Review - Lode Runner (Windows 3.x, 1994)

Computer games have come a long way in the past 10 years, technologically speaking. SGI-rendered graphics, 3D Studio cut scenes, digitally sampled symphonic soundtracks, and hundreds of megabytes of available storage space combine to give us games that just a few years ago would have been thought impossible. (Back in my early teenage years my friends and I used to wonder if anyone would ever make a home system with the same graphics quality as arcade machines. You've come a long way, baby!)

Still, I'm old enough to remember the early days of home gaming, back when the Atari 2600 was the reigning king of home entertainment and IBM was working on something called the PC Jr. Although comically limited in comparison to the modern Pentium dream machine, these systems managed to bring us some pretty fantastic games, but then again they had to. There are two types of games that sell: good games and pretty games. Back then, games had to be good, because there was just no way to make them pretty. (Have you ever watched someone play Yar's Revenge and thought, "That's so beautiful, man. I could sit and watch that one screen for hours." I didn't think so.) So designers concentrated on making interesting, challenging, unique games. (Even shooters had original ideas. How often do you see that today?)

A good example of this design philosophy was a game released for the Apple computers called Lode Runner. The object of the game was extremely simple: collect all the gold in the level and escape through the exit without being caught by the guards chasing you. If the game had just boiled down to an arcadish run through a maze of beams, ladders, and ropes, it probably would have faded into obscurity and died with the system it was written for. But there was a lot more. Each level of Lode Runner was a puzzle, and many of them were fiendishly clever, forcing you to grab seemingly unattainable gold and manipulate the guards into helping you. It became a wildly popular strategy game, and the included level editor spawned a group of obsessed Lode Runner masters who traded extremely twisted home-made levels back and forth. Now, Lode Runner is considered one of the true classics of computer gaming, and the only thing hindering its popularity is that there's just not that many people out there with Apple II computers anymore.

Then Sierra decided to re-vamp this classic and bring it to the modern PC. (Actually it was a Dynamix project, but the family is all unified under the Sierra banner now.) Usually this spells major amounts of trouble, and I'm sure there were a few corporate advisors saying, "Bad idea. You can never make a sequel as good as the original. I should know; I just came back from City Slickers 2. Don't mess with it, man." But nobody was listening. Conservative common sense was thrown to the wind, and for once the results were positive. Way positive.

Lode Runner: The Legend Returns is Sierra's update to the classic, and it's a winner in every way. The green and black stick figure graphics have been replaced by beautiful 256-color SVGA images which are delightfully animated. The beeps and clicks now emanate from Windows-compatible sound cards, so they finally sound good. Superficial details aside, the puzzles – the meat of the game – are very good. There are 150 levels in Sierra's creation, divided into thematic groups of 15. Each group has its own look, and progresses quite smoothly in difficulty from simple introductory levels to sadistic tests of on-your-feet strategy.

Although the game has been kept very faithful to its original form, Sierra has thrown in some new trinkets to play around with. The shovel you used to dig into the dirt with has been replaced by a blaster; it performs the same function, but it looks a lot better with the new graphics. Apart from that, each group of 15 levels has a particular object that you can pick up and use. The first one you see is a bomb, which is used to blow up incoming mad monks (the new wave version of guards) and get rid of unwanted terrain. You also get slime buckets (which are tossed onto the ground to slow down the monks), foot snare traps, jackhammers, befuddlement gas, pickaxes, and teleporters to fool around with. Far from being cheap and gimmicky, these tools fit very well into the puzzles they appear in, and they work with the strategy of the puzzle, not against it. They provide variety without cheapening the game, and are a welcome addition.

Understanding what makes a good game great, Sierra has also included a level editor with their package. The editor is extremely easy to use. You select a terrain tile or object from the toolbox, and click on the screen wherever you want it to appear, just like a paint program. With this handy utility, anyone can build a level; making a good one is the tough part. I was especially pleased to see that multiple sets of teleporters can be included on the same level, and by changing the tiles' properties you can wire pairs of entrances and exits together.

Lode Runner: The Legend Returns is one of those rare returns to an old favorite that doesn't disappoint. Quite the contrary, Sierra's new rendition should do nothing but expand Lode Runner's appeal. Strategy and puzzle game fans will drool all over themselves for this one, and action gamers are likely to find the game attractive enough to try, and that's all it should take. Just about every game in the world tries to market itself as instantly addictive, the kind of game you stay up 'til sunrise playing, but Lode Runner actually delivers on that promise. It's fun, challenging, and you can re-start a game from any level to bypass a puzzle you simply can't solve. Lode Runner has everything going for it, and I expect it to be widely acknowledged as one of the best games of the year.

Play the demo for this game directly in your browser