Otakubites: Puella Magi Madoka Magica and DRRR!! dub

1. Late to the Party: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

I like this new policy; rather than actually watch a whole bunch of first episodes to determine what’s good, I wait a few weeks into the season until it’s been determined what the one show everyone absolutely cannot shut up about is, then just watch that one. Obviously to anyone who’s been on Twitter in the last month, that show currently is Madoka Magika. Beware, those who have not seen through episode 4; spoilers abound.

I’m hesitant to call it “The Evangelion of Magical Girl shows,” because that somehow sounds awfully pretentious, but it’s certainly an apt comparison. Mami’s last stand in episode 3 reminded me very much of Asuka’s final battle in The End of Evangelion; both fought in a state of kinetic euphoria, realizing for the first time that they were no longer alone, and the end came as an extremely brutal shock. Also, the soul searching Sayaka does before deciding to become a Puella Magi reminds me of what Shinji would be like if he ever took his head out of his ass for the five seconds it would take to think about somebody else for a change.

It probably is doing a disservice to the show, however, to just keep pointing out the Eva parallels, so I’ll just leave it at that- I think the show is ultimately going for something different. The deconstruction of the genre is obviously similar, but I don’t think the themes necessarily are.

Madoka is currently the weakest link in the show, which would bother me were it not for the fact that I think it’s very much intentional- I’m wondering if the fact that she’s actually considering using the wish she gets by becoming a magical girl, in order to become a magical girl, will create some interesting divide-by-zero sort of situation, hence the “potential” everyone keeps talking about.

I hope her potential isn’t just latent magic power that she was born with or something, because that’s REALLY boring; I’m interested in the idea that she could end up being the best magical girl because there’s nothing else in her personality to compete with it.

Also loving the ultra-modern aesthetic of the architecture on this show, it makes the “real world” look strangely cold and sterile compared to the reality marbles, complicating the good/evil dichotomy. I’m not going to say the witches are good- last time I checked, making people inhale chlorine gas is rather bad- but don’t you think it’s funny that those creatures in the reality marbles are so cute, and the colors are so warm? Meanwhile, Madoka’s house and school look like they’re part of the same giant, impersonal hospital. I’m not sure at this point whether or not that’s the result of the art direction going off and doing it’s own funky thing, or if it’s something deeper; I look forward to finding out.

2. On the Durarara!! Dub

With the first Durarara!! DVD collection hitting shelves now, the normal reviewer-type thing to do would be to say whether or not I recommend it. However, I’m currently sitting here surrounded by my full set of Durarara!! mini-figures, sipping coffee out of my Shizuo-emblazoned mug. I also have my very own “Certy” pencil case, and have written one of the wordiest blogs about the show ever. I think it’s safe to say I’m a fan of this show: do I think you should buy it? Hmm, y’think?

If you’re actually unfamiliar with the show and and are genuinely wondering whether or not to buy it, then I would direct you to Mr. Huber’s review. What interests me, and what I’ve been curious about ever since this show was licensed, is the English dub.

I was initially going to write up some impressions of the dub based on a five-episode screener, generously provided by Aniplex, but my first watch of the dub left me so ambivalent, I didn’t know what to say for a good while. Now that the show is actually, well, RELEASED, I think I’ll wait until my copy arrives and I can watch the full nine episodes properly before I get into analysis-crazy mode.

From what I’ve read, the general consensus is that the younger cast (Mikado, Masaomi, and Anri) are poor and/or miscast, while Celty, Shinra, Simon and Shizuo are good. Generally speaking, I agree with this- although I think there’s something interesting going on with Bryce Papenbrook’s performance as Masaomi that some fans may not have picked up on. Anyway, I think the problems with the dub are indicative of what happens when a dub is made for a hyper-specific, enthusiast audience; they let Izaya say “Shizu-chan” because they know everyone watching knows what honorifics mean, but he has to call Rio “Ms. Mazenda” in episode 2 because GOD FORBID he use her first name; Japanese people just don’t do that! Even though he’s speaking English!

Meh, I’m getting ahead of myself- more dub musings after my copy arrives.

3. Otaku USA Conclusions

Remember last time, when I was trying to decide whether or not to continue subscribing to Otaku USA? Well, I think I have my answer; the latest issue has a cover story about Evangelion by…RevolutionofEvangelion.org. Really? Without getting into my concerns with that particular site, they’ll just run an article that a fansite sends them? More importantly, they run it as the cover story?

Dropping a magazine because of one article is silly at best, but I haven’t really been enjoying it in general; their article on Excel Saga was of little interest to me, because I’d actually seen the show, and too much of their stuff seems to be like that- either “Hey, this anime exists-check it out!”, or something critically suspect like the Evangelion article.

I wish I could remember whether Animerica, which I loved to pieces, was actually much better back in the day, or I just wasn’t completely spoiled for otaku coverage yet. Rightly or wrongly, I certainly remember it being better.

