Greatest Game Franchises: Tomb Raider

by GregFahlgren

Discussing the incredible history of one of gaming's most influential franchises, starting with the incomparable Lara Croft as the Tomb Raider.

Welcome everyone to my first edition of Greatest Game Franchises! The purpose of this series is to take a look at the biggest and most popular gaming franchises of all time, and examine their rise (or in some cases fall) to superstardom!

The first franchise I’m going to be looking at is the incomparable Tomb Raider series. One of the 1990s biggest contributions to gaming, Tomb Raider exploded onto consoles in 1996, introducing the world to Lara Croft. Adventurer, archeologist, and general all around badass, Lara Croft has since become a gaming icon, and one of the medium’s most popular and enduring characters. Through Lara’s adventures, Tomb Raider redefined the action genre, taking it in a direction that had never truly been thought of up to that point. So much of action games that we play today came from the early Tomb Raider efforts, the original trilogy widely regarded as three of the best games of the decade.

However, Tomb Raider did fall upon some hard times over the years, the new millennium not finding the same success as the old one at first. Earlier this decade though, the franchise made a comeback, rebooting the series and taking it in yet another new direction, once again redefining the genre. The franchise’s story is a strange and emotional one, so allow me to tell you how it all went down.

Original Trilogy

Start of a Legacy

Tomb Raider was released in 1996 for the Sega Saturn, PC, and Playstation, and was one of the first games of that generation that truly showed what could be done with 3D gaming technology. At the time, action games were undergoing serious changes, 3D gaming opening the door for new ideas that greatly expanded the genre. Tomb Raider was at the forefront of this movement, but more than that, it blew it`s competition out of the water. It’s (at the time), state-of-the-art graphics and cinematic gameplay made it an instant hit with gamers everywhere, topping the sales charts and still widely regarded as one of the greatest games ever made.

What was more however was its cultural impact. Female protagonists were rare in gaming at the time, and the emergence of the sexy, intelligent, and general all around badass Lara Croft was a welcome shot in the arm to an industry that needed to expand its audience. From her very first appearance, Lara Croft has been considered one of the greatest gaming heroes in history. That reputation began with the first Tomb Raider, which is still one of the highest selling games in industry history.

With Tomb Raider`s massive success, Eidos immediately set to work on a sequel. Released in 1997, Tomb Raider II exploded onto platforms, easily becoming an instant hit and topping the sales charts. The game built upon what the first had done (puzzles, action, great storytelling) and expanded on it even further, creating a bigger, more alive experience. Tomb Raider II also expanded Croft Manner, introduced Lara’s butler, and a host of other main stays of the series that would last until the recent reboot.

The reception was massively positive, sales exceeding all expectations, and was critically the highest rated game that year. Tomb Raider II also helped launched Lara Croft into pop-culture icon status, the character becoming by far the most popular video game character of her generation. Still considered classic today, Tomb Raider II is seen in many ways as the height of the franchise, a feeling that remained amongst fans and critics until the aforementioned reboot from a few years ago.

The success of the first two games made Tomb Raider one of the hottest franchises in gaming, so it was no surprise when a third game was released in 1998. Like the Tomb Raider II, Tomb Raider III gave Lara new abilities, new weapons, and a whole new adventure, even bigger than those of the first two games. Even more so were the additions to the challenges Lara would face, the environments becoming harder to navigate, and the dangers presented by the world more deadly than ever before. The game featured less tombs than previous entries, and was more stealth based in the modern environments, a trend that has continued in the series to this day.

The reviews for Tomb Raider III were mostly positive, though some noted that it was not as enjoyable an outing as the first two games. Some gaming websites pointed out the fact that nothing much had changed from the first two games to make Tomb Raider III something really special, though the game was still an enjoyable ride. Sales wise it did extremely well, but not as much as the first two games. Still, the sales kept the franchise at the top of the heap in the late 90s gaming industry, and made it clear that Tomb Raider was here to stay.

Two More?

