Not many American game ideas over the years have been taken into the hearts of the Japanese, but Lode Runner is one of them. Written for the Apple II in 1981, it was converted to major home formats over the next few years including the C64 and NES, and was even turned into an arcade machine. It has also been given the odd update, the most recent being on the N64. Now it is the turn of the Gamecube to receive a version of the classic collect 'em up.
The premise of the game is fairly simple. You are the Lode Runner and have been tasked with retrieving all the treasure stolen by the Bungeling Empire. On each screen, the player must negotiate the landscape, avoiding the Empire's agents and collect all the gold present. A ladder then appears by which the player moves on to the next level. The only weapon that Lode Runner has at his disposal is a drill, which can produce a hole immediately adjacent in any of the four cardinal directions by using the four face buttons. This can be used to create gaps in the landscape by which to reach certain areas of each screen, or a temporary trap for the enemy agents to fall into. The agents are not adverse occasionally to a bit of thievery themselves, and making them fall down holes is the only way to retrieve any treasure they may have picked up.
Other main features within the game include the ubiquitous ladders, and climbing bars that span structures and can often be the only way to reach certain bits of the level. Both can be dropped from at any point by pressing Z, making a range of different tactics and strategies possible. What makes this version of Lode Runner stand out by comparison is that it is built on a isometric view point, with L and R rotating the camera about 90 degrees for each press. Many levels will require good use of the camera to explore and examine every inch to ensure no agent is hiding around a corner, and no treasure is lurking out of view. Thankfully the game displays how much treasure is left to obtain, making it easier to decide if some is just hard to find, or an agent has picked it up.
Graphics, like the other budget release Hudson currently publishes, are no cause for parading about every website in town as the next best thing. Both your character and the enemy agents have a distinct familiarity about them, in that they very much look and animate like the Bomberman model. Landscapes for the most part are fairly bland, generic brown blocks form much of the level, with the odd white set of lines representing ladders and climbing frames. They do their job, they are clean and uncluttered, but very bland overall. Sonically the game is very twee, with cute music on the title screen and in-game, and the odd jingle once the level has been completed. Sound effects are limited to major events such as digging holes and Lode Runner being caught.
Within this simple concept there is actually quite a lot of variation. There are 60 levels in total, all of which are open to begin with, so there is no progression, no limit to which the player can attempt at any time. This in itself is quite revolutionary, but it also removes some of the challenge of having to work to get better at the earlier levels in order to progress to the later ones. True, there is the incentive that once finishing a level, it can replayed for a better score or time, but that for the most part is all the player is chasing.
Level design is quite challenging and head-scratching even to those with plenty of Lode Runner experience. Hudson have gone to town on the basics of the game and provided many difficult set-ups and traps. For the most part, the 3D nature of the game has been well encompassed, though the constant need to rotate the camera does irritate after a while. It becomes more of a chore for the need to see where you are going than being able to just play, and this is probably Lode Runner's biggest flaw. If the camera automatically followed you then it probably wouldn't be as big an issue.
To extend the life of the game, there is also a level designer like many incarnations before it. A comprehensive menu system allows the simple construction and tweaking of easy or horrendous creations, which can then be saved in one of the ten slots available. It is fairly simple to negotiate even with the Japanese text, and within a few minutes, some basic levels can be put together and tested.
The main question to ask is whether Lode Runner truly works as a 3D game or whether it is a far better concept being left in its original 2D state. Certainly there is a new dimension, literally, opened in gameplay by making the extra plane available for use, but it does limit the field of vision to the player. Having thankfully not altered or tinkered with the basic concepts makes this update still an enjoyable play experience. If this is good enough to get people interested in the whole Lode Runner concept, then hats off to Hudson for succeeding, because it will appear to be a just above average game for true aficionados.