4. Zettai Hero Project- Dropped, sort of

Dropped for now- currently replaying the early Tomb Raider games on my PSP after getting them through PSN. I do plan to eventually get back to it, but I also want to eventually play Disgaea 2 and Persona 3 Portable, both of which I have yet to touch in their console iterations. I don’t dislike ZHP, but it may be hard to get back to it with that kind of competition around.

Tomb Raider, Level 4: Tomb of Qualopec

Before I delve into ToQ, a note about a change to the TR project; due to the fact that I’ve switched over to playing these games on my PSP, which is about fifty times more comfortable for me for some reason, I’m not taking screenshots anymore. Fortunately, with a game this well-known that’s been out for this long, you can bet that someone else has taken great screens already, and that person is Katie. From here on out, unless I note otherwise, all screenshots come from the excellent Katie’s Tomb Raider Screenshots; Used with permission.

Oh, and it just sort of hit me the other day that since Tomb Raider is now owned by Square-Enix, there’s an otaku-connection there that I didn’t even realize. Go blog-cohesiveness!

Would You Like Some Tomb in Your Tomb Raider?

Level 4, Tomb of Qualopec, is actually the first tomb in all of Tomb Raider-dom; that sounds awfully significant. In fact, that makes me wish I liked it more.

Really, there’s nothing wrong with this level- it’s a respectable puzzle level 95% of the way through, if a little short, and the last 5% is remarkable due to actually exiting the temple and backtracking into the previous level (which is actually a lot more novel and exciting then it probably sounds) but it seems lackluster coming off of the Lost Valley high.

Last level: traverse vast distances, find loads of goodies tucked away in hidden alcoves, take in scenic views, and finally, meet lots of interesting dinosaurs and kill them all. This level: there are switches. Pulling them accomplishes things.

Still, the rampaging raptors add a bit of excitement to the otherwise dull proceedings; they’re a bit intimidating in these cramped surroundings.

Now, does anyone understand what’s going on with that one mummy whom Lara targets in this level? It would be one thing if you could shoot all the mummies, but the fact that only one of them can be targeted leads me to believe that he’s a special mummy- i.e., this is HIS tomb. Like, Qualopec himself sees what Lara’s about to do and isn’t keen on it. I like indulging the idea that some of the plot-related moments in this game are more subtle. EDIT: I have since read on the internet that this is widely believed to be the case by many TR fans; I guess I don’t get any analysis brownie points for this one.

This level also features a “boss” fight (a generous use of that term if ever there was one) with Larson, everyone’s favorite Southern stereotype dude. Stereotypes generally don’t even bother me (I just think of them as offensively hilarious), but I guess it’s worth pointing out that he is one nonetheless.

I find the conversation between Larson and Lara here more interesting than the rest of the actual level; not the bit about the scion, but the fact that Larson is threatening to shove something up Lara’s unmentionables, and she APOLOGIZES for interrupting him. I think this is what I initially loved about Lara’s character, and what’s been missing pretty much ever since; that absurd level of politeness, a relic of her prim and proper upbringing, that clashes tremendously with her day job. I don’t know, there’s something charming about a woman who will apologize to a cursing southern redneck (that she’s holding at GUNPOINT) because interrupting other people is just rude.

Showing his southern spirit, Larson cheerfully walks off the thirty or so rounds Lara introduced to his redneck hide. The first time I played this game, someone told me that Lara actually kills Larson here by snapping his neck with her kick; you can imagine how surprised I was when he started shooting at me later.

Best: Revisiting the previous level; revolutionary for the time, still surprising. The fact that there’s a new secret there is just icing on the cake. Of course, that means the best part of this level is technically STILL Lost Valley….

Worst: The spike pits that crop up all over the damn place. Okay, I understand the need for some challenge, but there’s something surprisingly gruesome about those primitive-looking spikes; yeah, you don’t see anything when Lara dies to them, but in some ways that just makes the idea of impalement worse.

Umm, why are they bloody? Do they actually get much use? If other people were impaled on these things, why are there no bodies? Wait, I’m just as happy they didn’t put in any bodies, that would be gross and I would have thrown down the controller, screaming. Calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean….

Rating: Three Uzi Clips out of five; it would be two Uzi Clips, however the last two minutes of the level elevate it considerably.

Next up: St. Francis’ Folly, or Let’s Get Vertical.

OtakuBites 1: January Edition

Butterflies, Flowers

Welcome to OtakuBites, the first of a feature I will probably be getting a lot of use out of here- comments on various things that may be of interest to you, without going into ridiculously huge essay-lengths (hopefully.) See, I have way more ideas for stuff to blog about than I can usually get to, so rather than letting them go to waste, I figured I’d periodically do a kind of round-up post of this nature.

