Video Game Vault: Lode Runner (NES, 1983)

Every so often a game comes along that’s so wonderfully simple, intuitive and entertaining that it sparks a franchise. Mario did it, Zelda did it and, though not as many people may recognize its name, “Lode Runner” did it.

“Lode Runner” is the tale of a gold hunter who made a lot of enemies in his days on the prowl. At least that’s one possible story, as the game offers no explanation or plot of any kind. In “Lode Runner,” the player controls a man in what appear to be 8-bit overalls, guiding him through levels to collect gold while avoiding evil men in white spacesuits. Once a player collects all the gold, he must navigate his way to a ladder that appears at the top of the level and make his escape.

The mysterious man does not come unarmed. He carries a drill and/or blaster and/or magical powers (it’s hard to tell with 1983 graphics) which he can use to delete the floor tile on either side of him, creating a pit into which his strange pursuers blindly fall. The blaster must also be used to access new areas of the level. This is game strategy in its most simple form.

The levels are laid out on an invisible grid and feature brick floors, indestructible metal floors, ladders and poles for climbing on monkey bars-style. They come in an amazing spectrum of colors, namely orange and gray. While the tiny color spectrum doesn’t make for a visually stimulating experience, there’s never any confusion about what’s going on, which can’t be said for most other games from the early ’80s.

With only 50 levels and no noticeable increase in difficulty between them, the single-player game is short and sweet. Still, the experience doesn’t have to end once all the levels are complete. First of all, the game offers a two-player mode, which lets you compete against a friend, though not at the same time. Secondly, and much more importantly, “Lode Runner” was one of the first games to let players design their own levels.

Level editors are extremely hit-or-miss these days, and the programming of many games is too complicated to allow players to make anything of their own. But with “Lode Runner,” it’s a refreshingly seamless and intuitive process. Even with only seven or so parts to choose from and a small space in which to build, there are endless possibilities. Building the most difficult-but-possible level imaginable, then watching friends suffer through it, keeps “Lode Runner” entertaining far longer than the single-player mode alone allows.

“Lode Runner” is quite primitive, as every game was in 1983. But it was successful enough to spawn a series of equally fun, but increasingly complex, sequels. From the unoriginally titled “Lode Runner 2” to the slightly overdramatized, but probably superior, “Lode Runner: The Legend Returns,” there has never been a “Lode Runner” game that has fallen short. These later games are harder to find in playable form nowadays, but well worth the effort. “The Legend Returns” offers an equally easy-to-use level editor with more features and much prettier graphics.

Not just a franchise-starter, the original “Lode Runner” is a stand-out gem from the early days of gaming. It’s simpler than many arcade games and doesn’t even have any sort of tutorial. But within a few seconds of starting the first level, the game becomes familiar and engaging. It’s a game that transcends the technological restrictions of the early ’80s to still be enjoyable today.

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