It must have been around 1996 or 1997 when I got the demo for the original Tomb Raider, on a compact disc that held a trove of delights. I was only seven years old at the time, so my English wasn’t good - I immigrated to the UK when I was five years old - but I could play video games no problem. My first console had been the SNES but at some point I received a PlayStation with its impressive 3D worlds. Tomb Raider was one of the first such environments I ever played in.

I say Tomb Raider, but it was actually the Tomb Raider demo. I can’t remember how I got a hold of it, but it was a disc wrapped in a square envelope with a plastic see-through circle on the front. Maybe one of my friends gifted it to me. I was young and the PlayStation was still fairly new so I didn’t actually know what a demo disc was. I didn’t understand the concept of a ‘demo’.

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I thought it was a disc that you put in the PS1 and it loaded up a bunch of different games. That’s what I thought it was. And one of these short, excellent games involved piloting a woman who wore a blue tank top and brown shorts around sunny tombs, filled with incredible light.

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It was a marvel to control this woman in three-dimensional space, moving and strafing around the floor. There were pools you could dive into to swim to adjacent tombs. The blue water, the swimming animation, the moss that grew around the stone floors looked amazing, at least for the era. But it was the light that impressed me most. The tomb in the demo seemed filled with it.

A screenshot from the original Tomb Raider

Lara Croft herself seemed weighty, like she had a body. It was not like Mario’s thumb-tack bomb of a body, but one that had curves and edges and a sense of gravity that meant controlling her was a challenge in itself. A game within a game. Just moving around seemed enough, as if the fun was just this sense of discovery. Exploring these 3D tombs hooked me, and I was absorbed trying to get around, looking for new things such as animals. Were there dinosaurs?

In those days, demos were almost like full-fledged games. Few of us, especially as children, were able to get many games at once. They came around for birthdays or for Christmas, so it was often just one or two games a year - maybe three if you saved pocket money. A game was a heavy investment. But demo discs, which came with magazines, were coveted almost as much. We collected them and passed them around. The kids on my street swapped them as if trading in hallowed goods.

“Oh you have the demo for Metal Gear Solid? I’ll trade you for a Gran Turismo demo,” might have been said, on a street corner, under a lamp post. (There was no way that the kid who owned the MGS demo would’ve traded…)

I amassed a collection. The early demos were in envelopes, but later ones had their own CD cases. I remember the demo for Pandemonium was great and I enjoyed it while it lasted. It was full of zany levels and kinetic action. The Croc demo offered a breathtaking world that was colourful, with a verticality that blew my little mind. But it was also infuriating since the enemies respawned. ‘What is the point of enemies that never die?’ I thought at the time.

Kids grow up fast and soon I was beating people up in Tekken and driving over Hare Krishnas in Grand Theft Auto. But that first demo I played - moving Lara Croft around those tombs of stone, shadow, and blue water - has stayed with me. In 2021, there are no more demo discs. No more piles of little games you can collect and dive into, as if you have your own arcade. They were keepsakes, a physical collection that tethered you to games in a way that thumbnails on a screen cannot.

I don’t think I ever got the actual Tomb Raider game, the full-fat version. It would’ve been too hard for me anyway. But in some ways, 3D gaming has never been as pure and as fun as navigating those light-filled tombs, an experience that demonstrated the power of a small yet perfectly formed world.

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