Douglas E. Smith has died. This news was broken by people at Tozai Games, who handle the mobile platform ports of his game. The news was picked up by the copy and paste video game sites … and they added nothing to it. Kotaku, Gamasutra and Polygon could run massively moronic screeds about how much they’d awkwardly like to turn the word “gamer” into an epithet, but not a single one of them could even produce as much as a fucking photo of Smith for their articles. You can’t Cntl-V up a head shot, it seems.
All of the people behind those sites just sort of felt that the death of the creator of Lode Runner still fell into their domain, though, which is hilarious. Lode Runner has nothing to do with modern game journalism. Trying to pretend they give a shit that its creator is deceased is their laughably transparent attempt at showing cred. More, they couldn’t do the barest minimum of research on the shit they do add. The fact that these garbage urls believe that Lode Runner and what they do are in any way related is disgusting. Take what Polgyon added to the “news”:
Released in 1983 for the Apple ][ and Commodore 64, Lode Runner was a […]
Oh! The Apple “][” and the Commodore 64 got the first releases in 1983? That was it, huh. I mean, it was ported to a million different machines, but just the Apple and C64 got the ports in 1983, only those, because they specifically mentioned them and certainly not the Atari 800, as shown in this screenshot from AtariMania, and —
You lazy fucking assholes.
They couldn’t add the slightest bit to the news without fucking it up. DO YOUR FUCKING JOBS. It would have been better if they had said NOTHING rather than add rotten detritus to the over easy shit-scramble of knowledge that multi-platform software releases have become. You can’t trust Wikipedia, because Wikipedia is wholly constructed by dipshits like this. You need original sources. You need to not add to the confusion. There’s some manuals that might have the proper copyrights (I had the physical PC/PCjr manual to Lode Runner within arm’s distance when I began to write this article, but even I’ll admit that expecting that sort of thing from the cretinous bile that make up #GAMESJOURNOS might be a bit much) but not all of them have been digitized.
What we do not need, what nobody needs, is the same press looking down their noses at regular people that play games trying to be helpful and getting it wrong. Getting it all wrong, wrong, wrong. Making it worse by polluting the future evidence like the amateurs they are.
So with that in mind.
None of them had anything to say about what life was like when Lode Runner dropped. There isn’t a Digital Antiquarian article about Lode Runner, the go-to source on this sort of thing, so I’ll give it a shot. I never met the man, Doug Smith, that invented the game. I have nothing for you there. I can tell you about what it was like when the game was released, because maybe that will matter to someone playing the game years from now. It really is that good. Doug, if you’re in a better place (but one that can still get the feed of this blog): this gem you created really did capture the attention of the western world, sir.
In 1983, it was generally accepted that all the real action games were at the arcade. We’d get a sucka port for home computers… maybe. (The PCjr, which my family had, needed to have the PC port authorized, which wasn’t often and then we had to hope that the boot loader didn’t do anything that the PCjr couldn’t comprehend.) The consoles usually got a port, but almost everyone had an Atari 2600, and those ports were awful. I’m generalizing – the, hooooooah, Zaxxon port for ColecoVision, to pick a game at random – was probably alright, sure. But you had to go to a place to see the best new action games in the world. Until Lode Runner.
I cannot think of a better home computer action game that was released before Lode Runner. I’ve been struggling all night – Lode Runner was the one that blew everything else away, wasn’t it? It rocked my neighborhood’s world. Within days of getting the PCjr for Christmas in 1985, I was subscribing to every mail order PC games catalog I could find. If I couldn’t get the games, I could at least memorize their SKUs. My memory isn’t great, but I am pretty sure the first PCjr game our family purchased from those catalogs was Lode Runner. It was in all the magazines. Every review was solid. There was something iconic, even in the mid-80s, about the Lode Runner Dude on the Lode Runner Box blowing away robots with a jolly knapsack of gold at his hip, climbing ladders, wearing a Cheshire smile.
It arrived and I played it and nothing else for weeks. The keyboard was perfect for it, unlike a lot of PC ports. The use of two separate keys for “dig left” and “dig right” made it superior to the home computer versions that used a single joystick button and forced you to be pointed in the right direction. And then there was the matter of the speed…
You could change the speed on Lode Runner. Doing so sped everything up or down — this wasn’t an early cheat code, letting the player character run faster or slower than the enemies of the Bungeling Empire. I got used to the default one for the PCjr, and that speed felt truly crafted to give the best experience. I’d put the speed up and see everyone comically run around like spazzes, but keep going back to default. It’s so good. If Zork was the first game to occupy my imagination, Lode Runner was the first game to directly interface with my nervous system. It had cyan and magenta and black and white, but that’s all you needed to depict the world and the rules and the gold. The primitive graphics that didn’t let you necessarily see when an enemy grabbed a gold bar even worked to offer up intrigue. Lode Runner, as a concept, understood platform limitations and simply elevated itself past them. There are so many ports to modern systems, but the speed is never juuuuust right, and the backgrounds are always so desperately over-complicated. It doesn’t need to be anything more than this:
… because that is all you need to be perfect. We kept that disk for every IBM PC compatible computer we had. I still have it. It might be the only game with a universal approval rating. Some people have seizures because of Tetris. Civilization II is in a genre where I’m sure some Sasquatch of a war gamer go PFFFFT at playability versus realism. Ocarina of Time might be the one if something happened to kill off the world’s grown-ups. But I don’t know anybody that dislikes Lode Runner. I think it’s the only game out there that everybody loves. It was one of the best games in the world and it included a map editor on release for chrissake.
It is available on everything these days, including iOS and Android, though. The first few years I had a mobile phone, I tried rooting them, jailbreaking it and putting all manner of apps onto it. I was going to have a small tricorder that did everything. I gave that up. To play a video game requires a controller, and the tablets and phones don’t have one. There are only two I have on my phone and I will always install them. The first is the original Bard’s Tale. I’ll pay for that a hundred times on a hundred different phones, but playing it is not realistic there.
The other one is Lode Runner, and it’s the only mobile port I like. It was that good originally, and it’s that good now. In the face of the world’s most terrible gaming platforms, this game designed over 30 years ago by Douglas E. Smith still holds up. My girlfriend’s six-year old nephew tried it on a long car trip. When he asked if he could play it, I realized… well, not that I too want to have children one day, but I promised to remember how he spelled his first name. Perched high on a nanny state seat booster, he played. He ran up ladders and across the wire and dropped to the ground. He liked that you couldn’t die from falling. He ran for the lode. He loved it.
Somebody always will.