The original Lode Runner is perceptibly one of the most influential, important games out there. In ‘83, the game was released on the Apple II to a crowded market that lead to the near-collapse of the industry as a whole. Lode Runner differentiated itself through its revelatory in-game level editor, one of the first of its kind. The franchise has since gone on to be released on nearly every major gaming platform, with some questionable tweaks to the formula and other “enhancements” made along the way. The Xbox Live Arcade version of Lode Runner, however, reconnects the aging series with its origins, offering up one of the better entries since its formative years.
One of the series’ defining characteristics – or more accurately, omissions – is the lack of a jump button. Instead, navigation’s handled through ladders and using the character’s blaster to make your own path through destructible blocks. The premise is to loot all of each stage’s gold and dash for the exit. What separates Lode Runner from other puzzle games, however, is that your direction is not inhibited; there’s no exact order or solution. You can grab the gold pieces in whatever order you see fit, and as long as you don’t die, there’s room for experimenting.
Well, that’s the thing. As long as you don’t die. You’ll most likely die. Throughout a series of predictably themed levels, you’ll be fending off gold-thieving monsters matching their environments (yetis occupy ice-themed levels, while mechanical enemies reside in underground steampunk areas, and so on). They follow your character wherever he goes and can nab any gold that happens to be lying around in the process. Thankfully, it’s easy to temporarily drop them into traps with your blaster, freeing up any gold they’ve accumulated and filling in the block so you can move right past them. You can also ride around on their heads, although sometimes this doesn’t go according to plan. Each theme provides specific gameplay variations, like lines of snow-covered blocks that can be cleared in a single blast, or bombs that can destroy all of the blocks in a specific area. These changes to the Lode Runner formula, while minimal, help keep the game fresh and provide an updated feel to a game that’s otherwise faithful to the gameplay of the original.
The game’s journey mode, the primary single-player adventure, features a hefty number of increasingly difficult stages which are a cinch in the beginning but become mind-numbingly challenging after you’ve passed through several of the themes. Luckily, Lode Runner’s as forgiving as they come, warping you back to the beginning of a stage after you’ve died or have gotten a game over. Some clever puzzle segments bookend each of the stages, where you’ll be able to collect power orbs, which go towards earning extra lives. There’s also a hold out mode, which is a survival-based gametype where the goal is to collect as much gold as possible before you’re inevitably overwhelmed by the expanding swarm of enemies. This provides a nice faster pace to the gameplay that requires strategy and twitch-like reflexes. Lastly, there’s the puzzle mode which stacks 50 stages against you and reminds you that without the enemies, Lode Runner’s a lot like any other puzzle game. All three modes can also be experienced in multiplayer (either locally or over XBL), in addition to a free-for-all multiplayer-only mode.
Add the level creation tools to the mix, along with the ability to share them over Xbox Live and you’ve got a recipe for a lot of replay value. Unfortunately, at the time of this review, Lode Runner was a ghost town on Xbox Live, leaving us no way to experience the community’s content, or test any other online features. Although we did get a message warning us about the user-generated content potentially being offensive, asking if we were OK with that, so it seems like a safe assumption that a good portion of the levels are phallic-shaped. The level editing tools are relatively easy to use, following in Lode Runner tradition. Laying down blocks is as effortless as it sounds, a surefire way of extending the game’s replay value beyond the 200+ stages already included, if that’s not enough for you.
Southend Interactive and Tozai Games have co-developed what is easily one of the most entertaining Lode Runner games in a long time. Filled with plenty of puzzle variants and replay value, the Xbox Live Arcade release makes good on a classic formula and does a decent job making providing small improvements, without going overboard with any of the features. While sticking to the Lode Runner formula may work to its advantage most of the time, there are moments where the action feels somewhat archaic and like it still belongs in the early-80’s, although more often than not, the game feels fresh. The high level count and opportunity for sharing content’s all well and good but without a community to use these features, they may as well not be there. Nonetheless, if you’re looking for a challenging throwback to a simpler time in game design, you could do far worse than Lode Runner.