Released in 1983 for the Apple II, Atari 8bit and Commodore families as well as the IBM PC, Doug Smith’s Lode Runner was amongst a string of hits from publisher Brøderbund that included Choplifter and Karateka. With shades of arcade, platform and puzzle games all rolled into one, the game provided both plenty of challenge and incredible longevity.
In Lode Runner, the goal for the player is to collect all the gold within the single screen levels whilst evading the guards who are constantly pursuing you and would result in you losing a life on contact.
Ladders, hand bars and trap doors help you navigate around but the main tool at your disposal is the ability to dig holes in stone floors allowing you to drop down or trap guards. Holes dug will refill in a short time and if you or a guard is stuck in one it spells the end. Guards will respawn on death however you have to deal with a life lost.
To make things interesting, guards would collect gold during their pursuit of you and the only way of getting it back (and completing the level) was to get them to fall into a freshly dug hole so that you could snatch it from them. However time is of the essence because if the guard has enough time they will climb out of the hole and continue their chase. In those cases timing of your hole digging can be crucial; too soon and the guard will climb out but too late and the guard is close enough to stop your digging and catch you.
On collecting all of the level’s gold, a ladder heading to the top of the screen will usually appear which will take you to the next challenge. Transitions between levels were quick so you never really had much time to pause which could make a session quite the marathon.
With so much crammed into a single screen it might sound like too much to handle but the game keeps the presentation very concise and for the platforms supporting colour graphics some very clear design choices making it a breeze to identify everything important. Still images I think don’t do it justice either; it’s the sort of game you have to see for yourself. Or better yet, with a joystick in hand.
There were a colossal 150 levels in the game which would normally be more than enough for most gamers but as an added bonus a level editor was included in the package giving everyone a chance to concoct their own Lode Runner levels and share them with friends. Perhaps one of the first true successes in user generated content for games, it even lead to a follow up in Championship Lode Runner that contained the best and hardest of levels created by the community.
My memories of the game come from the Atari 8-bit version which turned out to be a fairly good version thanks to some great choice of colours while also running at a decent speed. I certainly found it a challenge to play while growing up as there was just enough going on in terms of navigating the screen and eluding the enemy AI to keep my brain ticking along. I would never master the game but I did keep trying.
Despite lacking graphical flourishes it was fast and the neat transition effect between starting levels was pretty cool and kept the breaks short which I think did wonders for keeping the pace up. However in other versions of the game such as the NES that break time was extended through additional screens between levels which is something I’m not totally convinced benefits the game. Lode Runner is all about speed of movement and thinking on your feet so making the player wait I think can be a jarring experience.
A direct sequel to the game arrived a year later in the form of Championship Lode Runner which provided 50 of the toughest levels designed by fans. Doug Smith followed that up the year after that with Lode Runner II for the MSX that contained 50 original and new levels. However it was the Japanese market that really embraced the game with numerous titles spun off on platforms ranging from arcade machines to the Nintendo GameBoy.
While quality of the games may have varied, it seems those that succeed most keep the speed of the game close to the original version and avoid making too many changes to the core mechanics. Graphical updates are the most noticeable of changes with larger sprites also giving way to scrolling screens to fit both new and classic level designs in. Despite the differences there is still a clear lineage to the original that seems almost reverential in relation to how great that first game was.
I have always hoped to see a new version of the game take the minimalist styling of games such as N+ and using the advantages of a widescreen HDTV to fill out that single screen level further; I suppose I can still keep my fingers crossed.
Tozai Games (R-Type Dimensions) are the current rights holders to Lode Runner and have released an updated version for the Xbox 360 as well as mobile version of the original game called Lode Runner Classic for Android, iOS and Windows Phone. Sadly Doug Smith passed away in 2014 at the still too young age of 53 and with his passing gaming lost a pioneer in the industry whose work should be remembered for years to come.
Greatest Games is a feature where we highlight our favourite games from the past and try to explain what we think makes them great and worth searching out to play again. If you’ve got your own thoughts on the subject, please feel free to share them in the comments below.