Once upon a time, the archaeological world was dominated by men with whips called Indy. Then came along one woman; one who changed the world of archaeology via boobs alone.
Back in the depths of 1996, a British games developer called Core decided to dabble their collective toes into the world of 3D gaming, and subsequently introduced us to a gaming icon. Her name was Lara Croft, the archaeologist star of the polygonal, sometimes bizarre, but always wonderful world of Tomb Raider.
Originally (or so the legend goes), the main protagonist was meant to be male. However, it was decided that the female form had the potential to be far more flexible and acrobatic and suited to being flung around a dangerous digital playground. From these (possibly rather fevered) ideas, Lara Croft was born.
Purely for purposes of game mechanics
Lara's creator was a Mr. Toby Gard, who is in no way a nerd.
Not a nerd.
He left the development team shortly after TR was released, allegedly unhappy at the increasing sexualisation of Ms. Croft. He then re-joined the franchise when Crystal Dynamics took over, who then subsequently dressed Lara in her most overtly sexualised outfit to date (at least the catsuits had a pretension to practicality...). The irony of this is not lost upon most Old School Raiders.
No sexualisation here at all. The lace panties are for, uh, aerodynamics only.
The Tomb Raider franchise was left in Core's hands for six games. Of those six, four are certifiable classics (Tomb Raider, TR2, TR3: The Adventures of Lara Croft and TR:The Last Revelation). The fifth game - Tomb Raider Chronicles - is largely considered by all to have been a cash in, and really was the beginning of a very slippery slope for the franchise as a whole. After the rather ill-received Angel of Darkness, Eidos (TR's publisher) decided 'blow this for a game of soldiers' and gave the franchise to Crystal Dynamics, the developers behind the rather fine Legacy of Kain games. To date, Crystal Dynamics have created 3 TR games - whether they have been successful or not is a matter of huge debate amongst fans (for debate, read clusterfuck. Seriously. You should have seen the shit that went down after the release of Legend...)
As mentioned above, Tomb Raider is a 3D adventure game, drawing upon the Persian dungeons of a certain Prince and the adventures of a little-known archaeologist by the name of Jones as inspiration. On paper, the games look surprisingly similar... run, jump, jump a bit more, find key / artefact / gold knobbly thing, open door, get hideously lost for 3 days whilst humping around pockets full of meaningless crap (Aldwych, I am looking at you...), jump again, shimmy, backflip off 100ft ledge you've just patiently scaled as screaming demon from the Abyss charges you from nowhere, causing you to fall and die in a sad little heap of crumpled bone - if you've played a TR game, you know the drill.
Yep - about here seems right...
What made the games special, however, was the atmosphere, complex level design and sense of scale. Some of these set pieces were frickin' *huge*. No one can tell me that that, upon climbing to the top of the Sphinx for the first time, that they didn't have a bit of a Ted moment when the camera panned back, showing you just how small and insignificant Lara was compared to her surroundings.
Music, too - firstly by Nathan McCree and then by Troels Folmann - was always something special in TR, with important new areas being heralded by a swell of gorgeous chanting, or enemies being accompanied by appropriately fast-spaced 'stings'.
What made the original games (hereby called 'the classics') so compelling for fans were the huge opportunities for exploration. Going off the beaten track was often rewarded with 'secrets' - a hidden cache of ammunition, for example - and these secrets ranged from the 'ooo, what's that up there, I wonder if I can get it?' to 'how the HELL was I supposed to know you could get up there without some kind of special psychic ability that allows me to sense bandages?'. This level of freedom was enabled by the level design itself: the levels were based on a grid, with all surfaces being potentially 'grab-able', meaning that if you could reach it and Lara could grab it, you could go where you liked. Whilst this was wonderful in terms of creating a wonderful illusion of freedom to explore, it wasn't exactly conducive to pretty looking terrain, especially once the 3D action adventure genre took off - by the time Chronicles came around, compared to other games, Lara looked like an inhabitant of LegoLand, and people were getting a bit grumbly about it.
Enter the Great White Elephant, also known as 'The Angel of Darkness'
On paper, it had such promise. The darker, almost noir-ish story with a good helping of occult intrigue was interesting, the screenshots looked promising and Lara was looking as good as ever... shame the game ended up being rushed out with enough bugs to populate an anthill and the story was chopped up so badly it made Naked Lunch look straight forward. It also didn't help that trying to control Lara was now like trying to herd cats, and so those of us used to the rather more precision and methodical controls of the classics were in for a big shock.