1.    Otaku U.S.A.

I’ve gotten the last few issues of Otaku U.S.A. (it was Shinji’s Deal of the Day on Crunchyroll, woo), and it leaves me scratching my head. At this point, I’m getting it more because I want there to be at least one print magazine remaining that covers anime- for the principle of the thing- than because I actually want to read it.

One could make the argument that, as an anime blogger as well-ensconced in the interwebs as I, a print magazine is a hard sell for me- however, there are certain things I want from a print magazine that Otaku U.S.A. does not seem to deliver. In theory, the features should be more meaty and in-depth, but instead they’re numerous and spartan.

Who are they targeting here, new, young otaku- the kind who are even less likely to buy a magazine- or those of us who have been anime fans for years, if not decades? A feature on Durarara!! in the most recent issue is presumably meant for those who have yet to see the series (perhaps, those who don’t know about this whole Crunchyroll thing yet), but also contains spoilers- rather non-specific spoilers, but spoilers nonetheless. While I agree with the author’s contention that yes, Durarara!! IS as cool as it thinks it is (and then some) I don’t understand who this article was meant for. I don’t understand who most of this is meant for, except for “Fujoshi USA,” which seems like it would probably be pretty cool if I actually read yaoi.

I got one of those “please renew” cards- should I? Just for the principle of the thing? I’m honestly not sure.

2.    Card Captor Sakura, Omnibus Volume 1 by CLAMP

I got the first omnibus volume of Card Captor Sakura for Hanukkahmass (or whatever), and uh…it’s fantastic. It’s wonderful. However, it’s kind of frustrating that I have nothing else to say about it, but that’s just it; there’s nothing to criticize. I could wax poetic about how great it is, but I’m probably better off doing that when all the volumes are out and I’ve actually completed it. I will say though that the lack of Mei Lin is noted and appreciated.

3.    Butterflies, Flowers by Yuki Yoshihara

Speaking of manga, Butterflies, Flowers is the first manga I can remember impulse buying…in English (I’m not counting those “1 for a $1” manga they have at Book-Off.) I have the first five volumes, which I think is all that’s been released so far. What’s interesting about it to me is that it basically has the premise of Hanamaru Kindergarten– a man falling in love with a child- and shows the logical conclusion that HK was too wimpy to touch. The sexual encounters in the book are between consenting adults and non-icky (well, mostly- that probably depends on who you ask), but it’s made increasingly clear that Masayuki fell in love with Choko from childhood. Hopefully, when I finish the series I’ll have something more interesting to say about this.

I should note that it’s actually a little different from HK, since Masayuki was technically a child himself when he fell in love with Choko (although much older than her), but honestly, I don’t think it changes things much. He changed her diapers, for crying out loud.

4. Zettai Hero Project

I seem to recall gushing about this game on an episode of Japanator AM when the trailer came out. Well, ZHP was another lovely Hanukkahmas present, and I’m a little more than halfway through the story, I’d wager. It’s not bad in any way, but it doesn’t seem to have that addictiveness that the Disgaea series does. For example, the other night, I had my PSP (with ZHP ready to go) and Marcel Proust’s Time Regained next to each other on my night table, and I picked up Proust. This usually does not happen with RPGs; in fact, RPGs have ostensibly been the reason that I hadn’t finished Proust (until yesterday- thanks, ZHP!)

Also, I don’t find it as funny as everyone keeps saying it is, but that could be because I’m listening to the Japanese track. I like roguelikes, but there seems to be something missing  here I can’t put my finger on. Anyone else feel the same way?

6.    Arc Rise Fantasia

I’m not actually playing this- I’m peeping over Rangoric’s shoulder while he plays it. As traditional JRPGs go, it looks pretty good, but I defy anyone to understand what the holy hell they are saying in this game without having played/watched it for the last twenty hours, and even then it’s questionable. You know how they make up their own terms in Final Fantasy games, or give standard terms new definitions, like “Fayth” and “Sending” and “Focus?” Well, imagine that, only in ARF they have to say at least three of them in each sentence, and the voice actors apparently haven’t been told what any of it means, whatsoever.

I guess that compares rather favorably to FFXIII however, where I got the impression that the voice actors knew full well what they were saying, but kind of wished that they didn’t. The fact that the voice acting was uniformly good just meant that the dialogue was generally beneath the dignity of everyone involved.

Also on the plus side for ARF, the voice actor for the evil (I think?) Prince Weiss appears to be Adam West. I don’t believe this is confirmed, but the character talks with a certain cadence that is definitely reminiscent of him. Your mileage may vary, but hearing Family Guy’s crazy Mayor West as a typical JRPG villain is pretty amusing.

Also: They are conducting a War on Pronouns.

