Lode Runner [1983]

“Fun” isn’t the right word for how it feels to play this game, or honestly, most video games. Fun is when you share a laugh with a friend, or kick a rock down the street a couple times for no reason, or sing karaoke. Feelings like frustration and even achievement have no place in pure fun. Fun is fleeting glee, often spontaneous. Fun can not be produced as a sure thing at industrial quantities, a state of sheer joy can not be maintained for hours on end, much as an industry would like us to believe they can sell us that. Lode Runner [1983] has one hundred and fifty levels.

Liquid Liquid – Optimo [1983]

I pick up the game and watch hours disappear down the drain, having covered maybe 15 levels at my leisure in all that time. The word for the experience of playing Lode Runner is more like engaging, even a bit hypnotic like Galaga [1981]. The sense of fun I detect within this game is rather that it was fun to make, fun to design. The collection of board designs are playful expressions within tight constraints. Its anchors are the boundaries of the single screen of playspace and its small standard set of familiar elements: the brick walls, the false brick walls, the solid-blue walls, the ladder, the climbing wire, the gold, the enemies, the player character stick figure. Every reiteration of these common elements is a whimsical rearrangement, perhaps into recognizable shapes such as a boat, or into intentionally lopsided assemblages of levels such as ones of mostly ladder, or into geometric explorations such as a circle or a symmetrical level, or into just a winding path of chambers and passages. You become intimately familiar with every quirk of its design.

In other words, though its direct and cited referent is clearly Donkey Kong [1981], with its ladder-based platforming towards the top of the single screen across ever-changing bespoke level design, in affect it’s surprisingly similar to Sokoban [1982], except its genre’s action-oriented trappings render it more dynamic and open. Even though you evaluate the level and break it down into smaller units and the order which you absolutely must approach them in, there’s not just one solution to any level. That means your mental process is less like solving a puzzle than it is like creating a tactic. One telling similarity is the false brick walls: In Sokoban, these holograms, frustrating as they may be, are fundamentally for your benefit and the problem is locating them (in the second-most convenient place they could be.) In Lode Runner, they are mainly deployed as traps that you can not help but locate them in unexpected and inconvenient places. Because this is a game with gravity, there is only one angle of approach, it’s down, and when you come across a holographic wall you are forced to pass through it, usually to the spoiling of your nice plans.

The other inconvenience, for me at least, is the basic grammar of the control scheme. You press one button to start moving, and then press it again to stop moving. At first, to me, it feels wrong, bizarre, not exactly agony, but a clearly suboptimal kludge that stymies my attempts to interface. And unlike in its fellow Apple II games The Prisoner [1980] and Castle Wolfenstein [1981], who had their own implementations around what seems to be a shared technical inability to register keys held down, I didn’t think the awkwardness of basic motion did anything for Lode Runner except get in the way. Then I had to stop and reconsider. I’m not a very experienced player, and that I haven’t been much of a “gamer” in my life is I think a strength of this blog’s perspective and the reason why I am going through things chronologically… I am not, in fact, totally naive. I have played video games, and mainly, by a large margin, those video games were Flash and otherwise-indie platformers of the 2000s, where the control schemes (though not necessarily the physics) were extremely well-hence standardized by Donkey Kong’s juniors. Lode Runner actually reminds me a lot of those Flash platformers I spent my middle school afternoons on, its approach to level design especially. There’s a direct line of influence from here to N [2004] and Spelunky [2008]. All that was tripping me up was the alien nature of a path not taken, where characters controlled just a little bit more like cars. I was eventually able to get used to it.

Your primary obstacle is not the pitfalls [1982] nor the controls, but your enemies, who are, as they were in Castle Wolfenstein, “just smart enough to anthropomorphize, plenty stupid enough to predict.” They chase you like Pac-Man [1980] ghosts through these mazes filled with stuff you must collect before moving to the next level, and you are to take advantage of their deeply flawed methods, which most of the time seems to prioritize being at the same vertical height on the screen as you over actually having an effective route to reach you. They might actually be “dumber” than Donkey Kong’s randomly-moving barrels, but they can still pose a credible threat sometimes, like when they’re flanking you, and outsmarting the computer by kiting them to the side of the screen you don’t care about feels like an accomplishment. It’s as though you are psychic. I maintain that “cheesing it,” that is, manipulating the video game’s systems to make it so you’re at no risk with cheap tricks which feel like at-best-half-intended use of the game is among the highest, most exalted and blissful types of video game playing. Way better than “having fun.” Like 8 out of every 10 Lode Runner levels are hard not to cheese, it’s great.

The player character is actually quite powerful, even though you do not have the ability to jump. (Jumping is almost inherently fun.) Not only do you have power over the minds of your foes, but you have power over the soil under your feet. There is even a notable level editor in case you do not feel like you have enough control to sculpt this malleable clay, so that you can take part in the joy of creation. You adeptly manipulate the fabric of the gameworld, and are able to navigate it better than your opponents, not just because of your human-level intelligence, but also because your avatar is markedly faster than them and because the laws of gravity straight-up operate differently upon them, not allowing them from following you through the holes you dig. There are cheat codes (or, if you prefer, accessibility options) printed right in the manual, the only penalty for which is the slap on the wrist of the game not acknowledging your meaningless high scores. They allow you to, at will, skip levels, add as many lives to your counter as you wish, save whenever, to speed up and slow down time itself. There’s no limit on time either, the fundamental scarcity removed from this generous gameworld. Time begins only at your cue, and you can thwart it at any time.

The only catch is that you must collect all the gold, you must stripmine this world of its treasure. Your power is matched only by your greed. All while your pure-white stick figure is being chased down by roving gangs of shirtless orange-skinned stick figures who seek to prevent you from collecting the treasure. It’s another go-around on the classic theme of resource extraction with vague, yet slightly distressing, colonialist undertones borne seemingly of a lack of consideration about cliches! But sadly, time is inexorable in real life, and as I write this under a major headache begging me to get away from the screen, my self-imposed deadline [1982] creeps closer. I would belabor the point, but I was already hard-pressed for new things to say about the treasure-extraction narrative by the time I hit Pitfall, which was so much more overt about it too. I am extremely certain there will be other times to speak on this subject. Again, and again, and again.

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