Lode Runner (WonderSwan) review
"That couldn't disguise the exact same levels made by kids pulled off the street long ago back in 1980...when so many Lode Runner games come with level editors (also part of the original) that the developers themselves never seem to use, it's hard to believe much care went into these products."
I wasn't aware of the WonderSwan until I went searching for new versions of Lode Runner (LR.) It was a last resort. You see, so many ports of Lode Runner contain the same levels from the original. Maybe they throw in a story with animals to rescue or something, but it that couldn't disguise the exact same levels made by kids pulled off the street long ago back in 1980. Which is annoying to see after I've poked my way through several Japanese menus. Yeah, first world problems, rom downloads aren't perfectly legal, and so on. But when so many Lode Runner games come with level editors (also part of the original) that the developers themselves never seem to use, it's hard to believe much care went into these products.
Not so with the WonderSwan port (WS.) It's not brilliant, but it doesn't have to be. It hits all the basic LR puzzles and adds a few more. As in other LR games, you basically climb ladders, walk on ropes, and dig holes to the left and right for enemies to fall in. The holes can fill up, trapping the enemies, who reappear at the top, or even you. Get all the gold, and you will get a ladder or door to the next level, often positioned awkwardly. You die if enemies touch you, but it's also common to get stuck with no way out, which is awfully frustating but also the source of some of the best puzzles. You may have to dig through a whole structure for that one last gold piece without getting trapped, or you may need to make an educated guess about which blocks are fall-through--they look the same as the regular ones. It's part logic and experimentation, and often after thinking I knew what a square had to be, or thinking the game was vague, the solution tipped off other things. LR: WS is really good at forcing this educated guesswork or giving these a-ha moments.
And here the game changes more than just enemy speed or how fast the holes fill in--those have been enough to create vastly different puzzles. The biggest is the crumbling block--it, like the fall-through block, is indistinguishable from the regular sort you walk over. However, it disappears after a second once you step over it, often making a one-way passage or ruining an obvious digging sequence.
The other new feature is water. It's an amusing one, where a small pool can spill out to the whole level. If you dig a bounding block, it pours out to that side and below. Water slows you down, unless you chose the scuba suit at the level's start--and then, you aren't able to outrun monsters until you're in the water. There're also lobsters that scuttle back and forth in some pools. They're often guarding gold, but if you're clever, you can get the lobsters to block enemy. You can also walk on top of the lobsters for some tough-to-get gold pieces if you're very careful. And if all of this doesn't sound like much, it doesn't need to be. LR is very basic without ever approaching the total dryness of, for instance, Sokoban, and also unlike Sokoban, the action and interaction allow for believable added enemies and challenges like this.
LR also makes challenges optional, so you don't get stuck as easily. Non-gold items you can get in WS compromise between die-hard fans and people new to the game and a great way to get around the usual "gee, you're stuck" in a puzzle game. For instance, cake slices just get you points, and getting 90% of feathers unlocks the sort of bonus round Lode Runner fans love. Often you need to do something like jump and run on a falling enemy, or futz with a certain area at the start, to get these. Sometimes you just need to pray that the ladders that pop up after you get the gold will let you grab everything.
All this gets more demanding and nastier, and I mean this in the most complimentary way, as you reach the end of the 125 levels. Sometimes you need to freeze the screen to see the whole board--the WonderSwan screen not being very big--and that leaves the game feeling like busy work at times, because you have to scroll up to see where the enemies you just killed are about to reincarnate. This doesn't ruin the game, of course, but often feeling like the WonderSwan is asking you to check your work can get in the way of basking in a nice solution.
This is about the biggest nuisance, though. LR is a good game for black-and-white systems, and here the lobster and your squid-like opponents are more than acceptable. The scuba suit you wear is also very cute, with little bubbles coming from your guy either way (no, he won't drown if he stays underwater.) And if there are no especially wild puzzles, the game never seems to be mailing it in.
All this left me with a very favorable impression of the WonderSwan. Not that I found another game to play. But it's good to find a port of my favorite series on an obscure system that upholds the tradition and does something new. It'sabout the right balance of challenging and inviting, and if every port had thrown in a tweak like water or crumbling blocks, it'd have been quite exciting. It's too late to hope that Lode Runner will ever make a comeback, and I think I've exhausted all the old-school systems that might have new levels, so I'm grateful to be able to find games on the Nintendo 64, TurboGrafx and, yes, the WonderSwan which at least reminded me that other people enjoy the challenges in Lode Runner and were able to pass them on.
Community review by aschultz (March 26, 2012)
Andrew Schultz used to write a lot of reviews and game guides but made the transition to writing games a while back. He still comes back, wiser and more forgiving of design errors, to write about games he loved, or appreciates more, now.
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