Lode Runner first popped into existence back in 1983 and is still, 26 years later, one of the most addictive, pulse-pounding and controller snapping platformers around. The basic gameplay sees the player guiding a little man around a series of platforms and ladders, picking up nuggets of gold that have been scattered around the level. Once every nugget has been collected, an exit opens up and the player can escape to the next level. Every level has at least one enemy who relentlessly homes in on the player, and if the player is caught, a life is lost. The player, however, has the ability to blast away at fragile parts of the platforms. The resulting holes can trap the enemy for a few seconds or let the player drop through to a lower platform.
It's a simple game, then, and all the details are well fleshed out in a comprehensive in-game tutorial. Having put endless hours into the game back in the day on our C64, we hopped into the single player Journey mode with a certain amount of confidence. Ill-placed confidence, as it turned out, that saw us bundled out of the very first level inside of a minute. We were completely caught off guard by the speed with which the enemy zeroed in on us. They're fast. So, sitting up a little straighter and paying closer attention, we headed back in and managed to fend off death for a few seconds longer.
This is most likely the point at which you'll be tempted to mutter about the ridiculous level of difficulty, check your gamepad to see if it's working properly and/or start watching Oprah. Or maybe that's just us. Either way, the difficulty of Lode Runner - the speed with which you have to think, move and react - can be something of a cold bucket of water to the face. It's never fun to fail constantly. And yet, once you've stormed around the garden for ten minutes, ripped up a few weeds and thought that now might be a good time to clean the gutters, the siren call of Lode Runner will inevitably call you back. We've thought on this for quite a while and decided that, more than anything, it's because it's all your fault.
Or, to put it another way, Lode Runner sits there quietly and makes it clear that the moment you move a muscle it will try to kill you. The rules of engagement are clear. A level won't kick off until you make the first move, so you can study a level for a long as you want. Make a note of dead ends, plot optimum gold-collecting routes, limber up your fingers and when you're ready, go for it. And then Lode Runner will come after you, gleefully taking advantage of your fumbling fingers and moments of indecision. Up a ladder? Drop down to next level? Blast a hole? Um... oops, dead. Try again. And again.
And try you will. Mercifully, you effectively have unlimited lives to play with. The game will still declare Game Over after you lose three lives, but a quick stab on the A button will see you back at the beginning of whatever level you just failed. You can also exit the game completely, then come back later and pick up where you left off. We're not entirely sure why the game even bothers with the three-lives-and-you're-out method, seeing as you are most definitely not out after three lives. There are even interludes between levels where you can collect extra life tokens, for no particular reason. We suspect higher scores may be awarded for getting further without expiring. Whatever, we won't complain. Being able to work away at a level until you get it right - that is, until you stop making stupid mistakes and running into the warm embrace of the bad guys - diffuses what might otherwise be a game-killing amount of frustration.
When you need a break from Journey mode, there are plenty of other options to tinker with. Puzzle mode contains 50 increasingly mind-bendy levels without the relentlessly homicidal bad guys. You just have to collect all the gold on a level and make it to the exit. The levels start out simply enough, but quickly start to take advantage of various game mechanics to pose some real conundrums. For example, your little guy can only destroy blocks that are directly to either side of him. You can't shoot straight down or up. Blocks will also reappear after a little while. So you'll often find yourself having to dig diagonally down towards a buried nugget as blocks close in above you. Take too long, or dig in the wrong direction, and it's restart time. Later puzzle levels are truly cunning in design, initially appearing utterly impossible until the magic light-bulb moment occurs. Some puzzles do emphasise quick reflexes over sheer brain power but generally, Puzzle mode provides a welcome respite from the single player Journey's pressure cooker.
Still, if you want more pressure, there are the Hang On levels. These task you with collecting as many nuggets as possible while an endlessly increasing number of bad guys come at you. It's frantically good fun, and the game keeps track of your best scores. Medals are handed out for collecting various amounts of nuggets, so there's always a goal to aim for beyond just staying alive.
There are extensive multiplayer options available. Journey mode can be played co-op, both online and locally and a four-player Last Man option lets players duke it out against each other. Well, so we're told - we couldn't find a single online game or opponent for any of the multiplayer modes, so we have no idea how well they play. Online leader boards are available for pretty much every mode of the game, so you can at least see how dreadfully you measure up to the rest of the world.
A level editor comes with the game, and you can easily download new levels from anyone who's made them available. The editor is easy to use but coming up with a worthwhile level is an art in itself. We dabbled with it and came away with a new appreciation for the thought and effort put into the game's Journey and Puzzle modes.
Lode Runner has been given a full graphical update and looks terrific. Even though the game plays in 2D, everything is rendered in 3D, which gives the game a good, chunky feel. More importantly than just looking lovely, it plays very smoothly. The controls are as precise as they need to be. There's a slight delay when firing your block busting gun which can take some getting used to, and remained the cause of multiple deaths throughout the time we spent with the game. While this is obviously deliberately built into the game - and if we remember rightly, is carried over from the original Lode Runner - a more responsive weapon wouldn't necessarily detract from the game. We're not game designers, but just sayin'.
Based only on the single player options, Lode Runner will provide many hours of high-speed platforming. If multiplayer ever livens up, and we hope it will, Lode Runner could become a great little online distraction as well. The defiantly challenging nature of Journey mode shouldn't put anyone off - it's not an unfair game, just uncompromising in its dedication to making you dead. Deal with it.