It seemed that Eidos were also in for a big shock when the game was largely universally panned (you would have thought they might have had an inkling things wouldn't go their way when Lara wouldn't run in a straight line), and in a last-ditch attempt at saving the franchise, they took it from Core and handed it over the Crystal Dynamics in 2003, who then spent the next 3 years working on their version of TR, culminating in Legend in 2006.
For some, Crystal Dynamics (CD) taking over was the answer to all their prayers. For others, it was a realisation of every single one of their nightmares. No one can deny it, though - CD made Tomb Raider a household name once again. In a world of Halo and Devil May Cry clones, there was no place for a relatively slow paced game that demanded patience and a certain level of intelligence (and a good memory!) to solve, and there certainly wasn't a place for the LegoLand graphics of old: No, in the now demanding arena of the Noughties, Lara had to glitz up and dumb down if she wanted to be a contender.
And boy, did she.
In 2006, Legend was released. All 8 hours and 30 outfits of it. Gone were the days of multiple levels per location - now there was one (short) level per location to appeal to those with short attention spans. The twin pistols were there, but the combat had changed from 'bounce around, desperately trying to find higher ground' (admittedly, not very good for tactical engagements) to having a specific 'combat mode' where Lara shuffles from side to side, like she's doing some kind of Cha Cha with added violence. And, possibly most controversially, exploration and large areas were out in favour of linear gameplay and so-easy-a-half-concussed-5-year-old-could-figure-it-out puzzles, mainly because everything that was useable had decided to take a left turn Chez Cullen and now sparkled so stupid people and those with crippling ADHD could see within two seconds flat where to go and what to do. Gone were the days of large areas where you were basically dumped in the middle of nowhere and told to 'get on with it'; Lara had to now appeal to the masses, and CD had obviously decided early on that 'the masses' = 'people with brain injuries'.
Then there was the 'help'.
Back in the days of Chronicles, during a set of missions based in a modern, hi-tech building (VCI levels), Lara employed a embarrassingly dreadful racial stereotype to help her overcome some of the more difficult aspects of the building. His name was Zip, and he spoke, ooo, about 5 times over course of the whole level set. He was irritating, but forgettable since he didn't say a great deal.
Well, he obviously made a great impact upon CD, because apart from Lara, he was the only thing they decided to extract from the decaying corpse of Core's TR and bring over to their version. Which was nice.
not an appalling racial stereotype at all
And by nice, I mean really fucking irritating.
Along with his special friend Alister (he of the nerd glasses and pimp chain), Lara went from being a relatively silent protagonist who spoke only in cutscenes to a someone suffering from an acute case of verbal diarrhoea: has headset and chattering morons, will travel and talk incessantly.
Couple that with the retcon that changed Lara's history, and you had a recipe for a full-on nerd-bile eruption of Mount Vesuvius proportions.
For a lot of Old School TR fans, this was the mighty straw that broke the rather feeble camel's back, and nerd-rage was felt and expressed, only to be met coming the other way by a new breed of TR fans. They were largely built of younger gamers who weren't around when the Core games were at their height and those people who didn't have the patience (and, dare I say it, intelligence... Oooo, I never said that! I didn't!) to play the rather more difficult (and, let's face it, cerebral) classics - there were no sparkly handholds or retarded sidekicks in the classics giving you 'helpful' advice (and by advice, I mean telling you how to solve puzzles when you walk through the door) on what to do. They liked it that it didn't take them five hours to work out how to open a door, and they liked it that Lara now had 'friends' (even if they were mentally defective simpletons who didn't know when to shut up).
So now, CD had a challenge on its hands. How to reconcile these two warring factions? Should they even bother?
Enter Tomb Raider: Anniversary.
This was a difficult one for many Old School Raiders to reconcile. The makers of Legend, effectively taking a dump all over their beloved classic? And not just a classic, but THE classic; the original Tomb Raider? Nu Raiders were also a bit nervous; why remake a crappy old game? (Many had by this point decided to check out Lara's back catalogue; the result was twofold. Either they decided that the classics were the second coming of Christ and defected to the Dark Side (the Old School Raiders), or they proclaimed that the games 'looked like shit' (uh, what part of 'made in 1996' do I have to repeat?) and were therefore instantly crap (because everyone knows looks mean so much more than brains).
There was then a further spanner in the works: a rumour was circulated that Core had been drafted to work on an Anniversary Edition for the PSP. (And for those of us lucky enough to get our hot little hands on a copy of the footage back then, it caused a hell of a lot of excitement, because it looked pretty much all shades of awesome). Unfortunately, this version was shelved, and CD began work on their own version of Anniversary.
