I’ve played videogames since getting a Game Boy for Christmas in 1990. I grew up playing Tetris and Super Mario Land on my treasured gray brick, trying to beat Shinobi III on my neighbor’s Genesis, and pouring all the quarters my dad would give me into the local arcade’s Golden Axe cabinet.
But my first true videogame love came in 1997, when my family went to California to visit my older brother.
My brother was (and is) the coolest. At the time, he was living near San Diego with his wife and baby daughter. He’s a big nerd like me, and while we were visiting he let me play his PlayStation to my heart’s content.
The main game I remember playing was the original Tomb Raider, and it blew my ten-year-old mind (he had Darkstalkers too, but it was too hard to enjoy). Tomb Raider was the first game I had ever played that didn’t feel like a videogame. It wasn’t 2D (or even pseudo-3D like Donkey Kong Country); it wasn’t garishly bright and colorful like Super Mario World; the game moved, looked, and sounded like nothing I had ever played before.
I fell in love instantly, and have remained so ever since.
This is not a Tomb Raider apologia. The game suffers all the problems common to mid-1990s releases (bad controls and poorly-aging graphics being the main offenders). I don’t want to write about the game itself; I want to talk about Nathan McCree’s excellent soundtrack. Tomb Raider’s greatest strength was the game’s ability to create a distinct mood and feeling, something top-shelf games still struggle to create today. That is primarily due to its stellar sound design and soundtrack.
Tomb Raider sounds unusual right from the start menu. The main theme begins with a lonely, elegant oboe solo that leads into swelling strings and an enchanting, dancing melody played on plucked harp. This is music that creates an atmosphere of mystery and enchantment, and its understated beauty leaves you wanting more.
The game is full of motifs and cues that are generally short, and it makes you earn these musical treats. They’re triggered at specific times by various in-game events like discovering a secret, a sudden animal attack, or a dramatic vista.
Otherwise, Tomb Raider is a quiet game—you hear Lara’s footsteps and breathing as she trots through snowy caves, the stifling silence of deadly, long-untouched tombs, perhaps the far-off rumble of a huge waterfall or the quiet flutter of bats’ wings, and not much more. When you finally hear the next piece of music, it feels like a much-deserved reward.
Each piece is haunting, gorgeous, and heightens the excitement and wonder of exploring Vilcabamba, St. Francis’ Folly, the Tomb of Tihocan, or any of the other mystery-filled locales of Tomb Raider (if you’re wondering, I did not need to look up these names—I’m just that much of a TR nerd).
Take, for example, the piece “Longing For Home.” To me, this piece goes a long way toward fleshing out a character that might otherwise be described as “Indiana Jones-but-a-hot-girl.”
The piece feels like a cross between the icy, cool toughness of the James Bond theme and the sensuous, tender “Marion’s Theme” from John Williams’ Raiders of the Lost Ark score. Solving the lethal puzzles and traps of Palace Midas or the City of Khamoon gives you the same feeling a sense of accomplishment, the feeling you can handle anything the game throws at you, that “Longing For Home” creates.
The whole soundtrack is full of masterful moments like this, from “Where the Depths Unfold” to “A Long Way Down” or “A Friend Since Gone.” To make this incredible soundtrack even more amazing, all of it was recorded using synthesizers. All of it—that sinuous oboe, the poignant male choir, those lush strings—was done with a keyboard.
Tomb Raider’s soundtrack has continued to receive love since its release over 20 years ago. A Kickstarter campaign dedicated to “The original Tomb Raider music by Nathan McCree, extended and re-recorded with a live orchestra at Abbey Road Studios, London” started in 2016. It’s been hugely successful, and the Tomb Raider Suite is schedule to release in November 2017.
The Tomb Raider soundtrack deserves all of the praise and attention it receives. I’ll even leave you with a bonus track—“Venice” from Tomb Raider 2 (also composed by the incredible McCree). Now, go dig up this incredible game, immerse yourself in its classic soundtrack, and thank me later.