Few video game characters have become more famous than the games that featured them. Lara Croft is one of the best examples, having appeared in three Hollywood movies, several comic book series, numerous non-gaming commercials, and graced more magazine covers than any other character. What makes this acrobatic archaeologist even more special is the significant influence she has exerted over the entire industry.
In recent years, some of the best-selling games, including Horizon: Zero Dawn, The Last of Us Part II, and A Plague Tale: Requiem, have featured physically and emotionally strong women as protagonists. However, this wasn’t the case before the Tomb Raider series came along. For many years, Lara was recognized as a fearless sex symbol, but in the past decade, her character has evolved into a more realistic and relatable figure.
The Tomb Raider series has contributed much more than just Lara, however, helping define the action-adventure genre the way we know it today. With 12 games in the main series and about 100 million units sold since 1996, Tomb Raider narrates the story of games in the 3D era. Even through its failures, it provides valuable insight into what transpires behind the scenes in the gaming industry.
A road named after Lara Croft in Derby, England.
Hitting the Ground, Running…
In late 1994, the Sony PlayStation and Sega Genesis were launched in Japan, months ahead of the rest of the world, propelling 3D gaming on home consoles into the mainstream. Around the same time, Core Design studio, located in Derby, England, set out to create a 3D puzzle-platformer. This game would echo the mechanics of the two-dimensional Prince of Persia games, but be set in a modern, Indiana Jones-esque environment.
Click on image for gameplay video
The early Prince of Persia games were the inspiration for Tomb Raider.
A common myth suggests that Toby Gard, the game’s initial designer, intended to let the player choose between a male and a female character. However, he was determined from the outset to feature a female gunslinger, initially named Laura Cruz. The character’s first name was soon altered to Lara. To emphasize her femininity, Lara was designed with a substantial chest, which remained her most recognizable and contentious feature for more than a decade.
Lara’s 3D model was designed using an engine developed by Paul Douglas specifically for the game, a common practice at the time. During gameplay, to conserve system resources, Lara didn’t appear nearly as detailed as she did in the pre-recorded cutscenes. Her hair appeared collected and could only move with the rest of her head, and from the side her chest looked like a perfect triangle.
During gameplay, Lara looked much less detailed than in the cutscenes.
In May 1996, Eidos Interactive took over as the studio’s owner and publisher, insisting that the game be launched in time for the holiday season that year. This imposed tremendous pressure on the development team, which had expanded from two to six members about a year earlier. Eidos later signed a timed exclusivity agreement for Europe with Sega, requiring the Saturn version to be ready several weeks ahead of schedule.
The game was met with overwhelmingly positive reviews and was selected as the game of the year by several gaming magazines. What made it so special? When compared to other popular platform games from that era, like Crash Bandicoot, the distinction is clear. In Tomb Raider, 3D was not just an aesthetic choice; it was used to provide the player with a degree of freedom of movement previously unseen, allowing climbing and diving in all directions.
This game was developed by 6 people.
To someone who only became a gamer in the past two decades, the game might prove challenging to play. The movement controls are relative to Lara’s perspective, not the player’s, as is more common today. Grabbing the edge of a rock requires holding down a button at the right time. To interact with an object, Lara needs to face it directly.
Another aspect of the game that hasn’t aged well is the gun combat. Realistic tactics like peeking from behind cover or shooting enemies in the legs to slow them down were not part of gaming at that time. Instead, the most effective defense for Lara was to evade enemies with backflips and side-flips.
Eidos was aware that Lara was poised to become larger than the game itself. The cover art on the game boxes stated “featuring Lara Croft,” despite it being the first work in which she ever appeared. Images of her in suggestive poses were displayed on the sides of buses. Within months, the game sold hundreds of thousands of copies, prompting Eidos to make the series an annual release. In response, Gard and Douglas left Core Design.