7.    Winter Anime Schedule:
Where is Durarara!! Season Two already? That is all.

Well, actually I plan to watch the second season of Kimi ni Todoke, and check out that magical girl show everyone’s talking about. To be honest, I thought about picking shows to cover weekly as I went along, like a proper anime blogger, but on second thought I decided to leave that to Japanator and other intrepid anime bloggers, and do more of my own thing. I reserve the right to change my mind if anything this season actually turns out good, however.

Tomb Raider, Level 3: Lost Valley

LV is one of those iconic levels that defines it’s era as much as it does the game; Not only is LV one of the things that tons of gamers are inclined to remember when they reflect on this era of gaming history, but it puts on display everything that was good about the early 3D era. This was when being able to explore a 3D world was completely new and exciting, and the very act of running around and looking for stuff was still fun, because you were not yet bored senseless by the very act of running around looking for stuff.

That said, the fun of the level isn’t limited to the original novelty value; most early 3D games that were fun at the time are nowhere near as memorable. Some would say that it’s the dinosaurs that make this level great, especially because the surprise arrival of the T-Rex boss is one of the most memorable moments in gaming, period. I would have been inclined to agree, but while replaying this level recently for the TR project, I realized it’s something else: this level takes letting you climb on stuff to a new frontier.

What am I walking on here? I DO NOT CARE.

Sure, you can climb on stuff in tons of games, but Lost Valley is like the Citizen Kane of climbing on stuff: Do you see it? You can climb on it. Do you not see it? You can probably climb on it. You can climb on stuff that it makes no sense for you to be able to climb on. You can climb on stuff that in God’s name, you have no business climbing on, but there you are. Suddenly instead of a sedentary gamer and a reserved Miss Croft, you and Lara both are transformed into a wired three-year-old with ADHD who just ate a whole box of Chips Ahoy and isn’t about to stop until he’s put his tiny little feet on everything in the room. Only, instead of crying and being picked up by your mommy after your insane Romper-Room crazy-fest, you get to find the shotgun (finally).

“The One With All The Dinosaurs”

There is a slightly more subtle appeal to this level, in that it breaks your expectations of what the world of Tomb Raider is, and no matter what kind of technology they have at their disposal, no developer will be able to do this with the series again. Other than the fact that the wildlife in the previous two levels didn’t seem to have anything to eat, the world of TR up to this point has been fairly realistic. The ruins of the civilizations that Lara was exploring were rooted in reality (they say in the commentary for TR:A that archeologists actually found the real city of Vilcabamba in Peru not long after TR came out), and despite Lara’s monkey-like agility, the laws of physics seemed to be intact.

Then this level comes along, and you realize that instead of a stylized version of the real

"This is a definition of 'extinct' of which I was previously unaware."

world, you’re in a world where anything can happen. One minute you’re exploring realistic rocky caverns and shooting a few starving wolves (something you could do in real life if you were a bit of a strange individual and had no plans for the weekend), and the next minute you’re uncovering a valley hidden since before the Stone Age, and animals that have been extinct for billions of years are suddenly trying to eat you. But that doesn’t mean we’re off to crazy-town entirely; that historical foothold is always there, from the levels based on Greek mythology to serpentine Egyptian labyrinths. You can expect the grand majority of the game to be rooted in reality, but you can never let your guard down, because you never know when that bizarre alternate world is going to rise up and kick you out of your comfort zone with fanfare.

A lot of games try to do something similar and fail– it’s very easy for things to get over the top very quickly, and you cease being surprised by anything because your real-world expectations have been abandoned. In TR, there’s always that lure of actual history that drags you back from the edge, and the line between history and fantasy is handled with enough finesse that even though you know to expect the unexpected, the game can still throw you for a loop when it wants to.

If you can remember standing here, you are good at Tomb Raider.

This level also features one of the better puzzles in the game: It’s fairly intuitive, so you can figure it out without needing the design equivalent of a glowing neon sign over the solution, but not immediately obvious. There are also puzzles-within-puzzles, in that this is the first level that really requires you to understand Lara’s moveset. The standing jump, running jump, and back flip all have different distances and arcs, and navigating to the major set-piece of the level requires understanding which ones you need to do and in what order, and though it isn’t terribly difficult, you WILL spend a lot of time falling down the waterfall if you don’t pay attention.

By Tomb Raider III you needed to have a goddamned Masters Degree in Euclidean geometry to get across a small chasm, but at this point it was still fun.

Me, circa TR III. I kid because I love.

There's a physics teacher I know who could explain all of the reasons why this wouldn't work.

Best: It’s hard to pick just one feature as the best of the level, but the secrets in general are fantastic. Some, like the one that requires hanging onto a waterfall show the game’s age, but they’re all satisfying to find– it’s like the game rewards you with free goodies for going as far off the beaten path as possible. There are 5 secrets this time around, too.

