Can you put 25th Anniversary artwork on your game's title screen if it's 26 years old? This is the bold statement that Lode Runner on Xbox Live Arcade asks us to consider. This classic franchise that got its start in 1983 on machines like the Apple II and Atari 400/800 doesn't really get as much respect as it probably deserves. It was huge on those computers, and then somehow went on to become big in Japan, too, spawning weird remakes for the Famicom and PC Engine, and even an arcade release. Since then, it's made various appearances on more modern machines with varying levels of faithfulness to the original game's design. For 2009, Tozai Games and Southend Interactive have produced a game that doesn't recall any of the original game's look, but pulls off the gameplay well enough while adding a few modes in the process. It doesn't really work as a nostalgia piece, but the classic gameplay still makes for a quality mix of action and puzzle.
In Lode Runner, your goal is to clear out all of the gold from a level by running around and collecting it. Enemies are also running around the level, and they use basic, exploitable AI patterns to follow you around. They'll also pick up gold and carry it around with them. Your weapon is also the main tool you use to get around the levels--a gun that blasts away blocks, letting you fall through them to get to lower levels. You can also trap enemies in the holes you dig, giving you a brief respite from their advance until they either climb out of the hole or it fills in, which kills the enemy and immediately spawns a new one. The challenge comes from outrunning your foes while carefully digging and climbing your way around a level, taking care to not trap yourself in holes along the way. When you've collected all the gold, an exit appears, letting you move on.
This is one of those deviously simple designs that doesn't sound like much, but the formula is rock solid, forcing you to think on your feet and, above all, keep moving. For the most part, this new version of Lode Runner sticks to the same script that Douglas E. Smith penned when he created the game in the first place, but there are some new additions. The game goes through several visual motifs as you play, so you'll get a set of levels based in ruins, volcanic levels, ice levels, and so on. Special blocks appear in each set, like avalanche blocks that all disappear if you blast just one, or blocks with stalactites hanging from them that drill blocks or eliminate enemies if you cause the spiky rocks to fall. Some later levels also have bombs in them. You can collect bombs and drop them around the map, which causes a section of blocks to all disappear at once. Of course, anything that gets destroyed eventually fills in, just like it would if you had dug it with your blaster. These changes stray from the original formula, so as a purist I'm forced to tell you that I hate them. But, honestly, they do add some decent variety to the game by giving you one more thing to consider while you play.
The main mode is called Journey, and this takes you through sets of levels with limited lives and a score. If you lose all your lives, you can restart from the last level you reached, so you won't lose any real progress if you find yourself struggling with a tough level. There are also additional modes. Hang On is a survival-style mode that gives you a big level with lots of gold. As you collect gold, more enemies spawn into the level, making it harder and harder to survive as time goes on. The amount of gold you can collect before getting caught determines your score. Puzzle mode doesn't have enemies, but instead puts you in tricky situations that require you to think before you move. There are 50 puzzle levels, and they get pretty tough.
One of the great things about the original Lode Runner was that it came with a level editor, giving you the ability to create things just as simple or as complicated as the levels that came with the game. This remake comes with an editor, as well, letting you create levels in any of the different visual styles for any of the game's modes. The editor is fairly simple to use, and you can share levels with other players. However, the game doesn't have a central map server, so to share levels, you have to create a "map lobby" and sit there while other players join, download your levels, and leave. It's a clunky solution to what is apparently a tough development issue on Xbox Live Arcade, but at a price of $15, this game should have a centralized place to download user-created levels.
The game also has multiplayer, both online and off. The multiplayer spans some of the same modes, so there are co-op specific levels for journey and puzzle. This is a cool addition and the levels are designed in a way that actually forces players to cooperate, rather than just letting two players take on the single-player levels. There's also a mode called Last Man that is competitive. It's a survival mode, where the goal is to be alive the longest. It's a neat idea, but it's a little abrupt and sometimes what's going on feels a little unclear.
Visually, the game looks like most other Xbox Live Arcade games, which is to say that it sort of looks like a budget PC game. It's decent, but nothing that's going to make you sit up and take notice. It's probably worth mentioning that the camera tilts around a bit as you run or climb from one side of a level to the other, which I found to be pretty annoying. The sound effects are standard and some of the music started to grate on me as I played.
While I'll always have a fond place in my heart for the original version of Lode Runner and the way it looks and sounds, this is a strong reinterpretation of the original game that pulls off the same tricky balancing act between thinking and running. The only thing that gives me pause is the price. $15 is a lot for an Xbox Live Arcade game, but Lode Runner has enough levels across its different modes to feel like you're getting a good amount of content for the money.