Review: Lode Runner

Review: Lode Runner

Format: 360
Release: Out now
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Tozai Games

That Lode Runner’s designer, Douglas E. Smith, was studying architecture during its creation is clear. This is a game built from spades and ladders, bricks and boulders, its puzzles planned with the stark, irrefutable logic of technical drawings. It’s this robustness in the game’s design blueprint that ensures it presents a framework still ripe with potential 26 years on, a boast that few other games of similar age could make.

Tozai Games, the team responsible for the recent XBLA update R-Type Dimensions, has approached Lode Runner with palpable relish and no small amount of ingenuity, building upon its foundations with some new and worthwhile additions. Nevertheless, the central ruleset remains elegant in its simplicity: collect all of the pieces of gold scattered throughout a multi-tiered level to unlock the door and the next level.

The challenge comes from the removal of that apparently essential tool in the platform game protagonist’s arsenal: the jump. While the lead character can survive a fall of any distance, the only way to scale an area is by climbing ladders and shimmying along overhead ropes. This allows the level design to shepherd players around a logic trail composed of gold deposits strategically placed to demand thoughtfulness at every turn.

It’s also possible to dig into the ground (now using a blaster rather than a spade) but only in those spaces to either side of your character’s position, never directly downwards. As such, when digging through multiple layers of rock, you must always dig as wide as you do deep, lest you trap yourself in an inescapable hole. To add urgency to all of these considerations, hostile robots patrolling each level will make a relentless beeline for your character, killing on touch.
Dubbed Journey, the core campaign presents a huge number of interconnected levels that skillfully balance the cerebral challenge of navigation with the reactive challenge of doing so at enemy-dodging speed. Tozai then extrapolates this core mode into two additional game types. Puzzle Mode presents fifty challenges that require a specific chain of inputs to collect all of the gold and make it to the exit without getting stuck. Without enemies, the pressure comes from the clock, which measures your speed of execution (although, of course, once you’ve arrived at a solution it’s a case of repeating the set of steps at speed for a top place on the leaderboard). In contrast, Hang On mode presents a level indiscriminately filled with gold, which must be collected while an interminable flow of enemies give chase.

As with the original, this new version also features a level editor, although today its inclusion is nothing like the novelty it once was, even if creators benefit from Xbox Live’s ease of sharing. The opportunity to work through a co-op campaign as well as a four-player Last Man Standing bonus game seeks to justify the game’s relatively high cost (1200 MSP), but the blandly uninspiring visuals do little to sell the valuable underlying creativity of the game systems. Nevertheless, the game bears testament to the strength of Smith’s original vision, a puzzle game that avoids prescribed solutions through the tenacity of its enemies.