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NES Obscurity Quicky!

Last weekend I purchased a pair of very old NES games that I'd never played before: Sqoon, a submarine-shoots-fish-em-up game by the good people at Irem, and Lode Runner by Broderbund.
As it turns out there's not a whole hell of a lot one can say about Sqoon (except for, "the enemies are hard to shoot because they're very small, yet they still kill you with one hit"), so let's dig in to the puzzley/action fun of...
What does a Lode Runner do with his day?
You are the "Lode Runner", and you must gather dozens of human-sized mountains of gold dust (which means you are carrying many times your own weight by the end of each level). I guess the gold dust is referred to as "lode" (and not "load", as in, "carrying a very heavy load of ore caused Player 1 to suffer a severe hernia").
The cover art would have us believe that you look like the most dashing adventurer this side of Logan's Run, but in the actual game, you look like a goof in overalls wearing a child's "space commander" hat:
Opposing you in your lode-gathering ways is a series of robots/miners/whatevers in white jumpsuits and helmets (perhaps THIS was Case's inspiration for wearing flashy but pointless headgear!*)
*: Actually, I think I remember reading a story somewhere that the original Bomberman is related to these robots! Of course, I also remember being told that there was one time in Mike Tyson's Punch Out where Bald Bull fought King Hippo and pulled his pants down during the I think what I'm saying is, "I'm incredibly gullible."
What are your powers?
Well, you run significantly faster than your robot/miner/whatever counterparts, so unless you get surrounded or surprised, you can often beat feet and escape from them.
However your main armament is your Solomon's Key-esque wand, which lets you dissolve bricks which are to the diagonal-left or diagonal-right below you. Having done this, any enemy robot walking over the gap will fall in and be stuck for a while, allowing you to escape and/or walk over his head:
After a while, they get tired of sitting in a gap in the bricks and they climb out. And whether or not an enemy falls into it, if you wait long enough any gap in the bricks is magically filled by the bricks regenerating.
Why can't a robot be more like a man/Lode Runner?
While these regenerating bricks are weird, what's even more confusing is the enemy robot's brick-related special power: if your zappy-ray is in the middle of disintegrating a chunk of bricks, and the robot touches that chunk in any way, it interrupts the disintegration and instantly regenerates! This of course means the robot is NOT trapped in the brick-gap, thus it can keep walking and kill you.
I guess it would be too easy if you could zap a brick out from under an enemy's very feet, but there are plenty of times when the brick is almost entirely gone when an enemy catches up with that square, undoing your trap and bumping you off.
Another difference between you and the robots is that when YOU step into a gap between bricks, you fall straight through! You can often use this for quick escapes:
Of course the flipside of this is that if you end up in a gap between bricks, surrounded by other bricks, you CAN'T climb back out. You can't do anything but wait for the bricks to re-solidify around you and kill you.
However if you get into a no-win situation (and have the manual or internet to tell you about this secret trick), you can always press the "SELECT" button then press "Start", to reset the level and try again -- without even losing a life! I'm not sure if that's a bug or not, but in theory it means if you're quick to press the select button, you'd almost never die.
Oddly enough, your lode...un-running? Opposition? Anyway, the bad guy robot's greatest weapon is the "camera"/video game screen placement. Each level is about 2 screens wide, but when you scroll the screen to the left or right, you can only see a few squares ahead of you.
This leads to many situations where you're fleeing towards the edge of the screen, only to scroll right into another of the level's robots:
You're so screwed.
As such, an important skill for any aspiring runner of lode is a sort of "robot counting" -- you want to have a rough idea of where all of the robots were when they scrolled off-screen, so you know whether or not they might be popping up as soon as you scroll back there!
Etc. etc. etc...
There's a couple more details that I'd have to discuss if I was going to do an in-depth review, so I'll just gloss over them:
  1. Enemies can pick up one Lode each if they run in to it: they don't show whether or not they're carrying one, but any time they fall into a gap (or sometimes when they jump off a ledge or climb a ladder) they drop it again.
  2. You can kill enemies for bonus points: this happens if they are trapped in a hole as the bricks re-materialize. An easy way to do this is disintegrate several bricks in a row: by the time they climb out of the first gap and fall into the second gap, that one will materialize before they climb out again. However when they die, another enemy respawns somewhere at the top of the screen (often not in your line-of-sight, so you don't know exactly where it is), so this is usually not that useful.
  3. You leave a level by... collecting all the gold. When you've done this, a little tune plays and a ladder appears leading off the top of the screen:
When you climb it, you are taken to the next level and receive an extra life...but not before you get to see...