Worst: Uh…the whole game isn’t like this? Well, putting my great affection for this level aside for a moment, it takes a while to figure out what the objective of the level is– finding the cogs in the valley that will allow you to work the mechanism to close the sluice gate, granting access to the cavern behind the waterfall–and even when you’ve figured it out, it takes a while to find those suckers in the huge (for that time) valley. This level does take a long time on first play.

Rating: 5 Uzi Clips out of 5. Perhaps not the biggest surprise of the year.

The next level is the relatively pedestrian Tomb of Qualopec; I feel claustrophobic already.

Also: This:

Oh, and GUESS WHO HAS THE SHOTGUN! Of course, it might have been more useful to have BEFORE fighting the T-Rex...shut up.

Tomb Raider, Level 2: City of Vilcabamba

Spoiler Warning: I mention plot points in Final Fantasy X and Metal Gear Solid in this entry. If you haven’t gotten around to playing either of those yet, you may want to just read the capsule review at the bottom.

“Vilcabamba” is a really fun word to say. Say it a few times and you’ll see what I mean. It also sounds like a delicious new flavor of Bubble Yum to me for some reason. This level really made me want gum.

This opening area seems to have been a town based around a well, which makes some nice real-world sense. It's completely unnecessary to enter the underwater portion of this level in order to advance, but some pretty cool secrets lie in that direction. I remember being really confused as a kid, because I kept trying to figure out how the underwater part helped you progress, and it doesn't.
This opening area seems to have been a town based around a well, which makes some nice real-world sense. It's completely unnecessary to enter the underwater portion of this level in order to advance, but some pretty cool secrets lie in that direction. I remember being really confused as a kid, because I kept trying to figure out how the underwater part helped you progress, and it doesn't.

These first few levels are going to get some of the longest write ups, both because they’re some of the most memorable, and they’re simply the ones I’ve played the most over the years. Like a lot of people, often I would pop in my TR disc and just play through the game up until somewhere around Tomb of Qualopec, and then move on, my tomb-raiding craving sated. I have played through the game in it’s entirety several times, but I’ve played through these first three or four levels way more times than any of the subsequent ones.

For the life of me, I have no idea why the Vilcabambans were so afraid of this stupid medipack. I can only speculate that this skull-adorned cubbyhole originally contained something decidedly more threatening.

In the case of City of Vilcabamba, there’s a lot to talk about: The wolf ambush that begins the level, the completely optional underwater pathway, the three(!) secret rooms, the contrast between the simple architecture of the village square versus the grand architecture of the temple area, etc. However, I’m going to go in depth about NONE of those things in favor of A RELIGIOUS TOMB RAIDING EXPERIENCE. You’ll see.

Every once in a while in a game you get a moment where you really understand the feeling that the developers have been trying the whole game to put across to you; Any decent game will communicate the developer’s intentions to a certain extent, but great games often have one or more moments that crystallize the essence of the game.

For lack of a better term, I tend to call these video-game religious experiences, but while I originally was using the term jokingly, it’s not really as silly as it sounds. The traditional idea of a religious experience is a powerful, beautiful message from a God, or creator received by a normal person, a denizen of the world: A video game religious experience is a powerful, beautiful message from a creator, the creator of the game (and humans are at their most divine when they create their own worlds) to a normal person– a denizen of their fictional domain.

 I start this level off the right way: Killing a bear. Lara 2, Bears 0. I’m an agnostic with no religious agenda, so if any of this is making you uncomfortable, don’t be: My point here is more about the potential for the creator of a game to move you, not about religion. If you don’t want to consider the religious parallel, just think of it as a moving experience.

Some examples of this phenomenon that I’ve found: In Final Fantasy X, when you’re on the road to Zanarkand after Tidus has finished telling his story (and you’re finally in the present), and everyone bands together to protect Yuna one last time, because the time is coming when they know they’ll never be able to protect her again; they don’t want to go forward, they want to stay on that journey forever, but they keep pushing forward, towards the dead world of Zanarkand, while the beautiful version of the main theme– Someday the Dream will End— plays in the background, fading slowly to the battle hymn of Zanarkand while the sky darkens and fills with pyreflies, the souls of the dead. In the original Metal Gear Solid, at the very end Naomi makes peace with Snake, and herself, as the sterile environment of the Shadow Moses nuclear facility is traded for beautiful footage of the Alaskan countryside– Snake is a creature of technology and war, like Shadow Moses, but when we see the snowy mountains and the wolves, we feel happy for him, because we know he’s going home. Even if just for a little while, he can have peace. And in Tomb Raider, there’s the suspended pathway in City of Vilcabamba.

The exterior of the temple. I've always assumed it was a temple, although there's no sign that says "Temple of Blah-Blah-Blah", so I could be wrong. Maybe it's a bathhouse with delusions of grandeur.

