A long time ago, there was an old apple computer in my house with some pre-loaded software on it. It had solitaire, a jigsaw puzzle program, and an old adventure game called Power Pete. But the program that stuck with me the most from that machine was Lode Runner: The Legend Returns. Lode Runner was a series of puzzle platformer games by Douglas Smith and published by Brøderbund, wherein you played as a man delving into a vast series of mines to find and/or steal gold. The Legend Returns was a sequel, in which you play as Jake Peril, searching through the subterranean caverns of the Earth to steal gold from the Mad Monks, in an effort to escape the dying planet. The game was colorful, challenging and creative. In addition to over one hundred single player and multiplayer levels, the game included a very diverse level editor that let you make your own crazy stages.
Some time later, although I was still quite young, I was in a game store and I saw a nondescript box labeled Lode Runner 3D by Infograms. Being a huge fan of the Legend Returns, I was super excited to play it. After going through three different Blockbuster Videos, I rented the game and set it up. Whatever I was expecting, it was not what I got. All I remembered of that first encounter was that I was disappointed. The game faded from my memory, and here I was presented with the great dilemma of video game rentals for any kid. Because I only had the game for that week, it wasn’t long before I forgot what it was like. A few months later I was back in that game store with some money, and I distinctly remember weighing my options between Star Wars: Rogue Squadron and Lode Runner 3D. I made the wrong choice. Years later, I had sold that copy, and found myself in a Play n’ Trade. At this point I had a job and was more willing to browse bargain bins for old titles, even ones that I knew full well to be less than great, and for three bucks, I decided to pick up this old chestnut one more time.
In the far future, the Lode Runners have become an intergalactic peacekeeping force. The Mad Monks, an alien cult from the planet Pandora, has been raiding off world shipments of gold and killing all survivors and pursuers. The Monks’ leader, the Emperor Monk, is hold up on a secret base where he has ordered the dispersal of the treasure across several secret installations across the galaxy. During a fatal assault, the location of one of the Monks’ bases is discovered, and Lode Runner HQ decides to send their best man on a stealth mission to take back the gold and find the other hidden bases.
Just like the previous Lode Runner games, the story is not that crucial to the game. There are no cut scenes in the game, besides some brief text at the beginning that explains what’s happening. The science fiction elements have little bearing on the game, outside of the stage select being on a few space stations. Since there is almost no story in the game itself, all I really have to say in it is that I found the idea of making the Mad Monks aliens a little dumb, but the lack of any sort of series continuity was a license for the developers to do whatever they wanted.
The gameplay is, for the most part, unchanged from other games in the series. In each stage, the goal is to get all the gold and make it to the exit. However the most unfortunate difference is that your arsenal is greatly diminished. In the original Lode Runner games you only had a gun that could take out a single square of ground that enemies could fall into. The ground would reform after a short while and enemies could pull themselves from the hole, but if you stood on them, they could not escape and the ground would engulf them. The Legend Returns introduced a ton of new tools for navigating and taking out enemies. You could find small and large bombs to destroy terrain, jackhammers to bore through hard surfaces, a pick axe to bury the enemies with, poison gas to confuse them, and many more tools and tricks. Lode Runner 3D removes all of those toys and leaves you with only your gun, and the ability to pick up bombs. To make things harder, your gun now also has a powerful recoil effect, launching you back a space every time you use it. It’s an unfortunate set back. The levels in the game instead rely on various specific obstacles to offer variety. Some stages have teleports, others have robots that create terrain as they move, and some have super heated floors that kill you on touch. The change is not inherently bad, it just offers less variety than seen in previous games
The only things that can kill you are the Mad Monks, who take you out in one hit, and your own mistakes. If you plant an explosive too close to yourself, it will take you out. If you fall into a hole you made, you cannot climb out. The early levels allow for some improvising and mistakes, but as you get to the later levels there is almost no margin for error. The game is broken up into five worlds with five levels apiece and five stages in each level. Each level has a piece of a passkey that you need to get to unlock the next world, however you only need to get all the gold to end a level. It is not impossible to get both the gold and passkey in one go, but more often than not, you will get the gold and miss the key, resulting in you going through the whole level again. This isn’t too bad in the early part of the game, but later on it becomes a major hassle, mainly because there are only a limited number of lives in the game. You can find more in bonus stages, but upon replaying a level, there will be no gold or extra lives you did not get. Losing a life makes you restart a stage. Getting a game over makes you restart an entire level.
Although the levels are made of twisting and winding 3D structures, you are still restricted to 2D movement. It’s basically a variation on the isometric perspective in Lode Runner 2, but with a movable camera. This is another downgrade from the previous games. The levels in The Legend Returns and Lode Runner 2 look like they are part of the environment, changing with the background designs. Lode Runner 3D’s levels all look like floating blocks with a different background and effect when destroyed.
On the whole, the presentation is very bare bones. The music composed by Julian Soule is not that bad. It really isn’t much to write home about, but it fits the atmosphere of the levels. The cartoony character design is a little goofy, but it helps make the characters stand out against the backgrounds. Although the game is an N64 exclusive, it does not do much to push the system’s capabilities.
Lode Runner 3D is not the worst thing out there. Probably the game’s biggest fault is how middle of the road it is. The graphics are bland overall, the gameplay gets monotonous, and there really is no driving action to carry you through the game. In most puzzle games the main thing pushing you forward is the gameplay, the puzzles themselves. This game is just too repetitive to really enjoy and the lack of features makes it feel like a downgrade from past games. If it was more diverse, or even less enjoyable it would have left more of an impact, but as it stands, it’s a sub-par puzzle game.