Later in 1997, Lara appeared on the cover of The Face magazine, as if she were a real person. By the end of the year, the game had sold more than 2.5 million copies, boosting Eidos to a $14.5 million profit, a significant improvement over a $2.6 million pre-tax loss in the previous year. In the ensuing years, the game’s sales soared to reach 7 million copies.
Lara’s hair looked much better in Tomb Raider II.
Tomb Raider II, generally regarded as an enhancement over the original, matched its predecessor in sales. Lara’s in-game model was completely rebuilt by Adrian Smith, utilizing twice as many polygons. Her braid would dangle whenever she moved, and her chest appeared much rounder. The Sega Saturn was unable to support the improved graphics, and that version was abandoned during development. Sony and Eidos later entered into a console exclusivity agreement that lasted until the end of the millennium, precluding the series from reaching the Nintendo 64 console.
Vehicles were a small but memorable addition to the game.
Beyond a slightly larger team, the yearly release schedule was made possible by a grid-based level editor built by Gavin Rummery. In the first five games, the entire terrain was composed of squares with varying heights, inclines, and textures.
Lara’s ability to grab the edge of a square wasn’t coded into the level – if she could reach it, she could grab it. This allowed players to discover routes the developers hadn’t anticipated. It also meant that movement had to be pixel-accurate – the game wouldn’t “assist” you in reaching your destination. The level editor was included with the PC version of the fifth game, allowing players to construct their own levels. Today, the most popular game that employs this mechanic is Minecraft, which features a terrain composed of cubes.
Click on image for gameplay video
If you got the fifth Tomb Raider game for the PC, you could create your own levels.
The Road to Hell
Tomb Raider III was developed by a new team as the old one couldn’t handle the pressure anymore, but was still considered a worthy addition to the series, eventually selling 6 million units. By 1999, Lara was ubiquitous, advertising cars and soft drinks, and her likeness was used on every conceivable type of merchandise.
Lara was a literal celebrity in the late 1990s.
That year, the new developers also reached their limits while working on Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation. They managed to hide the game’s ending scene, which shows Lara’s apparent death, from Core’s management until it was too late to change.
December 1999 marked the first issue of the longest-running Tomb Raider comic book series, published by Top Cow. It became the best-selling comic book in North America that year, with almost 190,000 copies sold. The series ran monthly until March 2005, spanning 52 issues, including two prequels numbered #0 and #1/2.
Seeing Lara die must have been the development team’s fantasy.
A few months later, The Last Revelation was released for Sega’s new Dreamcast console, which could run it at a higher resolution. This version was criticized for its inconsistent frame rate and difficult controls. Despite these issues, the game sold 5 million units – significantly more than most games, but a noticeable decline from the early entries in the series. Despite this, Core’s management insisted that the team produce another game, while another new team was hired to start developing a game for Sony’s upcoming PlayStation 2.
Later in 2000, the series received its first 2D game with Tomb Raider for Nintendo’s Game Boy Color. This game used a side-scrolling format, akin to the games that inspired the series. It was generally well-received despite not being able to employ the mechanics that made the series popular in the first place, and it was followed by a sequel called Curse of the Sword a year later.
This is what the Game Boy Color version looked like.
Toward the end of the year, Tomb Raider Chronicles was released for the PlayStation, Dreamcast, and PC. The game served as a prequel to the series, comprising three stories told at Lara’s memorial service. Unsurprisingly, the ending suggested that Lara might still be alive. With the PlayStation 2 already on the market, the game was quickly overlooked and only sold 1.5 million copies.
In 2001, Lara made her big-screen debut with Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. While many of Hollywood’s biggest stars may have coveted the role, producers chose Angelina Jolie, who had just won an Academy Award for her supporting role in Girl, Interrupted, but had never been the lead actor in a blockbuster.
Angelina Jolie wasn’t as famous as Lara before the movie was released.
