Version tested: Xbox 360
25 years ago, a chap by the name of Douglas E. Smith served up a digital dish that would end up being widely recognised as the very first thinking man's puzzle game. In the years that followed, Smith's Lode Runner has been tweaked, re-tweaked and ported to over 20 different platforms, the latest being Xbox Live Arcade for Lode Runner: 25th Anniversary.
Developers Tozai and Southend Interactive took on the challenge of rebooting the classic, sometimes infuriating, action puzzler with the hopes of bringing gold-rush fever to a new generation of gamers. And for the most part, they have pulled it off with style. Lode Runner clocks in at a whopping 1200 Microsoft Points (GBP 10.20 / EUR 14.40), so it's not the cheapest night in by any stretch, but the sheer amount of challenging gameplay on offer makes it a worthwhile investment.
The idea hasn't changed one iota in all those years. You assume the role of a gold-bar snaffling hero who traverses five worlds scooping up every gold bar he can find. Unlike Spandau Ballet's "Gold" however, you're not indestructible and there's all manner of malevolent monsters riding your arse as you try to deftly swing, climb, fall and grab, lining your copious pockets as you go.
The spiky-haired main character, while forgettable in appearance, has a couple of tricks up his sleeve. In fact, the main trick is stapled to his forearm and comes in the shape of a ground-aimed block-blasting gun. It's through careful use of this gun - which only allows you to shoot at the blocks on the floor that are directly next you - that you'll be able to temporarily put the enemy bots out of action. He's also got rocket boots, which allow him to fall massive distances without consequence. Of course, a simple jump move, which would have been perfect for this kind of caper, is completely out of the question, but such has always been the wont of Lode Runner.
Bad guys show up in various forms; yetis, crimson monks, robots and what appear to be lumps of animated poo, or golems. The enemy's sole purpose is to make contact with your guy and vaporise him; resetting the level and occasionally causing tooth-cracking moments of anger. Lode Runner's five worlds each have a different theme - mines, ruins, frozen, volcanic and mechanical - and each comes with its own variation on the enemy mobs, and all of them try to home in on you for the kill.
The meat of Lode Runner happens in the single-player game. Journey Mode provides a substantial 80 levels of challenges across the five areas. It starts out piss-easy but after a short honeymoon period, it turns the thumbscrews pretty relentlessly on your puzzle-solving abilities. Increasing numbers of enemies coupled with the harder-to-grasp routes and devious puzzle elements means that Lode Runner really starts to tax your frontal lobes as well as your arcade reactions. The good news is that you can break for a while and pick up your Journey where you left off if things get a little too much to cope with.
An obligatory Practice Mode does a decent job of covering the basics of gameplay, and introduces you to more advanced techniques like riding on the heads of falling enemies, chucking bombs and collecting life-pool boosting energy balls. The hectic Hang On Mode ratchets up the pace over Journey and pits your skills against an ever-increasing swarm of enemies, a cubic mother lode of gold bars and some very sweaty palms. The idea is to stay alive as long as you can while snatching as much gold as possible, leading to either bronze, silver or gold medal rewards. Hang On is probably the most panic-inducing mode in the game, which is actually rather helpful when you're making split-second decisions about which path to take. It's also the weakest of all of the modes, but still offers a good solid challenge.
Puzzle Mode is 100 per cent geared towards to either being one of the most rewarding videogame experiences to date or one of the most mind-bendingly frustrating things you could ever hope to do with your Xbox 360's wireless controller. You'll either love it or despise it. The 50 levels on offer here provide some outrageous moments of befuddlement, forehead-slapping and God-like ego head-swelling, but approach it with caution; it may just end up being your mental undoing.
Finally, single-player gives you the chance to play levels you've made yourself using the full-blown editor - which is not something that should be approached lightly unless you've already got a good grasp on general level editing. A community feature lets you share your levels with your chums over Xbox Live, and in return you can snag theirs. Mix it up a little by playing online with other players on hundreds of user-generated creations, or, if you're like me, don't bother.
Lode Runner's not just a game for the bachelors out there. No sir. The multiplayer modes are significant, but during testing it was impossible to find anyone else that wanted to play online. Not too sure if that's a blow for my own competency, or a bit of a statement about the current levels of Lode Runner's UK-based penetration, but either way I had no online joy. Luckily, Xbox Live's denizens didn't stop me from roasting a few good hours locally with a likeminded Lode Runner or two, so it all balanced out in the end.
For the most part, the multiplayer modes are the same with one noticeable exception: Last Man Mode. Here you and up to three others have to run for your lives from the same-coloured monsters that are chasing you. If you lose a set of rounds in a row, you'll actually be turned into an enemy and given the chance to hunt down the lucky sonfabitch who's winning. Last Man is Lode Runner's party piece, and is probably best enjoyed with a few single malts in the company of good friends. That, or a couple of 12 year-old knob-ends on Xbox Live. I'll take whatever I can get, honestly. Multiplayer's other charms include specific co-op Journey and Puzzle Modes, the latter of which requires a surprising amount of coordination and forward-thinking on the behalf of both players.
Lode Runner on Xbox Live Arcade proves once again that the critical acclaim drawn by Smith's 1983 classic is warranted. The reboot is an excellent example of how old-school gameplay can be brought to life on today's hardware. And if you're the sort of gamer who enjoys a solid workout for both hands and brain (who isn't?) then this is well worth the investment. On the flipside, if you are a bit slow, or hate puzzles, or get frustrated easily (who doesn't?) then you'd do well to demo Lode Runner before plunging into your MS Points cache. Who knows? Maybe we'll meet up online in Lode Runner's tumbleweed-filled lobbies...
8 / 10