Since mounting anxiety has robbed me of higher cognitive thought, let’s talk about dinosaurs — specifically, why the hell are there dinosaurs in the first three Tomb Raider games? To be clear, I don’t mind that they’re there — they’re challenging to fight and make for some thrilling jump-scares. I’m also aware of how odd it is to focus on dinosaurs in games that deal with: real dragons, real aliens, a Midas statue that can turn you into gold, living statue monsters, centaurs, yetis, and thousand-year-old women with wings who can shoot fireballs. I just find it funny that Lara’s minding her own cultural-thieving, graverobbing business when suddenly dinosaurs!
Dinosaurs are relatively easy to explain in the first Tomb Raider. Lara’s searching for an artefact called the Scion which takes her to a valley in Peru that has been lost to time. The dinosaurs that lived there weren’t wiped out 65 million years ago and just kept on living, isolated from human discovery. But in the same level you also find ancient temples and structures, suggesting that at some point, ancient humans picked that spot for their home and just decided that the presence of T-rexes and velociraptors wasn’t a dealbreaker. Curiously, the dinosaurs are still around while the human presence has completely disappeared, suggesting that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to keep dinosaurs as neighbours.
The dinosaurs in Tomb Raider II are relatively tame in comparison to the first game’s. In fact, Tomb Raider II largely feels like a rebuke of its predecessor’s fantastical elements. Tomb Raider the first deals with the return of a thousand-year-old Atlantean ruler and living zombies. Whereas the weirdest Tomb Raider II gets is a dragon-worshipping cult of Italian mobsters. Yeah, there’s also a dagger that turns you into a dragon when you stab yourself in the heart and the occasional yeti or murderous catfish (no, seriously) but Tomb Raider II feels less weird than its predecessor, eventual dinosaurs notwithstanding.
But what it lacks in crazy shit, it makes up for in humour. The first three Tomb Raiders are stuffed with Lara’s cheeky dialogue, but in Tomb Raider II, the NPCs get in on the comedy too. There’s a cutscene in which Lara finds a wounded monk who believes he’s already dead and that she’s a spirit come to take him to the afterlife. She’s obviously not, but leans into the role a bit to get more information out of him.
“You have come for me,” the monk exclaims happily. “I saw bright lights all around me.”
Lara, flatly: “That was gunfire.”
As they talk, the monk slowly realises he’s still alive and Lara is not his personal spirit guide.
“You don’t know my life’s work that well. You sure you’re not here for one of them?” The monk asks, pointing to a dead pile of mobsters.
“Where can you be taking me?” he asks Lara quizzically as instead of ascending to the afterlife, she’s putting on a wetsuit to go diving for sunken treasure. “I thought this was to be my big break.” Before Lara can let him down gently, he’s shot to death by one of those dragon-worshiping Italian mobsters. As out of place as this bit of levity may seem, it’s still funny and entertaining as hell 23 years later.
Anyway, dinosaurs. T-rexes show up in the first level — the Great Wall of China. Not a valley hermetically sealed from the outside world for millions of years, but regular, densely inhabited China. They only appear in that first level and it’s possible to not even run into them if you aren’t looking for all the secret artifacts.
Finally, Tomb Raider III is the trilogy at its weirdest, its freak flag once again at full staff. There’s powerful artifacts that turn people into flying firebolt-wielding monsters, Area 51 and aliens, a secret gang of failed human experiments living in abandoned subway tunnels in London, and the CEO of a major cosmetics company that used said human experiments in order to find the secret of eternal life. Dinosaurs seem almost quaint in comparison. Nevertheless, they’re present in the Crash Site level, and instead of relying on your standard weapons to defeat them, you can use a downed plane’s machine-gun turret to take them out. It’s probably the most normal encounter in the game.
The original Tomb Raider trilogy occupies a special place in my heart. Tomb Raider II was the first game I played on the first console I ever owned. When the Tomb Raider remake Tomb Raider: Anniversary came out on PS2, I played my favourite level, St. Francis’ Folly, over and over again — I still have the game, I still play St. Francis’ Folly often, and still know all the level’s secrets by heart.
That love never quite translated to the newer Tomb Raiders for reasons I never understood or could articulate until just now. The first three Tomb Raider games were unserious, silly, and at times, completely batshit. When I look at the newer Tomb Raiders, they seem duller in comparison — like all the life was sucked out of them, sacrificed for the sake of a “realer” story and (infamously) a more vulnerable Lara. Not a bad thing necessarily, but not a me thing. I also don’t need subsequent Tomb Raider games to re-embrace its dinosaur-loving heritage, I’m fine with Tomb Raider growing out of its batshittery, and evolving away from me in the process. I still have the originals, and those unlikely dinosaurs will always be waiting for me to kill them one more time.