Having recently acquired a copy of Tomb Raider (the 1996 one), and with all those 3D accelerators gathering dust in my cupboard, I had this idea flash in my mind: why not try and see how the game looks with different cards?
Tomb Raider was one of those mid-90s games which required a different executable for each card it needed to run on. Sounds like a pain, but I guess people back then didn’t really have a choice. Oh, of course, most people could just run the game in software mode, but that wasn’t very good. You needed a very strong CPU to run in high resolution (such CPUs usually weren’t even available yet), while the low resolution mode looked straight out of the Saturn, except without the higher quality cutscenes.
Of course all that changed when the 3D patches were released. But which was the best one? We’ll have to see, though many could take an educated guess and give it to the Voodoo. But who knows. These tests are run on a P3-450mhz with 64MB RAM, Soundblaster 16, and Windows 95. Unfortunately, I can’t take screenshots of DOS games, so you’ll have to bear with some crappy camera photos. I’ve tried to take detailed shots whenever needed.
So we start with one of Matrox’s most famous cards. Shut up, it was just misunderstood, okay? This is the Matrox Mystique MGA 170, which usually came with 2MB of video memory. Tomb Raider will default to 512×384 on such versions. My own card has 4MB, so I get to play at 640×480. Envy me.
Not too horrible. The Mystique didn’t support bilinear filtering, as you can probably see from the floor in the first screenshots, but there is proper polygon perspective correction. The framerate is not very good though, acceptable but not quite there.
Some details. The cages in the first one show the limits of nearest neighboring on textures, while the second one makes the dithered shadow very noticeable. The Matrox was famous for its lack of alpha blending, so this was the best they could do with alpha stippling, short of a simple black circle. It’s already quite enough that they put shadows at all, as we’ll see later. For now let’s move on to something else.
The infamous Virge. No, this one wasn’t misunderstood, it was just bad. This particular model is a S3 Virge/DX with 2MB of video memory. A very standard graphics decelerator. Let’s see how it compares.
Welcome to the world of S3. Now, it looks okay, but that’s all it does. Because you won’t really notice that when the game is running under 10fps. On the plus side, it has everything, from bilinear filtering to perspective correction to even high resolution. But the bilinear filtering doesn’t seem to have an appreciable impact on performance (amazingly), so you are stuck with terrible framerates. There is also some strange graphical artefact, and notice the lack of shadow under Lara’s feet. Following, some more images to show how to try and fix the situation.
The best way to get some more frames out of the old Virge is, as you may have guessed, to lower the resolution. You could also try disabling bilinear filtering or perspective correction, but for some reason they don’t have that much of an impact. Now, as for resolution, the game gives you a choice of 640×480 (ahahah), 512×384, and 320×200.
Well, anyone could have expected the Virge to be the worst version. It actually is quite full of features, but with that kind of speed, nobody will want to play this. Not even Turok 2 fans. Maybe we should get something else.
Quite interesting to know that Tomb Raider even had an Ati version. Ati had its own API back then, the CIF, which very few games used. In this particular case, Tomb Raider actually becomes a native Windows application when you apply the Ati patch. And you get to use a separate executable, which is handier than renaming Tomb.exe all the time.
Bilinear filtering, perspective correction, resolution choice up to 800×600, and even a framerate counter. Very impressive despite the lack of shadows. The framerate itself is not so impressive though. 10fps? 13fps? Better than the Virge, but just barely, and considering the card is more recent, quite a poor showing. Of course you can still lower the resolution to get better results. These are my countings, showing the heaviest area (the one with the cages) and one of the lightest areas (the starting room).
800×600: 9-15 fps
640×480: 14-19 fps
512×384: 19-25 fps
320×200: 30 fps
At 320×200 it’s pretty much locked at 30 fps, but so was the Virge. Then again, it’s worth noting that, unlike the Virge, disabling texture filtering will have a strongeffect on the framerate: give or take, you can add 5 more fps to all those results (still, the game will never go above 30 fps). The card seems especially slow with filtering, an effect I had also noticed while testing Forsaken. So if you don’t mind playing with poorer filtering, the Rage IIc will give you a very smooth 512×384 pretty much all the time.
But the Rage II was quite poor. Surely the CIF supported better cards. Well, not that many actually, and I don’t quite have a 3D Rage Pro yet… but the LT Pro was at least a decent substitute. This card once again has 8MB and AGP, but it’s a lot faster than the IIc.
Compared to the IIc, it was a bit harder to make the game run at all. I had to revert to an older set of drivers. Once started though, we have some great results. The game is running at 800×600 with all the effects on, and it holds 30fps most of the times, with drops down to 25fps in the cages area. That’s still extremely playable, but if you want that extra smoothness, you can revert to 640×480, or just disable bilinear filtering.
Most people are probably familiar with the 3dfx edition, but let’s talk about it anyway. This board in particular is a Voodoo 3, so not quite something from the company’s peak days. It’s still a very fast card, and I use it regularly in my Win95 PC due to its Glide support for many old titles. Of course, Tomb Raider is one such game, so let’s take a look.
The only graphics choice in the game is between mipmapping and no mipmapping, which the other cards don’t offer. But unlike on the other cards, you can’t choose to disable perspective correction and filtering. Considering the game is running at 30fps literally all the time, this is hardly a problem. It’s a little weird to notice that Lara doesn’t have a shadow though. This might be an issue with the Voodoo 3 in particular, as the game itself was made to run on the first Voodoo board, and there are other games which show issues with newer cards.
So there we are. For my money, I’m actually surprised to say that the best version is the Ati one: assuming you have a supported card (as there’s probably no wrapper for CIF) and a decent CPU, it gives you the best features of the four, and the highest resolution. I have read that the PowerVR version is even better, but unfortunately I don’t have the means to try it. Maybe one day.
To finish, three actual screenshots. The software and 3dfx ones are taken from the GOG version of the game, while the Ati one was screencapped from my old PC (since the Windows executable allows you to print the screen, unlike all the other DOS-based versions). Click on the screens for their native resolution.