Monday, January 30, 2023

Championship Lode Runner: Won!


It's over, and what a nasty experience this was. I've played puzzle games that were more cognitively taxing than this, but most of them don't dare you to puzzle out obscure solutions under the constant pressure of guard patrols or expect you to make long series of precisely-controlled actions, nor do they give you such an inadequate number of chances to do it all. And even though the physics and AI here are mostly deterministic, there are still so many ways things can go wrong - these levels tend to be both dexterously demanding and extremely intolerant of input errors, many have false walls which aren't revealed until you stumble into them (very likely ruining your run when you do), guards can randomly respawn in very inconvenient places, and they can even randomly drop crates in spots where it is impossible to retrieve them.

An official hint book exists, and I found myself needing it rather often, though I did try to solve each level without it. It doesn't spell out solutions to the levels, which I appreciate, but sometimes the hints are too vague, or didn't help with the parts that gave me trouble, or worse, flat out don't work.

As I mentioned in my first post on it, Championship Lode Runner does allow you to save after every level, but this won't circumvent the life limit, as loading it will cost you a life and automatically re-save it to the disk. You effectively get two tries per level, which is absurd. You can't even cheat with save states; the game will, through some kind of voodoo, detect this tampering. I wound up making a backup of the disk image after each level beaten, which it thankfully cannot detect.

Here are some highlights of the game, both good and bad.

Darkened walls are false walls (my edit)

Level 7 had me stuck for a bit. Clearly there had to be some false walls here, or else there would be no way down from the pyramids, but as in the original game they appear normal until you land on them, forcing you to discover them by trial and error, forfeiting a life whenever you trap yourself in one of the many divots. Imagine doing that with finite lives and the threat of having to restart the whole game when your save file runs out, blegh. And this is just level 7 out of 50!

Even with the false walls discovered, there's still a problem - you can't dig anywhere except the very bottom, since that requires a flat surface at least two tiles wide, so though you could drop down into the inner pyramid through the top of the outer one, there's no way out. As for the outer pyramid, you can drop onto the sides of it from above and escape through the false walls on the side, but the crates put in the divot prisons seem impossible.

Once again, it's all about guard AI manipulation. You've got to get them to explore the inner pyramid for you, collect the treasures within, and when they invariably get themselves trapped, you have to go in yourself and free them to steal their gold. Same deal with getting the trapped crates in the outer one. And I can't tell you how many times I screwed this up by freeing a guard who then just used their freedom to walk into a space that was still in my way.

I've noticed a pattern. The worst levels in the game seem to be the ones that involve false walls.

Once again you'll need trial and error to discover which of the many bricks are fake, including three inescapable pits at the top, and that's just the beginning of your troubles. The lower-right corner of the level is the only spot where it's relatively easy to trap guards, who otherwise tend to cluster and form impassable choke points in the mess of tiny ladders and single-tile brick floors at the bottom. You'll need to drop down into this pachinko-like grid many times to grab all the crates, and if you land anywhere left of more than one guard, you're dead, stuck there without a way back to the ladder on the right. Even dealing with just one guard is dicey if you're getting chased by any from the left.

The trick is to get guards to drop into the inescapable traps composed of false bricks at the top, but even that seems impossible to do reliably. Get one into the rightmost trap, and you've still got to descend to the bottom and hope that the remaining guards are clustered on the left. Get one into the middle trap and you yourself have to land more in the middle of the screen, which is deadly even with only three left. And luring one into the leftmost trap seems to be impossible except by just killing guards over and over again until one of them randomly spawns there, which can easily go wrong if your timing is slightly off even once.

Even after perma-trapping three guards, that still leaves two to chase you around the level, and you'll want to let both them follow you up the ladder so that when you drop down, you can make a mad dash to grab as many crates as possible and then scramble back to the ladder before either of them touch down somewhere in your way. There are still countless ways things can go wrong, and most of them happened before I beat this level.

Oh, and here I learned that tapping "down" when standing above a trapped guard causes you to "climb" into the guard and die. The number of times this happened is a bit embarrassing.

For a change of pace, level 19 is a fun one. It came after a completely miserable level 17, where guards tend to bunch up in the corners and coaxing them out without getting caught is nearly impossible, and a truly evil 18 with no fewer than 8 false walls, any of which will trap you if you fall in. That level even apologizes when you beat it. But 19 is challenging in a good way, with several crates that seem impossible to collect at first, but there's a solution for each of them that can be deduced logically, whether it involves guard manipulation, carefully executed digs, or often both. I wish there were more levels like this, and also that there were unlimited lives, because expecting you to solve it on whatever paltry stock you came to it with is completely unreasonable. Running out of lives needn't directly concern me thanks to savescumming, but I still find it rude.

Level 27 is another good one, a minimally designed puzzle that looks impossible until you discover the "ah-ha!" moment and doesn't waste your time with prolonged nonsense once you've figured it out.

