If you’re a gamer like me, chances are the late ‘90s had little to do with Tony Blair, David Beckham or Joey from Friends, and everything to do with an English antique collector with improbably large breasts. From 1996 through the turn of the millennium, Tomb Raider – starring Lara Croft – was everywhere, unstoppable, inescapable. It had puzzles, it had guns, it had ravishing graphics, and what gamer who ever breathed didn’t hyperventilate at the chance to play as Ms Croft? In my first year at secondary school, it genuinely felt like everyone was Tomb Raiding. Everyone, that is, except me.
It was proving to be a tricky decade. I was late to yo-yos, I was last in my class to own a Tamagotchi, and suddenly I was faced with being the last teenaged age male in a built-up area not playing Tomb Raider. The shame went beyond words. Peer pressure weighed on me with the heft of a mid-‘90s VHS player. But one day I was rescued – by an unlikely saviour. Returning home from work, my father suddenly flourished a disk at me. It’s a copy of Tomb Raider 2, he said, improbably, and did I want to play it? Did I? Ye gods! It was all I could do not to grab the disk from his hand and sprint for the nearest PC with a song on my lips.
Raised on a diet of Mega Drives and PlayStations, I foresaw no problems playing Tomb Raider on PC – on any PC. They were like consoles, I concluded: you fed them the disk, they played the game. Easy, peasy. Did it matter that the only halfway powerful computer in my house was my Dad’s and I wasn’t allowed within ten paces of it? Not a bit. Thus it was that I fired up the computer that my sister and I were allowed to use: a dusty Intel 486 with all the processing power of wilted spinach.
Fifteen minutes later – this computer took a small lifetime to boot up – I duly inserted the disk (it had a CD-ROM drive, of sorts) and hit install. This accounted for another forty-five minutes, which was disquieting, but then Tomb Raider 2 was a big game: Lara’s itinerary included trips to China, Venice, Tibet and all points between. And I was about to visit them with her. My cup of excitement boiling over, I clicked play.
The main menu appeared – I was in! But I wasn’t ready to begin the game proper just yet. Classmates had spoken in hushed tones of a level set in Lara’s mansion, where you could marvel at the wall hangings and torment her age-ravaged butler. This level I duly clicked. ‘Loading,’ it said. ‘Loading,’ it still said. I gave a heavy yawn and was about to nap when suddenly a voice spoke. ‘Welcome back,’ the voice husked. ‘After that gruelling business last year, I decided to build this assault course to hone my skills.’ It was the voice of Lara Croft! And here was Lara Croft, standing in front of the assault course in question!
Almost at the same time I realised something wasn’t right. The graphics looked pretty good – Lara’s ass was an amazement – but I couldn’t help but notice they were a smidge slow. These days, PC gamers rightly spit at anything below 60 frames per second, but I was lucky if I saw one frame every other second. This wasn’t, in the strict sense of the term, a ‘computer game’ at all, more in the nature of a slideshow of computer-generated images. It had the side effect both of making the game difficult to play, and Ms Croft impossible to control. Concernedly, I peered at the screen. Lara was – apparently – in her twenties, but here she might have been taken for a geriatric. Nimble as an eel in normal conditions, she moved now with all the liquid elegance of a weatherbeaten cliff face. But maybe the problem wasn’t with Lara at all. Maybe it was with her home. Maybe it was too graphically demanding to portray the Croft family seat in all its splendour. So, returning to the main menu, I chose instead the game’s first level, which had a less ornate setting: The Great Wall of China. At the very least, I thought, things couldn’t run slower.
Couldn’t run slower, eh? That was a laugh. And let me say at once, the graphics were already maximally low – the game had done that automatically, to tease out every last scrap of performance. With some effort, I got Lara to peer closer at her famous surroundings. I saw grey stone, shadowy caves and perilous cliffs as far as the eye could reach (which wasn’t very far, the draw distance being at a minimum). All of a sudden there came a sound to make me quake in my swivel chair. A tiger – advancing on me at two frames per second. It was terrifying but at least I had time to act. And act I did, by pulling out Lara’s signature assets (her twin pistols) and loosing off a few rounds. Ten slideshow minutes later, the tiger was down.
So far, Tomb Raider 2 had been punishment to play, but I could see how it might be fun if the heap of scrap metal that went by the name of my computer wasn’t more ancient than the tombs Lara was raiding. But out of my despair: an idea. What if I reduced the size of the window? It was full screen at the moment – would the game would run quicker if smaller? I resized the window accordingly, and watched with gaping jaw as Lara started to move with something approaching smoothness. And it scaled: the smaller the screen, the smoother she moved. I then made the screen as small as it would go and realised breathlessly that the game might just be playable.
Although, problem: Lara was now so small that I could barely see her. I made towards what looked like an open passageway, only to violently thwhack Lara’s head against a rocky outcrop. Her yelp of pain mirrored my inner monologue, and it wasn’t long after this that I called time on Tomb Raider 2.