When it comes to games, nostalgia rarely works as intended. As the waves of downloadable ports on consoles might suggest, nostalgia works well as a bullet point, but it rarely holds up to heavy scrutiny. Childhood might have been great, but it's hard to wax too nostalgic about an era without analog sticks and the ability to save games, among other modern niceties.
This puts the recent Xbox Live Arcade version of Lode Runner into an odd place - it's essentially an update of the 1983 platformer, but unlike titles like Bionic Commando: Rearmed and Pac-Man Championship Edition, which re-imagined the source material, Lode Runner largely sticks to the features of the original. Considering how well the original holds up though, that's hardly a bad thing - it isn't necessarily reinventing the original Lode Runner, but it adds enough to the basic formula to keep the game feeling fresh.
Like the original, Lode Runner is set on a variety of two-dimensional, multi-story maps, which feature various ladders and overhead beams for navigation. To complete each level, players have to collect gold pieces while avoiding enemies. Players can make pits in adjacent blocks - which regenerate after a certain amount of time - to trap enemies, but they can also fall into these same pits, which encourages players to strategize about their shooting techniques.
This forms the bulk of the game, as players traverse through a variety of worlds, killing monsters and collecting gold. Despite how it sounds on paper, though, tight design and a continually increasing difficulty curve keeps things interesting. Multiple enemies are always after the player, who can never be directly attacked. With the game's intricate level design - ladders, overhead beams and platforms intersect in a labyrinth-like fashion - this lends itself to a cat-and-mouse kind of dynamic, as players constantly have to formulate strategies on the fly to survive each level, which keeps the action going at a consistent pace.
It helps that the game's artificial intelligence complements this especially well. The game's enemies are especially tenacious, as they'll easily catch slow-thinking players, but more often than not, the difficulty comes more from the levels than them - the levels become progressively more complex, but they never feel like they can't be beaten with anything besides proper strategy. This approach carries over to the level design as well, as levels constantly throw gold pieces in increasingly more complex locations. However, the difficulty curve never gets overbearing, as it's paced well enough to balance frustration with challenge - a level might be maddeningly difficult to navigate through, but there's always a solution that gets progressively clearer through repeated playing.
The game's casual-friendly adjustments help to bring this all together. For example, in the cooperative campaign, if one player dies, he can be respawned during the same game if the other player picks up an item. There are also sub-stages in between each stage, in which players can earn an extra life for properly navigating through a puzzle. Admittedly, all of these touches are pretty minor, but in terms of the larger package, they all help to make Lode Runner's depth accessible.
The different environments also keep the action feeling varied - the single-player campaign features the usual archetypes like lava and jungle worlds, but the various levels occasionally introduce new block types, which significantly alters standard gameplay. For example, shooting one avalanche block causes adjacent avalanche blocks to explode, while stalactites break down the blocks they fall on. The variety of block abilities helps to keep the game from feeling repetitive, as they're all different enough to have their own unique strategic pros and cons in a level.
Beyond the gameplay, Lode Runner also ends up being a surprisingly well-rounded package. Besides the single-player campaign, the game also features local and online multiplayer, a level editor, and puzzle and survival modes, along with cooperative gameplay. The cooperative modes are a highlight, as they're designed to force players to work together. Often, certain pieces of gold and extra lives can't be picked up unless one player helps another reach them and this dynamic lends the mode depth. The level editor is also especially thorough, with copious amounts of construction options, though the interface isn't particularly intuitive. Custom levels can also be downloaded and shared online with other players, which helps extend the replay value.
Technically, the game isn't particularly ambitious, but compared to lots of Xbox Live Arcade titles, it's put together well. Lode Runner is especially sharp visually - though the generic levels don't lend much creative flexibility, it has the appropriate graphical polish, and it runs extremely smoothly. Likewise, music is just the usual MIDI-based filler, but it's never particularly noticeable. Controls are similarly straightforward, with the right and left triggers controlling which direction players shoot blocks in, but as reaction time is just as significant as strategy in-game, mapping them to the triggers works well.
Lode Runner's 1200 Microsoft Points price tag is the game's biggest downside, though. While it does pack in a respectable amount of content, the $15 price tag can't help but feel somewhat pricy, especially considering the cheaper content that bigger publishers are releasing. Still, the fact that the only bone to pick with Lode Runner is its price says much about its quality. Lode Runner functions as an excellent addition to a venerable franchise, updating the original game to today's standards - the game isn't necessarily a reinvention, but the quality of the source material more than makes up for it.