Here's my soul: NOW LET ME PLAY THIS VERSION!
For all the vitriol slung at Legend, Anniversary turned out not too bad. The first half of the game assuaged a lot of doubts, and many people admitted that the excellent St Francis' Folly even surpassed the original in terms of gameplay. Atlantis - Natla's fleshy, creepy haven full of hideous screaming monstrosities in the original game - was a big disappointment, however. But still, compared to Legend, Anniversary was a big leap forward (even if exploration was still largely an afterthought, the T. rex was resigned to Boss Monster Hell and those stupid Simon Says-esque 'press X now!' tests of button recognition were still present).
After Anniversary came Underworld, the first release for then next, now current, gen consoles (Xbox 360 and PS3), which has been met by largely positive reviews (I can't comment much since the arrival of the game came at roughly the same time as the arrival of my daughter, so I still haven't played it... those with young children of their own will understand why. Well, there's always next year!). I can confirm, however, that the PS2 version is unplayable, but have been reliably informed that the 360 version is very good.
Ahhh, TRLE... the Tomb Raider Level Editor. The last refuge of the Old School Raider. There is some seriously good shit here - modders such as Titak, Horus, Gmac, Isis and Richard Lawther prove that sometimes, being an obsessive fan of something isn't all bad, because their levels surpass even Core's levels at times.
Tomb Raider Films
*Shudders*. Angelia Jolie is a very pretty lady. She makes a stunning Lara Croft. But that doesn't stop these films being a steaming pile of tripe.
It seemed a no-brainer: take one of gaming's most popular icons and recreate her using one of the world's most favourite sex symbols. How could it go wrong?
Well, a shitty script and a complete disregard of the games (apart from Lara herself) helps. Seriously - any and all self-respecting TR fans avoid these films and pretend they never happened.
The Cancelling of Core's TRAE
This was a crying shame. Even though Anniversary was okay, I think I would eat my right foot to play this, just once.
This might some as a surprise, since I am a part of that fandom... but that doesn't mean I am not blind to its idiosyncrasies (read 'batshit insanity').
First up, we have cosplay. Okay, so some people do it well... to the point where 'well' translates as 'dressing up as a fictional character, and it not being a joke. In public. Without shame'. I always feel a little uncomfortable around cosplayers (especially the male ones who make male versions of Lara's outfits...) - mainly because they are all taller and thinner than I am, but also because they are just so *serious* about it all... the kind of seriousness that is usually reserved for people reporting about war crimes.
Secondly: the double team of fanfic and fanart. This is where I tread a fine line, because I have been known to dabble in fanart from time to time. What I do not do, however, is draw Lara being double teamed by a couple of Egyptian Seth guards, or her snogging Kurtis (that guy from the Angel of Darkness) or Larsen. Same goes for fanfic - very rarely does Lara actually go off and, you know, explore - it's mainly all about her finding Kurtis / Larsen / Natla / that chick from Legend / Zip / some random OC who is so totally NOT a self insert / all of the above in some kind of mindbogglingly terrifying orgy and making them do unpleasant things to each other.
Lastly, we have the holy grail of the sweaty-palmed pocket mining demographic: Nude Raider.
Because my first reaction to was obviously 'how do I get this naked?'
Do I even need to explain this?
Ever since the rumour emerged that if you backed Lara into a particular shadowy corner of the original Colosseum level (by the crocodile pit, before you go to the Colosseum proper...), she would emerge naked in all her pointy glory, a certain type of TR fan has wanted one thing and one thing only - a nude Lara. Some indulged in the above mentioned scary world of cartoon Lara porn and drew her in all manner of ways (utilising her natural flexibility that was, of course, only implemented for gameplay purposes...), whilst others actually hacked into the game and reskinned Lara without any clothes on. Why? Because some nerds have more time on their hands than is healthy, I would imagine...
The results ran from the hilarious to the disturbing, and most self-respecting TR communities generally frown upon Nude Raider, treating it with the disdain it truly does deserve (as does the website 'vaginagamer'. Please - never make me look for Nude Raider stuff again. There isn't enough brain bleach in the world that can erase the monstrosities I have had to subject myself to looking for something to help illustrate this section... and that was just me looking for 'Lara Croft Jumping).
And the Pointless:
They aren't a problem... just, well, a bit useless. People buy games because they want to play them, not because a pretty bird dresses up as another pretty bird. Personally, I never saw the point of them.
But then again, I'm not a bloke...