Avoiding the guard seems impossible, but you'll quickly figure out that he'll climb up the ladder, not down, if you're both on it, sending him on a clockwise loop through the "head" of the structure and back down. As for all those crates, you just need to realize that with a well-timed drop you can ride his head and cross over to the inaccessible ladder and platforms.


What a perfectly hateful level this one is. Completely perfect timing and execution is absolutely required to clear out the colored zones by digging the brick(s) blocking it, entering, and moving without any delay or the slightest timing error to grab one of the crates and returning to the entrance before the bricks you blasted respawn and your exit path becomes obstructed. And yes, there are false bricks too.

So much can go wrong here; the most minor input error will probably screw up your chances of returning in time. The yellow zone is the worst as there's no way to keep the guard here completely off your tail. You've got to trap him, but if he gets in your way after freeing himself, or he gets himself killed and respawns in the way of your return trip, or you're dead and have to restart the level again minus one life.

I like this one. It comes shortly after a miserable level of corralling guards from ladder to ladder, where any timing error will split them up and make them surround you, and plenty of false bricks are thrown in to trip you up for good measure, but I like this one. One guard, two crates, and no dirty tricks - just the challenge of figuring out how you can collect the treasures from their respective crates and get out. For one of them, it's carefully (but quickly!) dig around the ladders and into the pit from a direction that lets you leave. For the other, it's carefully/quickly dig around the ladders and into the pit from a direction that lets the guard drop in, grab the crate, and leave.

The very next level is quite clever, but obnoxious in the context of limited lives, as there's no way you could possibly beat it on your first try.

Getting all of the crates seems easy at first. And it is! But when you do, the exit route reveals itself as the status bar flashes the word "HOMICIDE," and soon you'll realize that escape is impossible, as the exit ladder is just out of reach.

To escape you have to kill all of the guards before getting the last chest, so when you grab it they'll be in position for you to run over their heads and reach the exit. Unfortunately, the randomness of where they respawn could mean you have to spend a very long time killing and re-killing the guards over and over again until all of them finally go where you need them to be.

Level 46, after figuring out the false brick locations, would be a neat puzzle stage of reasonably predictable guard AI and difficult but doable digging tricks, except that whether you survive the final move or not is pure luck (or superhuman timing skills), as it involves passing over the head of a guard stuck in an animation loop at the top of a short ladder. Time it on the wrong frame - there's about a 7 in 8 chance of this - and instead of walking over his head, you die.

It all ends here with one doozy of a last level. No false walls. No guardian respawn roulette. No dirty tricks. Just puzzles within puzzles within puzzles, each and every one of them demanding impossibly precise planning and execution, and if you do any of it in the wrong order, you're almost certainly screwed.

This one took me two solid days to work out, even with the hint book, which guides you through the opening moves but then leaves you on your own.

Succeed, and the game declares you a champ. Get the highest score too, and you can personalize your copy of the game with a message, and receive a code to send away to Broderbund for a signed "Champion Lode Runner" certificate. Too late for me to get in on that, but,

GAB rating: Bad. Lode Runner is a good game with a great engine and almost limitless possibilities, and Championship Lode Runner continues to offer new ideas and innovative challenges, but there was almost no pleasure to be had with these often capriciously difficult levels, and without savescumming I almost certainly wouldn't have reached the few ones that I did enjoy.

Lode Runner Turbo wasn't going to get a great rating from me no matter what - the formula had already gotten stale well before the first game was over, and there's no new level building blocks or gameplay elements. This is a pack of levels crafted by the original game's players using the original game's level editor and does nothing that wasn't always allowed by it - in that regard, not to mention the intense frustration level, it anticipates Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels, except for making that game's difficulty look reasonable in comparison.

But it could have been more tolerable, with a few tweaks. First and foremost, this should have offered unlimited lives. Maybe, just for fun, it could keep track of your total death count, but there's no excuse for any lives limit, let alone one as stingy as the classic Lode Runner model that effectively grants two tries per level and boots you to the main menu when you run out. The score might as well have been lost too - it serves no purpose as it is.

Second, the level displays should have offered the player perfect information. By this I mean no surprise false walls - clearly indicate them onscreen somehow, perhaps by using a different coloring scheme. Guard respawn points should have been indicated onscreen as well, including some method of knowing or controlling where the next one will activate, because endlessly killing the same guards over and over again in the hopes of getting one to respawn where he's needed just sucked.

And lastly, even with these tweaks, some levels were just so nasty that they ought to have been toned down or even replaced. Broderbund's curating process should have been more willing to cut down on at least some of the designers' bullshit.

As I said, this wasn't going to get a great rating from me no matter what it had done differently. Tolerable does not mean good. As it was, I strongly disliked the whole experience.


  1. Not sure if that was fun... or pain...

    I had Lode Runner on my Tandy back in the day, but I don't think I played it that much, particularly after I found several CRPGs. Honestly, I played our catalog of shareware games more than Lode Runner!

    DOS Jump Man anyone?

  2. Well, congrats on finish this one. I am happy I did not have this expansion, I would have spent way too much time on it.


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