Once upon a time, Lara Croft wasn’t the global superstar she is today. All franchises have to start somewhere, and Tomb Raider‘s story began back in 1996 when a relatively unknown developer, Core Design, brought their creation to PC and home consoles. Created by Toby Gard – who famously abandoned the studio soon after the release of the first game, uncomfortable with how his character was being portrayed in the media – Lara was an overnight success, a female Indiana Jones with a cut-glass British accent and a hunger for adventure.
Gracing magazine covers, starring in a pair of (awful) films and being labelled alternately a symbol of gaming misogyny or a feminist icon, depending on who you listened to, Lara went on to star in a series of hit games until her star started to fade following the release of the poorly-received Angel of Darkness back in 2003.
Lara almost never existed however – originally the game was intended to feature a male protagonist, the decision to switch to a female character coming well into the development process. A few design iterations and a name change later – Lara was originally called Laura Cruz, a ruthless military-trained killer – Gard’s creation became the icon we all know so well today.
In fact, Lara’s meteoric rise to the upper echelons of popular culture at times threatened to eclipse the wonderful game that she starred in. It may not look like much now, but at the time the first Tomb Raider game was a revelatory experience: providing vast environments to explore, secrets to uncover and puzzles to solve, while Lara herself was gifted with a varied moveset that made climbing around the world a joy.
Each level contains its own set-piece: St Francis’ Folly takes place in a multi-storey underground shaft, each level of the structure providing its own challenge that needs to be overcome in order to unlock the doorway at its bottom; later, the game moves to the fabled lost city of Atlantis, populated by a horrifying menagerie of skinless monsters. The standout level though, and the section of the game which still gets referenced today, is undoubtedly The Lost Valley.
After making headway through an ancient Himalayan temple, Lara begins the level making her way down the edge of a waterfall, before ending up in a tunnel that looks much like what has already gone before. After dispatching a few wolves, the environment soon opens up to reveal a lush underground jungle complete with its own waterfall, rope bridge and prehistoric inhabitants.
Almost immediately you’re set upon by a hungry velociraptor. Effortlessly dispatched by your pistols, it’s easy to become overconfident and miss the giant footprints on the ground before you. But then the screen starts to shake, a thundering boom echoes throughout the valley and instantly you know what’s coming.
And come it does. Emerging out of the darkness, accompanied by a frenzied violin musical piece, a gigantic Tyrannosaurus Rex comes charging towards you, hungry for its dinner.
Experiencing the level for the first time, it’s easy for panic to set in. The sheer scale of the creature before you dwarfs anything you’ve seen up to that point and many players found themselves turned into a quick snack before they even knew how to react. On subsequent attempts, you’ll discover a conveniently-placed cave that you can duck into, providing a safe spot from which you can shower the creature with hot lead from your twin pistols. After what feels like an age, the behemoth will eventually fall with a final roar and you’re free to continue exploring. But you do so cautiously – just in case the beast has a partner lurking somewhere in the darkness ahead.
That partner never turns up of course, and for the most part the rest of the level is fairly straightforward. But from that moment on, your progress is made with a sense of trepidation, never knowing what might suddenly come out of the shadows at you.
The Lost Valley not only provides one of the standout moments in the series, but one of the standout moments in the entire medium of gaming. Playing the level now, its impact is diminished by visuals which are almost laughably primitive by modern standards; Tomb Raider: Anniversary, released in 2007, remade the game and gave the scene a fresh lick of paint, but it wasn’t the same. By the time you play Anniversary, you’re expecting the T-Rex to appear and so what was once a jaw-dropping gaming moment becomes little more than a nostalgic nod to the past.
For those of us old enough to recall the original release of the very first Tomb Raider, coming face-to-face with the T-Rex is a moment fondly remembered as one of the standout gaming set-pieces of its generation. Lara went on to raid many more Tombs and face even more fearsome foes, but none of them measure up to the time when you came face-to-face with that prehistoric predator.