The Tomb Raider series isn't what it used to be. There's not a lot of agreement on what it is these days, but it's hard to deny that recent entries haven't come close to capturing the impact of the seminal 1996 original.
As much as Lara became the butt (or boobs) of a million jokes around the turn of the century, the sheer impact of the first Tomb Raider game can't be overstated. The idea of the action-platformer wasn't exactly new, but Tomb Raider got the formula right in 3D just as 3D gaming was taking off on consoles. It was definitely the first game to present the genre with a look that appealed directly to teens and young adults. Prior to Tomb Raider, the gold standard for the 3D platformer was Super Mario 64, an excellent game, but one that was typically whimsical and kid-friendly.
So what dragged the Tomb Raider series down? Some people think it was the hyper-sexualized look of its heroine, Lara Croft, but that has always seemed a bit unlikely to me. Lara Croft's look made her a breakout star, one of gaming's first action heroines and by far its first sex symbol. When Princess Peach was still baking cakes for Mario, Lara Croft was appearing as a pin-up model and gracing the cover of magazines like Time and Newsweek.
People forget that in the first, best-regarded Tomb Raider, Lara was no pin-up queen. She was just the character you happened to play who happened to be female. Otherwise, the game treated her no less seriously than, say, the Uncharted series treats Nathan Drake. The gameplay rarely let up long enough for the player to ogle her. Her sex appeal was played up in the marketing, but once you picked up Tomb Raider, chances were you'd just focus on playing the game. Overall, Lara Croft's look was always far less important to her success or failure than what her games let you do.
Gamers can be surprisingly practical, and fans only deserted Tomb Raider because the annual sequels rapidly began to suck. The original Tomb Raider spent three years in development, so it frankly made no sense that the developers could rush out games just as good in one-third of the time. Following the Metacritic averages of the first four Tomb Raider games tells the story of the series' degeneration: 91, 85, 76, 49. It's like seeing Tomb Raider's original developer, Core Design, burning out in real time.
After a good long rest, Eidos shifted Lara to new developer Crystal Dynamics, who gave both her look and the Tomb Raider gameplay much-needed makeovers. While the Crystal Dynamics entries in the Tomb Raider series were very solid games, they lacked the impact of the first Tomb Raider title. By 2006, action-platforming was not the red-hot genre it was in the 90s. Most gamers were gravitating to games that emphasized action, shooting, and persistent character progression. The Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider games featured a little action, but put most of the emphasis was still on puzzle-solving, platforming, and big set-piece QTE scenes.
The 2006 Lara was a step in the right direction, but it didn't elevate her back to the superstar status she enjoyed in the 90s. Right now we're on the verge of a second Crystal Dynamics reboot of the Tomb Raider series, billed as a darker, grittier take on the heroine. This reboot envisions Lara as a young woman trapped on a desert island, surviving by her wits alone. We're promised gameplay that incorporates a lot of the popular elements missing from the prior games, like a bigger emphasis on gunplay, a skill system, and the need to gather resources like food and water for survival. Tomb Raider staples like puzzle-solving and the big QTE moments are returning, but there's little emphasis on platforming in favor of heightened realism.
What made the original Tomb Raider a hit was the way it combined a mature look with a red-hot genre right as it emerged into popularity. For the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot to restore the series to its former glory, it needs to similarly have its finger on the pulse of gaming. Right now, everything about the reboot sounds promising, but all of the elements it's emphasizing have already been featured in popular games over the past couple years. It's hard to look at anything in the Tomb Raider reboot that really looks different or seems to say, "Look, this is the next big thing!"
Fans' attachment to an IP can take a game series a long way, but at the end of the day, it's all about the gameplay. And it's not just about creating well-polished gameplay, either. A game has to offer players a style of gameplay that's familiar, but challenging and at least a little different from what was popular last year or the year before. Likewise, a game's look has to be at the bleeding edge of what's cool. The last Crystal Dynamics reboot felt like it was too little, too late, offering up the sort of gameplay that would've wowed audiences a few years ealier. If this reboot wants to work, then it needs to make sure it's ahead of the curve this time. After all, there's no point in raiding a tomb when somebody else got there first.
Source: The Fall and Rise of Lara Croft, Alicia Ashby, Cheat Code Central