8-bit Heroes: LODE RUNNER - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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8-bit Heroes: LODE RUNNER

In which we dig our way back to a golden era...

Lode Runner, the 2D platform puzzle game, was an essential 8-bit purchase. Released in 1983 for many home computers of the day, including the Commodore 64, VIC-20, IBM PC and, later, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Lode Runner featured up to 150 levels of puzzling fun (dependent on platform/release) and a unique level editor, something which always proved to be immense creative fun.

The prototype of what later became Lode Runner was a game developed in 1982 by Douglas E. Smith, who at the time was an architecture student at the University of Washington. This prototype, called Kong, was originally written for a Prime 550 minicomputer which was housed on the UW campus, before Smith ported it to the campus' VAX minicomputers, as there were more terminals available. Furthering the development, across one weekend in 1982, Smith was able to build a crude, playable version in 6502 assembly language on an Apple II+ and renamed the game Miner.

At this stage Miner was black-and-white with no joystick support and had only very simple animation where characters move across the screen in block increments, but in October 1982 Smith submitted it to Broderbund Software Inc. He received a one-line rejection letter in response to the effect which said,
"Thank you for submitting your game concept. Unfortunately, it does not fit within our product line."
Not giving up on Miner, Smith borrowed money to purchase a color monitor and joystick and continued to improve the game, adding detailed pixel-level movement. Around Christmas of 1982, he submitted his refined game, now renamed Lode Runner, to four publishers and quickly received offers from all four: Sierra, Sirius, Synergistic, and Broderbund. He took the deal with Broderbund.

Smith was given a $10,000 advance by Broderbund to develop the inter-square animation, and to provide 150 levels of play. It's said that Smith added the level editing function at the request of kids from his neighbourhood who he had testing the game, and many of the levels they designed ended up in the final release of Lode Runner.

Released to much acclaim in mid-1983, the various platform versions came on cassette, cartridge and floppy disc. Not all contained all 150 levels (for instance, the Commodore 64 cartridge release only had 32 levels), and not all offered support to save any created levels (like the 1984 NES release, which also varied by having scrolling screens and more cartoon-like graphics).

Popularity was so high an arcade game of Lode Runner was produced with some added features like the ability to hang off the ends of ladders and an improved enemy AI. Then in 1985, Broderbund released a special enhanced version called Championship Lode Runner. It only featured 50 levels but was much harder than the original. So much so, the company offered a commemorative certificate to anyone who could submit proof of having beaten the entire game (and submitted proof of purchase to show that their copy of the game was not pirated!).

Lode Runner was awarded the "1984 Computer Game of the Year" at the 5th annual Arkie Awards, and went on to become Broderbund's second best-selling Commodore game, shifting in excess of 250,000 copies. Lode Runner was very influential too. Tetris designer Alexey Pajitnov claimed in 2008 that Lode Runner was his favorite puzzle game for many years and he was addicted to it at the time of coding Tetris in 1984.

As for Doug Smith, he went on to work as a programmer on several popular titles, like Micro Machines 64 Turbo and the Nintendo 64 game Body Harvest. He also oversaw development in the role of executive producer on both Secret Of Mana and Secret Of Evermore on the SNES, and provided levels for Lemmings 2: The Tribes. None of Smith's other games really challenge the legacy of his original 1983 hit, but then when you create a game as iconic and well loved as Lode Runner is that's hardly surprising.

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