Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

#161 – Lode Runner

Get a lode of this classic game!

One of the few songs in the game is on this screen.

To Beat: Finish all 50 levels
Played: 6/19/20 – 6/22/20
Difficulty: 4/10
My Difficulty: 4/10
My Video: Lode Runner Longplay

I am sure I have written this time and time again, but one of the best parts of this project is getting to play classic games that I have either overlooked or not made time for.  Lode Runner seems like the type of game that I would enjoy, but for whatever reason I did not play it seriously until now.  Actually I am not sure I played it even casually for any length of time.  Thankfully the wrongs of yesterday can be righted now, even as Lode Runner has mostly become a thing of the past.

Lode Runner was first developed by Doug Smith in 1982 while he was a student at the University of Washington.  There he was working a computer lab job that gave him a lot of free time during the summer semester to begin work on the game.  He pitched a basic version of the game to Broderbund who rejected it.  He borrowed money to buy a color monitor and joystick, further refining the game before submitting it to four companies.  All four gave him an offer and he accepted the one from Broderbund.  Lode Runner became a huge success for both Doug Smith and Broderbund.

One of the reasons Lode Runner was so successful was because it was widely ported, sometimes finding big audiences.  The original game ran on the Apple II, Atari 8-bit computers, the VIC-20, the Commodore 64, and IBM PCs, containing 150 levels and a level editor.  The biggest hit was the Famicom version which was one of the first third party titles for the Famicom in July 1984.  The game sold well over a million copies there.  It was so big that Championship Lode Runner was released on Famicom only in April 1985, which contained 50 new levels of much higher difficulty than the original.  The NES version released in September 1987 in North America only.  The NES ports were developed by Hudson Soft in all regions, published by Hudson Soft in Japan, and published by Broderbund in North America.

A simple concept … at first.

Despite amounting to a fairly simple game, it has some surprisingly deep lore from reading the manual.  You play as a “Galactic Commando” within enemy lines.  The Bungeling Empire is at it again, this time by stealing piles of gold from the people via … fast food taxes?  That’s right!  In the game you will go into each of the treasury rooms, slip past the guards, collect all the gold, and get out.  There are 50 stages to clear in order to beat this game.

Lode Runner is a side-scrolling action puzzle game with a simple concept and controls.  Each level is two-screens wide that scroll freely as you explore the stage.  You move around the levels with the D-pad.  You can walk Left and Right, and you may fall down gaps or off ledges without damage.  There are ladders you can climb with Up and Down, and horizontal ropes you can scuttle across with Left and Right.  In this game you cannot jump, but you can escape the enemies by digging holes.  The B button digs a hole to the left of you into the floor, and the A button does the same but to the right.  Holes will eventually refill themselves after a short time, in part to keep you from trapping yourself if you dig holes on both sides.  Press Start to pause the game.

It’s worth noting that there is a very powerful feature available to you from the start.  Pressing Select at any time, either during play or before the level starts, brings up Stage Select.  Press A and B to toggle through the stages 1 through 50, then press Start to resume.  On the stage select screen, if you hold down Select, you can press A to speed up the game or press B to slow down the game.  There is no indication when you adjust the speed, so it is hard to tell what effect it may have until you start playing.  When I messed with this feature after I beat the game, I ended up slowing the game down to an unplayable speed.

Dig holes to trap enemies or make your own escape route.

Managing the enemies is a major requirement for beating this game.  There is only one enemy type in the game, but several can appear in each stage.  They move around the stage in the same way as you move as they try and surround you.  When you get cornered, dig a hole and the enemies will get themselves trapped inside.  They get stuck inside for a little bit, and you can walk on top of their heads to pass to safety.  It takes a little time to actually dig out the entire hole, which may give the enemy time to walk across if they are too close.  Also, the enemies wiggle themselves out of the hole quicker than the hole refills.  If the timing is right, you can get the hole to close up on the enemy entirely, in which case the enemy is defeated and another one respawns in the level somewhere else.

The object of the game is to collect the gold piles that are strewn throughout the level.  Simply move over it to pick it up.  Sometimes you will have to fall through gold from above to collect it.  When you collect all the gold in the stage, a sound will chime and a ladder will appear somewhere in the stage.  Now you can climb up and out of the stage.  Something to keep in mind is that the enemies can also pick up gold and hold on to it.  If you pick up everything and there’s no ladder, you’ll have to coax the enemy into dropping the last gold.  Sometimes they drop it randomly as they move around, but most often you will have to trap the enemy in a hole to get it to drop its gold.