The movie grossed almost $275 million, making it the highest-grossing film based on a video game at the time (including the Pokémon movies), as well as the highest-grossing action movie led by a woman. Jolie’s performance, which included performing Lara’s stunts, catapulted her to superstardom, but the plot was widely criticized for being nonsensical.
Simultaneously, Core’s veterans joined the work on the upcoming PS2 title and realized that most of it had to be redone. It soon became clear that the game wouldn’t be launched that year. Even in 2002, the only game featuring Lara Croft was Tomb Raider: The Prophecy for the Game Boy Advance, which used a top-down isometric view and received mixed reviews.
The Angel of Darkness created a much stronger atmosphere than the previous games.
In March 2003, before the end of the financial year, Eidos demanded to send the game to Sony for approval, reportedly for the ninth time. Parts that couldn’t be completed on time were cut out entirely, piercing the plot. In June of that year, Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness was released for the PS2 and PC.
Unlike the previous Tomb Raider games, this installment used mostly urban settings. Graphically, it was a considerable leap forward, thanks to a larger development team and the decision to drop support for the PS1. It showcased a beautiful visual design and superb music recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra.
The game introduced features like hand-to-hand combat, requiring more complex animation than previous installments, and a stamina bar that limited Lara’s ability to perform anaerobic activities indefinitely.
This is not an RPG element!
The game attempted to incorporate elements from stealth, role-playing, and traditional adventure games, mirroring many modern action-adventure games. However, most of these elements were poorly developed. For instance, sometimes when trying to kick a door open, Lara might mention that her legs aren’t strong enough, sending players to look for specific objects to kick or push to increase her strength. This mechanic, common in adventure games (though usually involving the search for a key), was presented as an RPG element.
The Angel of Darkness introduced a second playable character, Kurtis Trent. Despite being designed to require a different playstyle due to differing abilities, Trent ended up playing very similarly to Lara, contributing little to the game. The game also suffered from bugs, graphical glitches, and erratic camera angles. Furthermore, its control system was criticized as outdated and unfamiliar to the new generation of gamers.
Kurtis Trent was supposed to be a major feature of the game.
The game sold 2.5 million copies but received poor reviews, leading Eidos to cancel the proposed trilogy and transfer the main series’ development to the California-based Crystal Dynamics studio.
Paramount Pictures even used the game’s poor reception to explain why Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life, released a month later, was less successful than its predecessor, grossing about $160 million. Interestingly, both movies received worse reviews than the game did.
The Angel of Darkness Restoration Project, launched in 2021, aimed to transform the game into what it was initially intended to be, using unused content from the game’s files that developers had not had time to implement or remove. The Angel of Darkness Definitive Edition sought to build upon that project with higher-quality textures, remastered audio and video, and it already offers a playable demo.
The mobile games were received much better than The Angel of Darkness…
Surprisingly, the best-received Tomb Raider games in the early 2000s were a trio of 2D games for mobile phones: The Osiris Codex, Quest for Cinnabar, and Elixir of Life. Despite each game being only about an hour long, they managed to capture the spirit of the early Tomb Raider games remarkably well.
Back From the Dead
Tomb Raider: Legend, the first game in the series developed by Crystal Dynamics, was released in early 2006. After almost three years with no new Tomb Raider movie or main series game, Lara’s popularity had plummeted. Furthermore, an acclaimed Prince of Persia trilogy released since The Angel of Darkness meant that simply outperforming that game wouldn’t suffice.
Legend sold more copies in 3 months than the original game did in a year.
Legend was released not only for the PC and PS2 but also for the PlayStation Portable. For the first time in the series, it was released on Microsoft consoles: the Xbox and the new Xbox 360, which offered the best graphics alongside the PC.
Toby Gard made a surprise return to design Lara’s new, highly detailed model. The game rewrote Lara’s backstory, but aside from that, it retained the same Lara, and for most of the game, she wore even less than in previous games.
Lara’s new model was designed by her original creator.