More of the Same a Little Too Much

As the franchise moved forward, Eidos kept up the output, releasing Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation in 1999. The game introduced new moves and gameplay options, building upon what the previous games had done as it took Lara on another adventure. The game was highly praised and a commercial success, many stating the graphics and cutscenes were among the best ever produced in gaming up to that point. It didn’t hit the same sales numbers previous entries had, but it still topped many of the sales charts in North America and Europe for months after it’s released.

Following up was Tomb Raider: Chronicles, noted as the last adventure of Lara Croft on the original Playstation console. Released in 2001, Chronicles used the The Last Revelation engine, and like every sequel since Tomb Raider III, added some new abilities to aid Lara on her latest adventure. Though critically well received and a commercial success, sales were significantly smaller than previous entries, the game often cited as the entry that made many Tomb Raider fans turn away from the franchise.

The problem with Revelation and Chronicles was that Eidos was not really doing anything new with the franchise. The same mechanics, controls, and even story formulas being reused every game, the only changes new abilities that in the end didn’t amount to all that much. sMany reviewers noted that the latest entries in the series were “more of the same” from the original games, not innovating or adding anything to truly bring the series forward. As a result, many fans were becoming bored with the series, and left it behind to find something new.

Chronicles would be the last entry in the series for two years, but it was already clear that its initial popularity was falling swiftly. Though still critically acclaimed, he lack of creativity with the latest entries in the series beginning a downturn for the franchise.

Angel of Darkness

Trying Too Hard

The first Tomb Raider game of the new generation of consoles, Angel of Darkness was released in 2003 for the Playstation 2. The game went into development in 2000, but went through several production difficulties, leading to several delays for its release. By then, the franchise was already on a downturn as I’ve stated before, but the developers at Eidos were determined to turn things around, changing up the system they had used with previous games and attempting to bring the franchise into the modern era. Most importantly, they had listened to the criticism for Revelations and Chronicles, and stepped away from the old engines, attempting to once again innovate with the action-adventure genre in the hopes that doing so would breathe new life into the franchise.

The game’s release went reasonably well, Angel of Darkness topping sales charts for the first few months. However, reviews were mixed to negative, and received the lowest scores of any Tomb Raider game yet. Though the attempt to reinvent the game was praised, the gameplay was heavily criticized, the controls clunky and hard to manage, not to mention the multitude of bugs that hampered the gaming experience.

Angel of Darkness’s negative critical response was a major factor in the Tomb Raider franchise’s fall from grace. Combined with the poor performance of the second motion picture, Tomb Raider’s popularity plummeted, the sequels for Angel of Darkness scrapped, and the game’s core development being moved to Crystal Dynamics. There was great hope with that move, but in reality it would be years before the franchise would truly get back to its feet.

Next Generation

A New Trilogy

With Crystal Dynamics now in charge of production, work began on a new Tomb Raider game almost immediately. The game, entitled Tomb Raider: Legend, was released in 2006, and was an immediate critical and commercial success. All the problems of Angel of Darkness had been solved, making a much tighter, realistic game that fans of Tomb Raider had been waiting for. The controls were much easier to handle, graphically it was among the best games of its time, and the story was classic Tomb Raider all the way. The best reviewed game of the franchise since Tomb Raider II, Legend put Lara Croft back in business, long time fans of the franchise coming back in an excited flurry.

On the heels of that success, Crystal Dynamics continued their work on the franchise with Tomb Raider: Anniversary, a HD remake of the original game. With updated graphics and gameplay, the game did extremely well both critically and commercially, leading to a third game in the new series entitled Tomb Raider: Underworld.

Underworld was a direct sequel to Legend, building on what that game had done well and taking the next step. Adding new gameplay features, updated graphics, and a new story, Underworld was poised to helped redefine the franchise when it needed it the most. Unfortunately, the game was not as well received as Crystal Dynamics had hoped. Despite reviewers praising the gameplay, graphics, and story, many cited the frustrating camera angles and inconsistent controls leaving the game less enjoyable than it could have been.T he commercial success was also less than satisfactory, leading Tomb Raider to disappear for a few years, many believing that the franchise could have seen its last effort...