Most of the stage designs consist of the diggable blocks, ladders, and ropes.  Although there are some complex and thoughtful designs with just those elements, there are a few more things that sometimes show up.  Solid blocks show up as nearly solid brown colored tiles, and you cannot dig through them.  There are false blocks that look like diggable blocks but you fall through them like they are open space.  These tend to be put in places just to be annoying, but the enemies fall through them the same way so if you pay attention you can notice them ahead of time.

Fake ground tiles can be in annoying, unexpected places.

There are a few tricks needed to solve some of the stages.  You dig diagonally down, so the rules of digging require the tile above the digging spot be open, which leads to a couple of interesting scenarios.  Some rooms require you to dig through more than one layer of diggable tiles.  You cannot dig straight down because you need the space next to you open.  If you are not careful, you can easily get stuck and have to reset the stage.  The idea is that you need to dig out a wider section of the floor before you can fall down and start digging out the next layer.  For example, to dig through two layers of dirt, you need to first dig out two adjacent tiles in the first layer, then fall into the double-wide hole and dig a hole through the second layer.  Once you get fast at it, you have enough time to dig through quite a few layers as needed.  Another little trick is that you can dig off of a ladder.  If there’s a column of dirt next to a ladder, starting from the top you can dig out the entire column one square at a time.  Sometimes you must dig out a wall in this manner to access a segment of the stage, in which case you will need to escape through the opening you made or you’ll get trapped.

This game also features a limited level editor.  You can only design single screen levels here, no scrolling.  You start off with permanent walls and flooring that surround the room.  Move the blinking cursor around with the D-pad, then press A and B to change the selected tile from all the choices.  You can add every object available to you in the main game.  The half dirt tile in the list is the fake floor tile, and the broken ladder tile is the hidden ladder that shows up when you collect all the gold.  Press Start to try out your level.  Press Select to go back to editing.  You also go back to editing if you die or clear the level.  Once you get into Edit mode, you will have to reset to go back to the normal game, and also there is no way to save your levels for later.

Even though you have free stage select at any time, this game still has a lives system.  You start the game with five lives and you earn a new one after beating any stage.  You can only have up to 9 lives in reserve, any more than that are lost.  Losing all your lives means your score goes back to zero, and that’s pretty much it.  To that note, I did not yet mention there are points in this game.  You earn 100 points per gold and 100 points per enemy kill.  You collect points after clearing each stage.  Every now and then, a piece of fruit will appear in the stage that you can collect for additional points.

Some arrangements like this take some thought to solve.

I would say this was my first time playing Lode Runner, at least on NES.  The only other experience I had with this game that I recall was Lode Runner 3D on the Nintendo 64, but I barely played that game and don’t remember anything about it now.  Even then, I did know how to play this game, so maybe I tinkered with it sometime long ago or I read enough about it to understand the digging mechanics.  The NES cart of this game costs about $10 or so and I am pretty sure this was a bulk lot pickup for me.  I did buy a Famicom copy of Championship Lode Runner that I should probably try out now, and I even have the uncommon label variant of the Famicom version of Lode Runner.

Having already understood the mechanics more or less, plus refining that knowledge through play, I was able to clear all 50 levels without that much trouble.  Overall it took a little over three hours, split up over three separate nights.  One thing I noticed was that the difficulty curve was uneven.  A few early levels, such as Stage 6, require some advanced techniques that I wouldn’t expect to use until much later in the level set.  On the opposite end, some of the later levels were straightforward enough to clear on the first try.  Overall, levels do get harder the farther you go, and some of them are pretty tricky to solve even without the enemies, let alone with them getting in your way.  Too bad there is no ending in this game.  You start back over at Stage 1 after clearing Stage 50.  I showed this by taking a picture with Stage 50, then another of Stage 1 with increased score.  I also have it all on video as well, which is nice to have in cases such as this.

Lode Runner is a classic game that I feel has limited appeal today.  As an early Famicom and NES title, it is a simplistic game all around.  The graphics consist of only a few enemies and tile types, with plain black backgrounds.  The level music consists of a baseline combined with the sound effects of digging and climbing.  There are a couple of nice sounding tunes during the title screen and level clear screen.  The controls are simple but straightforward.  The gameplay does a lot with only a few elements, and the level design has some interesting ideas and traps.  I think this probably has something to do with cart size limits at the time, but I think it’s a shame that this doesn’t include the full 150 stages as seen in other versions.  I think this is a fine game that doesn’t do anything wrong, other than being too simple for even NES standards.  

#161 – Lode Runner (Before Last Stage)

#161 – Lode Runner (After Last Stage)

Posted In: Finished

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