Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Version 1.0: Lode Runner

I've been playing the April 2009 Lode Runner game on XBox Live Arcade lately, and it inspired me to go back and take a quick look at Doug Smith's original game for the Apple II, published by Broderbund Software in 1983:

It's a classic 1980's game design, with minimal sound and simple graphics -- bricks, ladders, ropes, and animated stick figures.  The rules are straightforward -- pick up all the gold; avoid enemies and/or dig holes to trap them (and force them to cough up any gold they have picked up along the way); escape using the ladder that appears when all the gold has been collected.  The enemy's chasing behavior is simple -- they first try to match the player's vertical level by climbing or falling, then they run towards the player on the horizontal; knowledge of their approach can be cleverly used against them.

Lode Runner was one of the first games to combine action and puzzle elements successfully, and it's still a fantastic game, even in its original form.  The design is elegant and perfectly suited to the 8-bit hardware generation -- by keeping the animated graphics small and the AI simple, there was plenty of horsepower available to run the game smoothly and cleanly.  The many spin-offs and sequels that followed have generally kept the basic formula intact, and for good reason.  In this screenshot, two Bungeling soldiers are closing in, a third is materializing about halfway up the screen, and I have idiotically created a hole immediately to my right, into which I am about to fall and die when it closes up:


I never actually played Lode Runner on the Apple II during its heyday, but it was a solid hit and I remember seeing it on computers at school on occasion.  My first extended time with the game's concept was spent with an ersatz version for the TRS-80 Color Computer, called Gold Runner.  Written by Dave Dies and marketed by Tom Mix Software's Novasoft budget division, it only had 32 levels, compared to the original game's 150, but it was a reasonable facsimile and I had a lot of fun with it.

The game was also a big hit in Japan on the NES and appeared on many consoles there, courtesy of Hudson Soft.  I have played the game on the Wii Virtual Console, in its TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine incarnation as Battle Lode Runner, and on my mobile phone in a less-than-successful port, where the small screen made it too difficult to see what was going on outside the boundaries of the scrolling screen.  Most of the console versions suffer to some degree from the addition of scrolling -- the tiny figures of the original game made it possible to see the entire level at once and plan effectively.  The console versions tend to feature larger, more appealing characters, but it's much easier to run into an enemy in an unexpected location.

Still, the console games are recognizably Lode Runner:

Remaking early games for modern systems can be a challenge -- judging from some recent XBLA releases, it's easy to lose sight of what made them great in the first place.  So I am pleased to tip my hat to Tozai Games' XBLA version, which is nicely rendered in modern 3-D but plays as it should, in 2-D.  There are innovations and enhancements, with more enemy and brick variety than the original could manage.  But none of the changes break the fundamental gameplay, and the puzzle and multiplayer modes are worthy additions.

The controls even work well -- there's no "animation lag" to mess up the tight timing required for many of the puzzle levels, and the imperfect XBox control pad copes acceptably with the four-direction movement.  Best of all, the action fits on one screen, with no scrolling; the camera zooms out for more complex levels, and zooms in to show off the 3-D character models when the size of the layout permits.  None of the layouts are viewed quite as distantly as in the original game -- they are generally more compact, though no less challenging.  And the single player journey plays very much like the classic game -- so much so that I just had to go back and play the original for comparison. 

Verdict?  I still like the original a lot, but I don't think I'm going to attempt to complete all of its 150 levels any time soon -- the XBLA version is providing my Lode Runner fix for the moment.  And if history is any indication, there'll be another one along soon enough.

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