Legend was the first game in the series with a modern control system, relative to the player’s point of view. Players no longer had to calculate Lara’s every step, but simply guide her in the right direction. The game used a physics engine for realistic physics-based puzzles, complemented by Lara’s new grappling hook. A more controversial addition was quick-time events during cutscenes. The only part of the game that remained simplistic and unrealistic was the gun combat.
In less than three months, the game sold 2.9 million copies – more than the original Tomb Raider did in a year. Later that year, it was released for the Nintendo GameCube, which had replaced the Nintendo 64, and different versions were created for the Game Boy Advance, the newer Nintendo DS, and mobile phones. Although sales slowed after the initial burst, over the years, the game reached a total of 6.4 million copies – surpassing each of the previous four games.
The first Tomb Raider animated series featured various visual styles.
Once again popular, Lara Croft received her first animated series with Revisioned: Tomb Raider, which was broadcast on the online gaming site GameTap. The 10 episodes were written and animated by several different artists.
In 2007, Tomb Raider: Anniversary, a remake of the original Tomb Raider using Legend’s graphics and gameplay mechanics, was released for the PC, Xbox 360, PS2, PSP, and the new Nintendo Wii. A mobile version was also created. Despite positive reviews, it was the worst-selling Tomb Raider game, selling only 1.3 million units by 2009. Its lackluster performance may have been due to the overshadowing by Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, which bore many similarities to the Tomb Raider series but had a much more sophisticated combat system.
Core Design had been working on its own version for the PSP, which could have been ready in time for the game’s 10th anniversary the previous year. However, that version was canceled after Eidos, then owned by publisher SCi, sold Core Design to Rebellion Developments. A plan to convert it into an Indiana Jones or National Treasure game also fell through. As was the case with The Angel of Darkness, the fan community undertook to finish the game, and a playable version is now available.
Thanks to the fan community, you can play Core’s last-ever Tomb Raider game.
In 2008, the series finally reached the PlayStation 3, already two years old, with Tomb Raider: Underworld, also released for the PC, Xbox 360, and in different versions for the Wii, PS2, DS, and mobile. This installment was the first in the series to use motion capture for Lara’s animations. By dropping support for the PS2, the main version could include larger and less linear levels. The game initially failed to meet sales expectations, selling only 1.5 million copies during its first year, but it later recovered to reach 3.8 million.
Eidos was bought by Square Enix in 2009, but Tomb Raider development remained with Crystal Dynamics. The following year, Lara appeared in her first game without the Tomb Raider moniker: the download-only Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light.
With a top-down view, a point/reward system, and a co-op mode featuring a Mayan warrior named Totec, it felt quite different from previous Tomb Raider games. Released for the PC, Xbox 360, PS3, and soon after for mobile, the game’s touch controls were criticized, but other than that, it was as well-received as the previous Crystal Dynamics games and sold more than 1 million units.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light felt nothing like the main series.
A Whole New Lara
In 2013, a new game titled “Tomb Raider” was introduced for the PC, PS3, and Xbox 360, presenting Lara Croft in a manner never seen before. Her face was modeled after Megan Farquhar, and her chest was proportionally sized to her body, rendering her as a stunning, yet realistic woman.
In the PC version, each strand of Lara’s hair could be individually rendered, achieving an unprecedented level of realism for non-braided hair. Notably, she expressed more emotion in this game than in all previous ones combined. Camilla Luddington performed both the voice acting and motion capture for Lara, essentially embodying her.
Each of Lara’s hairs could be rendered separately.
Combat was hugely improved, with Lara automatically hiding behind cover when enemies were present and then able to shoot either while peeking or in concealment. Enemies would react differently based on where they were hit. Stealth takedowns returned to the series for the first time since “The Angel of Darkness,” but this time they were genuinely needed.
Similarly, the game incorporated authentic RPG elements, not merely their illusion. By defeating enemies and raiding optional challenge tombs, Lara accumulated skill points, which could be used to enhance her abilities. Furthermore, you could upgrade her weapons by collecting material from enemy corpses and crates.
