Tomb Raider I–III Remastered Review: Respecting The Classics

Tomb Raider I–III Remastered Review: Respecting The Classics

I’m old enough to know that the fact I’ve never properly explored the Tomb Raider series before is weird. I played and loved the 2013 reboot, and I’ve owned a SEGA Saturn copy of the original for decades. But, for whatever reason, I never really vibed with it as a kid. I think I couldn’t wrap my young head around its precise puzzle-platforming nature. I just didn’t ‘get it’.

It’s a series I’ve always sorely wished to ‘get’, though. Tomb Raider played an integral part in shaping the design and culture of modern video games.. When I saw that Tomb Raider I-III Remastered wasn’t really trying to change anything about the originals, merely update them to run on modern hardware with a few optional enhancements, I felt like, if I was going to play them, it was  ‘now or never’.

Having spent the past week with Tomb Raider I–III Remastered Starring Lara Croft, I am happy to say that not only do I ‘get’ Tomb Raider now, I also love it. What’s more, I am a little pissed off that its legacy isn’t more widely felt and appreciated.

You wanna get nostalgic? Let’s get nostalgic

Any remaster of this sort is, inherently, a nostalgia tour, so let’s get nostalgic.

When Tomb Raider exploded onto the scene in 1996, there was nothing else like it. There had been 3D action platformers before, but the overnight cultural phenomenon that Lara Croft became was unheard of within the video game sphere.

Tomb Raider was a gigantic hit and, for a while, Lara was as widespread and identifiable a games industry mascot as Mario and Sonic. Her digital render even graced mainstream magazine covers. Considering that arguably the most famous female video game character until then had been Ms. Pac-Man, it felt as if some kind of a landmark moment was happening here.

It could’ve been due to the onslaught of sequels and expansion packs that the Tomb Raider team put out in the years after launch, but for whatever reason, this landmark moment kind of failed to solidify. Through reinventions, movies, and straight-up reboots, the franchise never really went away and remained successful, but it felt as if, after all that cross-cultural success, the games industry slipped back into attitudes of ‘female protagonists don’t sell’ alarmingly fast. 

The worst part is that it feels as if that view did solidify in the subsequent decades, made all the worse by the exhaustingly relentless culture war of it all.

Okay, but how are they now?

The short version is: Tomb Raider I-III Remastered proves these games are very much products of their time. To a degree, I think any older work needs to be viewed in the context of its era.

Puzzles and progression are often obtuse in the way that games just were at the time. I think that even if the deadline of this review hadn’t forced me to turn to a guide a couple of times, I still would’ve been looking one up out of pure frustration anyway. Toggling between the classic visuals and the remastered ones did prove to be a help here, however. The lighting in each version is so different that, often, your ability to simply perceive an environment and the things within it becomes easier or harder depending on which visual set you’re playing in. I found myself constantly switching back and forth between the classic graphics and the new ones for this reason, as much as any.

While there’s the very welcome option to play the whole trilogy with smooth and modernized controls, I actually found them harder to use than the game’s original ‘tank’ style. The original level and encounter designs were built around those clunky but very precise inputs, and, because of that, I found myself stuffing up and dying more often when using the modern controls. I tried my best to get to grips with them the new controls, but, for me, they just never gelled with the classic games they’d been wedged into.

Some incredibly minor changes have been made to levels, but none that affect the actual gameplay experience. In many areas where it makes sense to have done so, the ceilings have been opened up in small, naturalistic ways so that sunlight can pour through. This does make some of the environments feel less claustrophobic, but also helps their already sunny lighting make a tiny bit more sense. A balanced trade-off.

It’s cliche to say, but in this instance, it’s warranted: the remastered visuals really do make the games look how you remember them and not how they actually were. Making a facelift as significant as this feels totally natural is a delicate balancing act, and I think Aspyr nailed it here. All of the audio and the CGI cinematics still retain their gloriously 90s level of crunchiness, but I actually love that they didn’t try to update either.

Given that it’s been on sale on Steam for under $2 for much of the past couple of weeks, I put a few hours into 2007’s Tomb Raider: Anniversary during this review window, also, just to compare. Unlike the straight-up remaster found here, Anniversary is a full-blown remake of the first game that modernizes and changes many parts of its design. It’s a really fascinating companion piece to this remaster, and I kind of wish it had been included in the pack also to illustrate the alternate way in which classic games can make modern comebacks.

The Last Revelation, as it were

Looking back, I can’t help but feel like Tomb Raider made an enormous impact while simultaneously changing almost nothing about the industry and its culture. Its design framework can be strongly felt to this day in some of the biggest games franchises, but its representation and attitude seem to have had little to no lasting influence at all.  

Do I think these excellent remasters are going to revolutionise feminine representation in entertainment media? Absolutely not. It’s too niche a product and I’m just not that damn naive. In an industry as dreadful at preserving and recognising its history as video games, any effort to bring true classics to the fore in as loving and respectful a way as this should be celebrated. If it gets people reflecting a little about a cultural watershed that almost was, then that’s all the better. 

Aspyr has put a lot of love and care into Tomb Raider I-III Remastered, and the fact it’s selling it at such a consumer-friendly price, given the amount of work put into it, really puts some other recent reissue efforts to shame. I loved the time I spent getting a long overdue Tomb Raider education, and as more games disappear due to rights issues or hardware incompatibility, this is the exact kind of re-release I hope we see more of.

Review conducted on PlayStation 5 with a pre-release code provided by the publisher.

Image: Aspyr, Kotaku Australia

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