I mentioned in the Caves write-up that music is used very sparingly in Tomb Raider, and scenes like this are the big payoff for that creative choice. Toward the end of the level, as Lara ascends a tower of broken platforms in what was once a beautiful temple, we hear Lara’s theme for the first time in the game. It plays in the menu, but it’s in this instance that we really pay attention to it. It’s a surprisingly sad, mellow song– the opposite of what you’d expect if your only exposure to Lara was through the movies, or even the more recent games. It’s a song that makes you think of lost beauty, and quiet reflection, and more than anything, being alone. It’s the sound of patience, and persistence: it’s the siren’s song of a puzzle you need to solve. If you have a copy of PS1 TR, you can put the disc into your computer and listen to it like a soundtrack, and see what I mean.

Where the magic happens.

If Lara were in a lot of danger, with the kind of locked-door traps and spiked pits and stuff that start to pop up with increasing frequency later, Lara’s theme would seem out of place –it’s not a song of peril. But in this puzzle, there’s a safety net: the broken platforms are suspended, on both towers, over a pool of water. Even if Lara falls from on high, the water catches her harmlessly. Lara has to struggle to get to the top, but the tomb doesn’t really want her to fall. In one sense, she’s an invader– she’s “raiding” the premises– but this obstacle was not put in place to kill her. This was a city that was once alive, and though it’s been devastated by war, or famine, or disease, and it can never go back to that time when it was teeming with life, it can save this one lonely visitor, just this once. It will never let Lara in without making her work for it, but as long as she puts forth the effort, she’s allowed.

In this game, Lara and the tomb are always opposed to one another, as rivals, but never enemies: It’s not a battle, but a dialogue with the past, between this one mysterious woman and an even more mysterious place. In short, no matter how hard she fights, Lara is never trying to conquer the tomb; she’s trying to prove her worth. She’s trying to prove that she’s strong enough to be allowed inside. It’s not a battle, it’s courtship. Yes, there is a sexual reading there if you go in for that sort of thing, but honestly, that’s not what it’s really about.

And all of this is put across in about five seconds of gameplay: Lara ascends, the music plays, Lara falls, the water catches Lara and immediately, tirelessly, she begins to ascend again. Sometimes people say that Tomb Raider has a feminist message because Lara is a tough chick who carries guns, and I think that’s pretty much nonsense: if there is a hidden social message in TR, it’s a humanist one. Lara is the one we admire, as opposed to Larson or Pierre, not because she’s female, but because she’s the one who strives to understand. She’s the one who’s learned to read the hieroglyphics, she’s the one who won’t tolerate ruins being littered. If you come with arrogance and violence, you truly are a “raider”; Lara is a raider in name only. She’s not entirely there of her own free will: She can never resist exploring, because if she doesn’t, she may never find the source of that voice that’s singing her name.

Completely aside from all of this, this part of the game has a personal resonance to me. When I was young, and TR was the first game I ever played in it’s entirety– I’d played Mario at friends’ houses, but this was the first game I ever played at home, on my own console–I spent a long time on this level. I was still clumsy with the controller, I fell into the water a lot, and I got very frustrated. But I kept at it, because games were still exciting to me, every game was like new uncharted territory in a wonderful fantasyland, and I couldn’t wait to see the next level. Now when I play, I know the level like the back of my hand and I don’t fall at all, but I don’t feel that excitement anymore, because I know what’s ahead, and no game will ever excite me in the same way. I don’t fall in the water and I complete the level, but I can never go back to that time.

This entry is probably too close to literary analysis for a lot of people, and if you’ve been completely soured on the whole subject by pompous, overblown academic writing, I can’t really blame you. I’m attempting to describe what that tiny lump in my throat is when I play this part of the level. I don’t think about any of this consciously while I play, but this is what happens when I try to articulate that feeling. I pass this part of the level, I collect my thoughts, I pull a few switches, and I celebrate the beauty of discovery, the unknown. I plunder the last of the secret rooms, and I take a final swim. On some level, I mourn the loss of my childhood.

And then there’s another fucking bear.

He thinks he's so tough. Watch this, I've got the drop on this bastard.

BWAH HAHAH! Lara 3, Bears 0.

Best:

Need I say it? The suspended pathway in the temple. Additionally, the fact that there’s a whole underwater labyrinth that’s completely optional to the main course of the level is pretty awesome. I like levels that give you places to explore that are off the beaten path.

Worst: FUCKING BEARS.

Rating: 5 Uzi Clips out of 5: Still simple compared to the later levels, but it’s a beautiful simplicity.

Next Level: The Lost Valley: In which instead of a religious experience we have a MADE OF AWESOME experience. Totally not a spoiler: Next one is also a 5 uzi-clipper.

Tomb Raider, Level 1: Caves

If I were to go into great depth about every individual level, this TR project would be about 50,000 pages, so I’m going to give most levels a cursory inspection and only spend time on the ones that strike me as something special. I will also give all levels a rating out of five (medipacks? Uzi clips?), and do a best/worst section. In the event that I have nothing much to say about a level, I’ll just do the rating and the best/worst. Also, I’m not including the bonus levels that were added in the later PC versions because I have the PS originals. If I can find a version of TR Gold that works on my computer, I’ll play the bonus levels.