The improved combat was a highlight of the new Tomb Raider.
It was the best-reviewed Tomb Raider game since the original. Within 48 hours, it sold 1 million copies, which grew to 3.4 million after four weeks. However, it only reached profitability after a year. Subsequently, the Definitive Edition was released for the new PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Two months later, it officially became the best-selling Tomb Raider game, boasting 8.5 million copies, a figure that has since risen to 14.5 million.
The success of the reboot led to a series of games featuring Lara over the next two years. The first two Tomb Raider games were released for iOS and Android, but were poorly received as they hadn’t been developed with a touchscreen version in mind. “Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris” attempted to replicate the success of “Guardian of Light”, but fell short.
Go, Lara, Go!
“Lara Croft: Relic Run” for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone, which relied on in-app purchases, garnered mixed reviews but was still popular, with more than 10 million downloads on Android alone. The turn-based mobile puzzle game “Lara Croft Go” stood out among the rest, earning the title of Mobile Game of the Year at The Game Awards 2015 and later being released for the PC and PlayStation 4.
Rise of the Tomb Raider had some of the best graphics around.
A true successor, “Rise of the Tomb Raider”, came to the Xbox One and Xbox 360 in late 2015. The game was as well-reviewed as its predecessor, showcasing an open-world design and some of the finest graphics in gaming.
Despite the slow initial sales due to timed exclusivity, it reached the 1-million milestone in less than two months. In early 2016, it arrived on PC, and later that year on PS4. By late 2017, it had become the second-best selling Tomb Raider game, surpassing 7 million copies, and has since reached 11.8 million.
In 2016, two decades after the original Tomb Raider, Lara was officially recognized by Guinness World Records as the video game character featured on the most magazine covers, with 1,230 covers showcasing her front and center, and an additional 170 where she wasn’t the primary focus, bringing the total to 1,400.
A small portion of Lara’s magazine cover appearances. Source: Official Flickr.
Lara’s third movie, simply titled “Tomb Raider” and starring Alicia Vikander, was released in 2018. Like Jolie, Vikander had just won an Academy Award for a supporting role (in “The Danish Girl”) before being cast, but compared to Jolie, she appeared much more like the girl next door. The movie followed the basic plot of the 2013 game and attempted to recreate some of its best action scenes, but the secondary characters were completely different.
The film earned almost $275 million, roughly equal to “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” (not accounting for inflation), and was rated by Rotten Tomatoes as the best-reviewed video game-based movie of all time with 53% positive reviews. The following year, it was surpassed by “Detective Pikachu” and “The Angry Birds Movie 2.” A sequel was planned, but delayed due to the pandemic and eventually canceled as MGM’s license expired in 2022.
If it ain’t broken…
The game trilogy concluded later in 2018 with “Shadow of the Tomb Raider”. Most reviewers agreed that the game was true to its name: it echoed the previous two games but differentiated primarily in its color scheme. Nevertheless, the game sold 4 million copies in about three months and maintained its momentum to become the third-best selling Tomb Raider game, with 8.9 million sold. Since the trilogy’s launch, Dark Horse Comics has published several series filling the gaps between the three games, totaling 38 books.
In 2022, Crystal Dynamics was sold to holding company Embracer Group. In December of that year, it was revealed that Tomb Raider games had sold a combined total of 95 million copies, up from 88 million in May 2022.
I shall rise, oh well I shall rise, again and again…
Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider series aren’t going anywhere. Netflix has released “Tomb Raider Reloaded”, a simplified game for iOS and Android featuring a unique depiction of Lara, and is developing an anime series.
Crystal Dynamics is working on the next game in the main series using Unreal Engine 5, which will be published by Amazon. Given the history of the series, we hope that Crystal will take the time they need to create a game that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best adventures of Lara Croft – a game that people will still want to play decades later.
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