Reboot

Fresh Start

Once again, the Tomb Raider franchise was in trouble. If you’ve read my blog on Gaming Franchises that Deserve a Second Chance, you will find a massive list of games and game franchises that were at one time at the top of the gaming industry, only to fall after one or many bad decisions. There was a legitimate, and somewhat justified fear, from fans and developers that Tomb Raider might join that list.

Salvation came in the form of Japanese mega-company Square Enix in 2009, who bought Eidos and therefore got the publishing rights for the franchise. By the time the sale had finalized, Crystal was already well into producing a new game, taking a brand new approach to the franchise once again. Instead of continuing established storylines, they decided to make start fresh, rebooting the franchise and telling Lara’s story from day one. No longer was Lara Croft the confident, badass adventurer that fans had come to know and love. Instead, we get a young, unsure of herself Lara, just starting out on her path to become the Tomb Raider.

This approach drew harsh criticism from fans before the game’s release, many claiming that Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix were destroying a feminist gaming icon, reducing her to a weak willed damsel that needed someone else to save her. However, once the game was released, everyone realized that this was convincingly not the case. After some delays, Tomb Raider was released in 2013 to much fanfare, and immediately became a contender for Game of the Year. The new story was exactly what the series needed, taking the young and inexperienced Lara Croft and throwing her into the fire, the game’s story of survival against brutal odds shaping her and forming her into the person she needed to become. In fact, the story is probably the best character arc I’ve seen in a video game, so many twists and turns forcing Lara to make one hard choice after another, each one changing her forever. With a fantastic score, top-notch graphics, and amazing gameplay, Tomb Raider became a hit, the fears of long-time fans evaporating within the first few minutes of gameplay.

Following up on that success, production began on a sequel, entitled Rise of the Tomb Raider. Building upon its predecessor, this new game took Lara even further down the rabbit-hole, giving her new tools, new abilities, and new enemies as her search for the truth continued. With out-of-this-world graphics and an incredible story to boot, Rise of the Tomb Raider was a massive critical and commercial success, becoming a contender for Game of the Year almost immediately. A third game is rumoured and likely already in development, and given the success of the first two, Tomb Raider seems to be in the best hands with Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics, and will be for years to come.

Impact

Changing the Game, Literally

There is no question that Tomb Raider changed the video game industry, but I don’t think it will ever be fully appreciated how much. In terms of the action adventure genre, the franchise has multiple times redefined how those games behave, and what stories can be told within them. To this day, it’s first three offerings laying the groundwork for many action games to come after, and the latest two entries in the series are doing so again.

However, the primary impact of Tomb Raider is that it was the first major franchise to feature a female protagonist. Lara Croft has always been a strong-willed, fierce, and layered character that has captured the imagination of gamers everywhere, breaking the barrier for women that has existed in gaming for decades. Gaming heroes were almost always men, and women were relegated to damsels in distress or supporting roles, never allowed to truly to centre stage. Lara broke that mold, leading to thousands if not millions of women getting interested in the gaming industry. If it weren’t for Tomb Raider, we wouldn’t have games like Bayonetta. If it weren’t for Tomb Raider, I doubt that RPG games would give the option of playing as a woman, nor would those versions of the characters be anywhere near as compelling as the males.

The simple fact is that Tomb Raider changed the gaming industry, and will continue to do so as long as Lara Croft’s adventures continue.

Conclusion

A Bright Future

There are many, many gaming franchises that have made a lot of money in the industry. There are also many games and game franchises that made major influences in their respective genres, and changed the landscape of the industry forever. Tomb Raider is one of the few franchises that has done both. From Lara Croft’s first appearance, Tomb Raider changed how people looked at action games, female leads in those games, and how stories could be told within the gaming medium. Sure, Lara’s seen some rough patches, but she’s always bounced back, bigger and better than before. Tomb Raider, no matter the platform or the generation, will always have a place in the gaming industry, and is truly one of the most important franchises in the history of that great business.

Thanks for reading everyone, until next time, HAPPY GAMING!!!

Updated: 06/03/2016, GregFahlgren
 
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