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.