Eleven years and seven video games later, fabled archeologist Lara Croft is still hiking the world's roughest terrain in search of something.
"Tomb Raider: Anniversary" lands in stores this week, with the gymnastic British countess braving bears, wolves and scraped knees to find an artifact known only as Scion. Eidos, publishers of the Lara Croft series that debuted in 1996 to huge sales, is also seeking something: to keep alive the franchise that actor Angelina Jolie took to the big screen in two movies ("Lara Croft Tomb Raider" in 2001 and "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life" in 2003) that together grossed about $300 million.
"Tomb Raider: Anniversary" is a remake of the original game, with brighter images, smoother animation and a mystery plot point in the form of a T. Rex. It arrives only a few months after last fall's "Tomb Raider: Legend."
The character has remained relevant by getting her own MySpace page (myspace.com/laracrofttombraider) and Wikipedia entry. It's interesting how far a tight top and short shorts can carry a female character in the male-dominated world of action video games.
"That was the gimmick for this game," says Carrie Hetter, professor of serious game design at Michigan State University. "It's a way to have gamers say, 'Here's an action-adventure game. How funny, how fun.' And it worked. She's still around."
"The game's story was pretty standard 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' adventure business," said Gamespot.com associate editor Ryan Davis in an e-mail, "but putting Lara in the no-nonsense Indiana-Jones-type role is part of what made it stand out. Up to that point it was quite rare to see a female protagonist in a game at all, let alone one that was presented as so smart, capable, and self-sufficient."
But it's not the game's fun mechanics or Lara's sardonic wit that gamers remember, says Hetter: "You think of Lara Croft, and you think of body parts."
Female lead characters have come and gone since Lara Croft burst onto the scene, notably the government-conspiracy-busting photographer Jade in Ubisoft's clever 2003 adventure "Beyond Good and Evil." More recently, "Bratz" and "Cooking Mama" have made it to store shelves. Shopping and baking may be fun, but not as exciting as bodysurfing down a South American waterfall while hunting ancient artifacts.
"Strong female leads in video games have never been in vast supply," Davis said, "but they're hardly gone. 'Heavenly Sword' is one of Sony's most promising upcoming games for the PlayStation 3, where you play as a determined young woman on a revenge mission.
"There will always be bad also-rans, because video game publishers don't like taking chances, which is also why you'll always see lots of sequels, and lots of games licensed from established (characters) in other media.
"So, if you see a shortage of strong female leads in video games, there's probably that same shortage in film and TV as well."