The journey of a ridiculous amount of videogames begins with a single step...

Caves doesn’t appear to have much going for it; graphically it’s the blandest level ever. Since it’s the first level, there isn’t much difficulty, and Lara is still on the outskirts of the ancient city, so there’s a lot of stone and grass and only small touches of Incan artwork. However, what it does do marvelously well is establish a mood that will persist throughout the entire game. Lara is alone, in a cave, exploring areas that haven’t been seen by human eyes in decades, if not longer. The architecture, what’s left of it, is grown over, if still majestic at times. Except for occasional whispers of sound, it is silent. Lara is a breath of life in a dead world. Even the presence of animal life doesn’t add any warmth; starvation has driven the wolves hostile. Anything that survives here, does so just barely.

Lara's Home is a little mini level where Lara teaches you her moveset. We also learn how marvelously British and patrician she is. Most people do not have a "Music Room" with a baby grand piano. Also, I never noticed this until taking screens for this blog, but I think the paintings on the wall are very pixelated versions of famous paintings. The one in this picture looks like a Jacques Louis-David to me.

They also introduce all of the most significant exploration features: Lara turns her head to look at a significant area (from the very beginning she always mysteriously knows things that you do not), music is rare and only appears when something important is about to happen and you need to step up your game, and if you’re thorough, you can hear that deeply satisfying “ta-dah!” sound that heralds a secret multiple times.

BEARS! I didn't have to go out of my way to kill this guy, but I did out of a sense of duty. I watch the Colbert Report.

We also get the first Bear of the game, who functions as a kind of hidden mini-boss (it’s not necessary to kill him, but you get access to another medipack if you do), showing that Tomb Raider was taking the fight to the bears ten years before Stephen Colbert made it cool. Should you make the mistake of fighting the bear up close and personal instead of plinking away at it from a safe perch, you will learn very swiftly that the only good bear in Tomb Raider is a dead bear. The same applies to T-Rexes, but that’s later.

In this area some wolves rush at you and you hear the rousing action music for the first time. It's pretty surprising the first time you play because the dead world of Caves has lulled you into a false sense of security by this point. Unfortunately, the wolves are not in this pic because I got impatient and killed them before I could take a screen. Whoops. It was beautiful, I swear.

Best: Backflipping up the marble stairs away from the wolves while the TR action theme plays. Still exhilarating after all these years.

Worst: The timed switch puzzle. In some respects it’s good because it forces you to get a little tighter with the controls if you’ve just been winging it up to now, but the controls in TR aren’t well suited for this sort of puzzle. Fortunately the grand majority of the puzzles in the game are not timed.

This little secret room tucked into the first level is a good example of the secrets in the game-- the items you got were unimportant, it was finding a hidden realm within a hidden realm that was satisfying. Also, you can see some of the Incan style on the giant idol.

Overall Ranking: 2 Uzi Clips out of 5. It’s simple, but it has to score higher than 1 because a)It’s good enough to lure you into playing the rest of the game b) the simplicity is intentional and c)the occasional musical cues add a lot of atmosphere.

The times on these may end up being off from what you would expect, since it can take me a while to set up screenshots and whatnot.

Playing Tomb Raider from the Beginning: MADNESS

A quick take on Lara Croft in MS Paint; I find doodling in paint to be surprisingly fun. She looks kind of worried that raptors are about to sneak up on her, though.

When I first started playing Tomb Raider in high school, I was briefly obsessed with the game and commented to a classmate that I would love to be a professional tomb raider when I grew up. It seemed so perfect: I had long brown hair, I was kind of a stuck-up bitch, I liked nature hikes and firearms and shiny things, so I was halfway to being Lara already.

Then this dude reminded me that another term for tomb raiding is grave robbing, and that kind of took all the fun out of that idea. It’s kind of like how Pirates of the Caribbean (or any of the dozens of Japanese RPGs that romanticize pirating), can get you really psyched up about the idea of being a pirate, until you remember that regardless of whether or not they’re charming rogues, pirates are thieves. And additionally, they might even rape and pillage. It’s not a pretty picture.

Suffice to say, tomb raiding is one of those pursuits best left exclusively to video games. One of my ideas for game blogging was to play through all of the TR games, in order, and write about them like some sort of adventure game anthropologist. Keep in mind that while this entry marks the beginning of that project, I fully expect to die somewhere in the middle of The Last Revelation— if I’m lucky.

There are several possible interpretations of that statement, all of them macabre.

I'm breaking up this post with some of the TR art I've done over the years, otherwise it would be a pretty unforgivable WOT; you're welcome.

