Retro Review: Lode Runner stands the test of time0 Comments
To find a video game level editor that is as fun and exciting as Super Mario Maker, one must look back. In fact, to find one you have to look back even further than the release of the original Super Mario Bros. Your destination is 1983, and the game is called Lode Runner.
Created by the late Doug Smith and published by famed software company Br0derbund, Lode Runner was a huge hit on early home computers such as the Apple ][ and Commodore 64. In the game, you are a stick figure in a structure with various floors and ladders, including ladders you can climb across (according to the box art). Your mission is to collect all the treasure chests spread across the level while avoiding enemy guards that really don't want you to do that.
You are armed only with a ray gun that can blast temporary holes in the brick floors. This is not only required to dig up and reach various buried treasures, but it also serves as the only way you can stop the guards. When a guard falls into a hole, you can safely run over their heads to continue your quest. Time it right and the hole will close up on them, killing the guard and providing additional points. Don't relax, though, as after death the guards will simply regenerate in a random spot at the top of the screen and go right back to pursuing you.
Gather all the treasures and an escape ladder appears. Climb it to receive bonus points and a trip another level. All told, you have 150 different levels to complete, an insane number for any video game ever made.
Lode Runner might look basic, but it managed to combine puzzle and platform elements in a most perfect fashion. You have to think ahead to not only successfully gather each treasure and escape, but all along the way you have to react and manipulate the guards. Since killed guards regenerate in random locations across the top of the screen, simply running a pattern isn't always possible. Timing is key at all times, making what looks like little more than a bunch of running stick figures into a tense and fun game that tests both your mind and reaction time.
But if the game itself was fried chicken, the level editor mode has to be the waffles. As the story has it, Doug Smith found himself overwhelmed after he promised Br0derbund 150 Lode Runner levels, so he recruited neighborhood children to help him meet his quota. To make the process quick, he put together an edit mode that allowed for construction of new levels with a simple placement of icons representing the different elements of the game.
Thankfully, Smith left this level editor in the game. Doing so made a very good game into a thing of legend. No programming experience was needed for users to create their own Lode Runner stages, taking the number of challenges within the game from 150 stages to a literally endless number of combinations. Personally, this feature is responsible for Lode Runner remaining in my regular gameplay rotation through 1992. Even as I was hooked on the red hot titles for the Nintendo Entertainment System and Super NES, I would still fire up my old Commodore 64 to explore some Lode Runner concepts and refine them.
Speaking of the Nintendo era, Lode Runner proved so popular that it was ported to the NES and video arcade. While these versions greatly improve the graphics and sound, and even add in some extra elements to add to the challenge, these ports prove inferior to the original personal computer versions. By comparison, the level editor in the NES version is a joke, as are the odd additions of smiling bonus vegetables and seemingly eternal post-level cut scenes. The price for the improved visual and audio, the cost to the Nintendo version appears to be 100 levels. Only 50 were included.
Continued sequels and reboots over the past several generations haven't helped Lode Runner's legacy. While some of them are quite fun, no version of the game has ever managed to capture the same perfect balance that made the original 1983 computer version so great. To truly understand, one must play the original. The Apple and Commodore 64 versions are the most polished and balanced. Some versions, such as the Commodore VIC-20 and ZX Sinclair ports lose a little charm due to various technical reasons, mostly impacting the guard movements and timing. The Atari computer versions also play very well.
From the cerebral challenges to the wonderful ability to reinvent the world within, Lode Runner has stood the test of time. So groundbreaking was the edit mode in the original that it has just now been matched by Super Mario Maker some 32 years later. So perfect was the balance of puzzle and platform that even technically superior ports and sequels have never managed to capture the lightning-in-a-bottle balance that Doug Smith did in 1983.
Video game collectors with old home computers should give Lode Runner a try if they have never done so. If you are among those who knew the original, set aside a little time to fire up the old bird once again. You'll likely find yourself as drawn into it as you did back in the day.