to write this. Everybody who can should pop in, though.

Also, this was #2 in my blog series...if you liked what you read, please check out more. Comments and criticism are very welcome. Thanks for reading!
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About Prince Wendellone of us since 7:39 PM on 08.13.2009

23 years old, Chicago

I was a Nintendo purist while growing up, but fortunately I wised up eventually. Now I have a 360 in addition to a lot of older-generation consoles and games, but hopefully a Wii and PS3 will be in the cards as soon as finances allow.

Update: Finances allow! Wii Get! Badow.

Trying to reconcile adult responsibilities with diehard gaming is a challenge, but it's a day to day process.
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