Sustainable Pace

March 12th, 2022

Lode Runner (1983)

Lode Runner was one of the first games I played on a Commodore 64 in the 1980s. So far I had only played games on the Atari 2600 video game console, but the Commodore 64 was a full-fledged computer! I guess I first played it at my friend Jochen's house. It took ages to load the game from the tape, and we eagerly watched the counter on the tape deck spin, while the screen flickered erratically. When the title screen came up, and we finally played the first level, I was immediately blown away. It was truly magical!

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Of course, the tape wasn't an original, but just a copy. In those days, games were shared similar to music, on mixtapes you made for your friends. Tapes were traded in school during breaks, and it was one of the few reasons I liked going to school.

Your mission

You play a white stick figure, a lode runner, who has to retrieve a set of boxes, distributed in a maze of platforms and ladders. Once you have collected all boxes, an escape ladder appears at the top of the screen, leading to the next, totally different maze. Each maze is defended by a group of guards, who are trying to catch you. Beware, they can kill you with a single touch!

Fortunately, you're in possession of a weapon that can drill holes in the brick platforms, where you can trap the guards. Unless they climb out of there in time, they get squashed when the hole seals itself automatically after a certain time. But every guard that has been killed is immediately replaced by a new guard at the top of the screen.

You can also use subsequent drills to create elaborate tunnels, in order to reach boxes that are hidden behind several layers of bricks. But you need to precisely plan your tunnels, you can easily get stuck - unlike the guards, you can't climb out of a hole. But you can jump through holes on brick platforms to evade incoming guards!

The whole game is a rapid flow of decisions, whether to go left or right, up or down, dig a hole or not, or whether to trap a guard or jump through a hole. You need to both plan ahead and make quick decisions!

Remember, when the game was created in 1982, there were no established genres. Each game was another exciting experiment. Lode Runner was a great combination of a platform and puzzle game, where both dexterity and logic was needed to win.

A nihilistic experience

What we didn't know then, was that the game had a back story: the evil Bungeling empire had stolen the gold of your people, and your mission is to retrieve the gold from them. But we didn't need to know, the game conveys this setup through its minimalistic, chilling atmosphere.

Unlike the worlds of Nintendo's games a few years later, this game exudes a nihilistic, indifferent atmosphere. The platforms are simple, plain brick structures against a dark, empty background. It feels like an underground world, far away from home.

The sound effects are sparse, but effective. When you fall off a platform, the squeaky glissando feels like a spine-tingling scream. And when you're caught by a guard, all you hear is a dull, suffocating bleep, and you feel all life is being sucked out of you.

The animation of the stick figures is surprisingly smooth. By making the protagonist significantly faster than the sluggish, zombie-like guards, you really feel like a hero, making daring runs and narrow escapes from the evil antagonists who frequently outnumber you.

But you are definitely a vulnerable, expendable hero. When the guards have you surrounded and draw nearer, and you realize there is no way out, you feel utterly helpless. Also, realizing you are stuck in one of your self-made tunnels, and seeing the walls slowly sealing up, you're overwhelmed by claustrophobia.

The game also speaks of "men" and not "lives", so it really feels like a perilous mission. Some mazes can only be solved by trial-and-error, and you lose man after man. It's an alien, hostile, desolate world that is trying to kill you. You need to build up your skills in order to survive. You always need to be alert, every move matters.

It's an incredibly intense experience!

The 1980s, an information wasteland

You can't imagine how little information on computer games was out there in the 1980s. There were no Let's Play's, we just took turns and watched each other play. But you could find out about games in stores, like Kaufhof or Quelle. Those were rare treats for me, and the only reason I accompanied my mother when she went shopping.

But there were also a few magazines. I remember buying the 1986 special edition of Happy Computer, the first that focused exclusively on games. I had that magazine in the 80s, and it was a bible to me. And I still have it to this day, it's one of the few possessions I really care for.

Revisit Lode Runner

Good news! You can still play Lode Runner today. Simon Hung has made an incredible web port of the original game. I couldn't resist playing through all 150 levels again. You can also play the follow-up games like Championship Lode Runner, and choose between the Commodore and the Apple version.

Try it! It's still an awesome game.