PUBLISHER: Hudson Soft (Japan) / Broderbund (US)
DEVELOPER: Douglas E. Smith (port by Hudson Soft)
RELEASE DATE: 07/31/1984 (JP), 09/1987 (US)
ALSO ON: Wii Virtual Console (2007-2010, WW), Wii U Virtual Console (2014-2015)
Sometime around 1990, my cousin Jesse and his mom moved back in with her parents, our grandparents. Shortly thereafter, Jesse asked for an NES. His mom bought him one, on the condition that he could only play after all his homework was complete for the day. With the system came many of the classics: Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ninja Gaiden II. There was also a curious entry: 42-in-1, a bootleg cartridge that hailed from Southeast Asia.
Not quite how our 42-in-1 cart looks, but close enough.*
42-in-1 had – you guessed it – 42 games stacked into one single cartridge. The cartridge was actually wider than a standard NES cartridge, so Jesse and my grandfather “widened” the NES cartridge slot to make it fit (I am not sure how they did this, please do not ask). When turned on, 42-in-1 would display 20 games. To access the other 22 games, you’d turn the system off then on again. There they were, like magic!
If you’ve ever purchased a questionable looking game in a foreign country, you know not all bootleg games/compilations are quality. 42-in-1 bucked the trend. The compilation included some first-party Nintendo titles (Super Mario Bros., Pinball, Excitebike), awesome Famicom games that never released on the NES (B-Wings, Battle City, Front Line), and fantastic third-party titles (Galaga, Star Force, Bomberman). Not every game was a winner, of course, but most were quality.
This is not how the menu looked in our 42-in-1 cartridge, but these were the games included with it.
Earlier I mentioned that my cousin Jesse would only be allowed to play the NES if all of his homework was done. He always held up his end of the bargain. After school, he’d start right away on his homework. Once finished, he’d run to the NES, excited to play… only to find our grandparents sitting in front of the television, transfixed by 42-in-1.
See, while Jesse was at school all day, and my aunt was out working, my grandparents – both retirees – played hours of NES games. Bomberman was one of their favorites, along with Lode Runner, Othello and Battle City. Any game they could share and play together, they did (as an adult, I now find this unfathomably sweet). They played so much that Jesse never got a chance. Eventually, he told his mom about it and she confronted them. My grandparents recognized that they were addicted, but they didn’t stop playing. Instead, whenever they would play, they’d set an egg timer for 30-60 minutes. When it dinged, they would stop. They played together for years until my grandpa got sick and passed in 2002. The last time I saw my grandma playing an NES game by herself was two years ago, aged 88. The game? Championship Lode Runner.
Plays for keeps.
Championship Lode Runner is considerably more difficult and sadistic than the original Lode Runner. Both share the same simple premise, though. In a world of bricks and blocks, you control a Lode Runner who must find all the gold to escape the level. Guards incessantly chase you, and if they touch you, you die. You have no weapon to beat them down. Instead, you dig holes to trap them. The holes will eventually regenerate. If they regenerate with a guard in them, the guard will “die,” then reappear at the top of the screen. In other words, the guards are a constant threat. Find all the gold and a ladder will appear, allowing you to escape and move on to the next area.
They’re all so adorable!
The original Lode Runner so enchanted my grandparents because of its engaging blend of action and puzzle gameplay. Every level has two or three guards that move nearly as fast as you do, so outrunning them and/or laying holes for them is a constant concern. Each level doesn’t fit fully on the screen, so scrolling is implemented. This adds to the challenge, as you can’t always see if guards are coming right for you. The level design gets progressively more difficult as well. In addition to the unflappable guards, ladders, trap bricks, hand bars, and gold buried beneath layers of bricks all try to trip you up. Certain levels have several solutions. Others require you to collect gold in a very specific order, or else you’ll trap yourself. Discerning how to beat each level takes time and consideration.
Lode Runner busts out confetti every time he beats a level.
It’s worth noting that Lode Runner was only the second third-party title released on the Famicom behind Nuts & Milk. Like the latter, Lode Runner was ported by Hudson Soft, offers fifty unique levels and a level editor. Compared to earlier Famicom releases, many of which only featured three or four unique levels at most, Lode Runner and Nuts & Milk provide an embarrassment of riches.
While Lode Runner is a port of the Commodore 64 computer original, Hudson Soft reimagined it for the console audience. Both the guards and the Lode Runner are now cute squatty sprites, as opposed to stick figures (the guards are the same sprites for Bomberman, so… Bomberman is technically an enemy here). A simple musical ditty plays in the background. Fruits and vegetables appear, and once collected, provide additional points. There’s also the aforementioned scrolling screens (instead of all action on one screen) and level editor.
Ya boy better think fast here.
Once upon a time, in the 90s, my grandparents played an inordinate amount of NES. My cousin Jesse wasn’t the only one to bear witness to this. I did too. I thought nothing of it at the time. All kinds of people played video games because video games are awesome, is what my innocent undeveloped mind assumed. Now, I realize how unusual and amazing this phenomenon was. 15 years before the Wii captivated nursing homes everywhere, my grandparents blew up bricks and baddies in Bomberman. In Battle City, they leveled hundreds of enemy tanks. And in Lode Runner, they evaded the guards, collected all the gold and beat the game dozens of times over.
This image does my heart good.
Because of my familial connection to Lode Runner, I can’t even pretend to be objective about it. It was one of the best games in the world to my grandparents. Decades later, I understand why. Lode Runner provides a near-perfect blend of forward momentum and strategic movement. Because the guards never stop, you can’t let your own guard down for a second. Because the Runner doesn’t have a weapon, running headlong into danger isn’t an option. Both quick timing and methodical planning are key for progress.
Lode Runner’s gonna be so rich after he’s finished.
I doubt my grandparents thought about any of this stuff, though. In their remaining years together, they enjoyed playing video games with each other. That’s what matters.
*image courtesy of Todo Coleccion