Before delving into the original Tomb Raider as a game, I want to address the subject of Ms. Croft herself. She’s been so incredibly over-exposed as a character that it may seem like there’s nothing left to say about her, but it’s important to note that Lara as she appears in classic Tomb Raider is essentially a different character from the incarnation in the later games and the movies.

Original Lara was a woman of few words, classy as she was concise, and only carried weapons because large jungle cats tended to try to kill her if she wasn’t careful. She was primarily an archeologist and a writer with a passion for exploring, and if she was also an action hero, she performed that role as a means to an end. Basically, original Lara was far more likeable and alluring because you were given very little information about her, she handled herself very capably, and the game really wasn’t trying to hit you over the head with how awesome she was.

I don't think that's really how one should handle firearms, but I drew it, so I guess I can't really complain.

After the huge success of the first TR, from the sequel onwards Lara evolved into one of those obnoxiously self-aware movie badasses, who possesses a huge wardrobe of sexy adventuring gear and doesn’t need much provocation to shoot someone in the head. I wouldn’t dismiss the later games and movies, since there’s a lot more to TR than just Lara, but I think you have to have a sense of this evolution of her portrayal in order to understand my tremendous affection for the original character of Lara– When I say Lara, unless you played this game when it came out, chances are you are not associating the same character with the name.

I drew this when I was going through this odd phase as a teen of putting as much detail as humanly possible into my drawings- that's a lot of rocks back there. Why did I draw so many Laras? I honestly have no idea.

Another thing to keep in mind about her is her age; It’s very telling that Lara was conceived of as a character who was around 30 years of age, if not older. By any reasonable standard that’s still pretty young, but when you sit back and think about it, it’s astonishing how rare that is in video games. The last thing I ever want to do is go on some sort of indignant feminist rant (seriously, if I ever start doing that, just shoot me. Like an injured race horse), BUT, the fact remains that women tend to stop appearing in games after they hit the ripe old age of 18, or early 20s at the latest. It’s getting a bit better now- in Metal Gear Solid 4 for example, both Meryl and Naomi are supposed to be post-30 and still babes, if professional ones–but in 1995, usually the only females above a certain age were the apron-adorned mothers who stayed in the house in Japanese RPGs, and sometimes doled out fruit and/or free healing.

This is actually one of the oldest drawings I have scanned into my computer- I think it's circa '97 or so. I kind of miss the heavily Image Comics-inspired style I had at that time. It was ridiculous, but it was so much fun.

In the case of Lara, the developers were forced to make her a little older because the character type they were going for was so experienced and erudite that making her too young would have rang false. That presumed experience and intelligence is very appealing in a character, at least if you’re like me and are tired of playing as either plucky ten year old boys, or virile special forces types who wouldn’t know a book if it bit them on their well-muscled gluteus maximus.

Like Final Fantasy VII, Tomb Raider is a game that you can’t really give it’s proper due without taking into account the zeitgeist of the time. Many of the features that were so innovative at the time have become bread-and-butter features in games with any sort of adventure component, and the things that made us miss sleep to play it in the mid-90s are hard to even imagine now. I remember being motivated to beat the next set of levels as soon as a I could so I could see the next FMV of Lara in action, because you only got one cinematic for hours upon hours of gameplay, and as a result, every single one was critically important to the plot.

Today, the overabundance of video game cinematics has become such an epidemic that we rate scenes on a kind of Kafkaesque “Sandwich scale”, or how many sandwiches you could make and consume while the characters on your screen preen and emote like first-year drama majors and generally refuse to SHUT THE HELL UP.

The sparse use of music in TR caused you to have strong emotional connections to individual music cues, whereas now games have full Hans Zimmer scores and hearing a full orchestral track in the background of the most mundane parts of a game is completely normal. The graphics had just reached the level where you could believe you were in an immersive world if you engaged your imagination and pretended that ammunition totally would be at the bottom of a pristine mountain lake and the whole world is made up of squares– nowadays, if you have to use your imagination at all in most games, the graphics have failed. The world of TR was like an impressionist painting, the graphics we see now are a hyper-real simulation. It’s a very different aesthetic.

At the time, TR opened the door for the future of gaming, while thematically being based on nostalgia for the past. You were using the newest technology of the time to explore the ruins of human civilization, and there was a certain reverence there for the past that was moving in a way that I’ve never encountered in another game. The TR franchise, and others as well, have explored environments drawn from lost cultures since, but never with the same perfect meeting of the future and the past. Current game environments tell us with authority what they think the past was like; the blocky, pointellistic environments of Tomb Raider were not a statement, but a suggestion: Wouldn’t it be nice if it had been like this?

Note: This, and the first three level entries, were originally posted on my Destructoid blog, Gaming Goddess. Since I lost a few of my posts the last time they updated their site, I decided I should move it here for posterity. Yes, I do intend to continue blogging TR, I was just busy for a while….