Your end-of-level cut-scene!
How does our hero celebrate his successful "running" for "lode?" Well, here's where the game turns pretty grim; evidently the pressures of loadrunning have driven Antennae-Helmet-Guy certifiably insane. This becomes disturbingly clear from his post-level victory dance:
he blows raspberries while spanking himself.
Yes, he's a naughty, naughty Lode Runner, and he doesn't care who knows it!
But let him gibber and self-flagellate all he wants, I say! Level 2 is the hardest level until the basically impossible-to-beat Level 6! In fact, here's a little chart of the game's difficulty curve, level by level:
  1. Not too bad
  2. Very very hard
  3. Easy; though the levels are all the same size, this one is divided up so much by ladders and plateaus and stuff that the enemies often get stuck elsewhere for extended periods of time.
  4. Same as level 3
  5. Pretty hard, but not as hard as level 2
  6. As impossible as killing Megaman's yellow-orange cyclops (you know, the one in Dr. Wily's stage who breaks into chunks and flies around the room and is only shootable for a half second in between when his eye appears). So basically, anyone who says they've beaten it is lying or has spent enough time playing the game that they're probably as insane as the Lode Runner.
So...will I only ever be able to play levels 1 through 6?
No, indeed! Remember Lode Runner's title screen? It has "1 PLAYER", "2 PLAYER" and a special EDIT MODE option!
In the long-standing tradition of Nintendo trying to break new ground (and often failing...R.O.B., I'm looking at you), Lode Runner was one of the "Programmable" series of games:
For those of you who think you're better at platform design than the guys who invented Super Mario Brothers and Clu Clu Land, get ready to put Lode Runner through his paces by designing your OWN double-wide level!
Oh wait, check don't even get a single-wide level; you just have to phutz around with a 13x13 grid.
And of course there's no way to save your Magnum Opus: once you press the "reset" button, it's gone. However, we're talking about Console Games, which is an industry that has put "high score lists" in most games even through the 16-bit era, despite games not wasting a battery on storing any of those scores. Basically you're fighting to be "the best player EVER (in your house, during this ENTIRE afternoon, assuming your cousin didn't interrupt your marathon high-score-a-thon to play Super Mario Brothers 3 for the FIVE HUNDRETH TIME just for those glorious 48 seconds you get to ride around in Kuribo's Shoe)."
Well, anyway, here's the micro-level I designed:
(Yes, in the "design" mode, the enemies and player have weird colors)
And hey, my level's actually doable!
Evidently you don't (can't?) manually create a "leave the screen" exit point, after you've loaded your lode (har), you can win by climbing any ladder connected to the inky blackness at the top of the screen!
I think that's about it...
It's actually a pretty fun game when you get the hang of it; it's feels like someone put BurgerTime and the unbaked ingredients from Solomon's Key in a blender: you spend most of your time avoiding enemies, you destroy blocks to defend yourself, and there's puzzle elements.
But overall there's slightly more "action" than "puzzle"-ing; while some piles of gold dust need to be gathered in a very specific way (for example, the ones buried below 2 levels of brick), there's lots of times when you can get yourself out of a jam by some quick thinking/running (or judicious use of the "press select, try again" option/bug).
The first 5 levels are fun enough that I didn't mind that I always lose at level 6.
Anything to add, Pitfall Harry?
"Who'd want to play a really early NES game where the stupid-looking protagonist has barely any offensive capacity and runs around a world of orange stone and pitch black backgrounds trying to gather gold?"
"...oops, forget I said that."
— carlmarksguy, 2013-02-22
You're right about the Bomberman/Lode Runner connection. According to Bomberman's ending, the Runner used to BE Bomberman.
Golly, that page on The Cutting Room Floor is probably where I saw that, too. Thanks for reading (and citation-ing), WX!
I seem to have something about this on an old dead section of my site I used to run. It's on the page I linked to my name and here's the quote: Bomberman (NES) Cross-Series (Lode Runner): In the Famicom ending of Bomberman, when he turns into a human, it says "Bomberman becomes Lode Runner. See you again in Lode Runner!" (Credit: Hobbes) That page also says that in the US Bomberman, he turns into Milon from Milon's Secret Castle.
Name link isn't working for some reason, here's the page:
Cool cameos page! Sorry about name-link not working, I'll have to look at the code (it might be "Hey, I remember the name "Flying Omelette; whenever I see that name I'm going to link to the URL they put in the first time")
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