It’s always been a bit of a balancing act to decide which games I write about in detail here — a matter of balancing my level of personal interest in each candidate against its historical importance. In the early years of this project especially, when I still saw it as focusing almost exclusively on narrative-oriented games, I passed over some worthy candidates because I considered them somewhat out of scope. And now, needless to say, I regret some of those omissions.
One of the games that’s been made most conspicuous by its absence here is Lode Runner, Doug Smith’s seminal action-puzzle platformer from 1983. “Iconic” is a painfully overused adjective today, but, if any game truly can be called an icon of its era, it’s this one. So, I decided to take the release of Lode Runner: The Legend Returns, a 1994 remake/re-imagining that does fit neatly into our current position in the historical chronology, as an opportunity to have a belated look back at the original.
In late 1981, Doug Smith was studying architecture and numerical analysis at the University of Washington in Seattle. Meanwhile he had a part-time job in one of the university’s computer labs, where he met two other students named James Bratsanos and Tracy Steinbeck, who were tinkering with a game they called Kong, a not so-thinly-veiled reference to the arcade hit Donkey Kong. Bratsanos had first created Kong the previous year on one of his high school’s Commodore PET microcomputers, and the two were now in the process of porting it to one of the university’s DEC VAX-11/780 minicomputers. Smith soon joined the effort. When their fellow students started to show some interest in what they were doing, they made the game publicly available.
In Kong, you guided a little man through a single-screen labyrinth of tunnels linked by ladders, implemented entirely using monochrome textual characters; your man was a dollar sign, your enemies paragraph symbols. Armed only with a pick axe that was more tool than weapon, you must steal all of the gold that was lying around the place, whilst avoiding or delaying the guards who protected it, generally by digging pits into which they could fall. The group hid their game from the university’s administrators by embedding it into an otherwise broken graphing program. “‘Graph’ would prompt the user for a function,” remembers a fellow student named Rick LaMont, “then crap out unless the secret password was entered to play Kong.”
With its captive audience of playtesters in the form of the students who hung around the computer labs, the game grew organically as the weeks passed. Soon students were coming by only to play Kong; Lamont claims that “a ‘show process’ command would often report 80 percent of the users running ‘graph.'” Eager players began to queue up behind the university’s computer terminals, and Kong became a fixture of campus life, the University of Washington’s equivalent of what Zork had once been at MIT. Along the way, it gradually evolved from an arcade game into something that required as much thought as reflexes; the levels just kept getting more and more complex.
According to Smith, it was his eight-year-old nephew who convinced him to port the game to the Apple II; having visited the computer lab once or twice and seen it in action there, the little boy was decidedly eager for a version he could play at home. “After he bugged me enough,” said Smith in a 1999 interview, “one weekend I rewrote it for the Apple II, basically in three days.” This first microcomputer version was a copy of the DEC VAX version right down to its monochrome ASCII graphics. Smith made just one big change: he renamed the game Miner to avoid legal entanglements. After paying James Bratsanos $1500 for the rights to the game, he submitted it to Brøderbund Software, only to get a terse rejection letter back: “Thank you for submitting your game concept. Unfortunately, it does not fit with our product line.”
But, seeing how popular the game continued to be at the university, Smith decided to take another stab at it. He borrowed enough money to buy a color monitor and joystick for his Apple II, and programmed a second, much-improved version with color bitmap graphics and controls that took advantage of one of the Apple’s unique affordances: its joysticks had two buttons rather than the standard one, which in this case allowed the player’s avatar to drill to the left or right of himself without the player ever having to reach for the keyboard. In late 1982, Smith sent this new version to four different publishers, among them Brøderbund and Sierra. All of them knew as soon as they saw this latest version of the game that they wanted it for themselves. John Williams, the little brother of Sierra founder Ken Williams, and the company’s chief financial officer from the tender age of twenty, later claimed that he “almost lost his job” because he spent so much time playing the game Smith sent to them. But Smith wouldn’t end up publishing his game through Sierra. Instead he wound up entrusting it to Brøderbund after all.
Founded and run as a family business by a personable former lawyer and real-estate developer named Doug Carlston, Brøderbund would consistently demonstrate an uncanny talent for identifying exactly the software product that Middle America was looking for at any given moment, securing it for themselves, and then delivering it to their customers in the most appealing possible way. (At the risk of sounding unkind, I might note at this juncture that, whereas Ken Williams loved to talk about the mainstreaming of games and other software, the Carlston family talked less but proved more adept at the practical work of doing so.) In the years to come, this talent would result in a quantity of truly iconic Brøderbund titles out of all proportion to the relatively modest number of products which the company released in total: titles like Karateka, Carmen Sandiego, Bank Street Writer, The Print Shop, Prince of Persia, SimCity, Myst. But before any of them came Doug Smith’s game.
Brøderbund offered Smith a $10,000 advance and a very generous 23-percent royalty. And they also promised to get behind his game with the kind of concerted, professional marketing push that was still a rarity in the industry of that era. Showing a remarkable degree of restraint for his age as well as faith in his game’s potential, Smith signed with Brøderbund rather than accept another publisher’s offer of $100,000 outright, with no royalty to follow. He would be amply rewarded for his foresight.
For example, it was Brøderbund’s savvy marketers who gave Miner its final name. Well aware of the existence of another, superficially similar platform game called Miner 2049er, they proposed the alternate title of Lode Runner, as in “running after the mother lode.” Soon after choosing this new name that held fast the idea that the player was some sort or other of miner, they devised a more detailed fictional context for the whole affair that abandoned that notion entirely. It involved the evil Bungeling Empire, the antagonist of their 1982 hit Choplifter!:
You are a galactic commando deep in enemy territory. Power-hungry leaders of the repressive Bungeling Empire have stolen a fortune in gold from the people by means of excessive fast-food taxes. Your task? To infiltrate each of 150 different treasure rooms, evade the deadly Bungeling guards, and recover every chest of Bungeling booty.
In the spirit of this narrative, the hero’s pick axe became a laser drill.
Still, none of this background would be remembered by anyone who actually played the game. Instead the supposed Bungeling guards would become popularly known as “mad monks,” which their pudgy low-resolution shapes rather resembled. Doubtless plenty of imaginative young gamers made up new narratives of their own to fit the bizarre image of greedy monks chasing an intrepid adventurer up and down a maze of scaffolding dotted with gold.
Smith dropped out of university at the end of 1982, and worked closely with Brøderbund over the course of six months or so to polish his game in a concerted, methodical way, something that was seldom done at this early date. They helped him to tweak each of the 150 levels — some designed by Smith himself, some by the kids who lived around Smith’s family home, whom he paid out of his own pocket on a per-level basis — to a state of near-perfection, and arranged them all so that they steadily progressed in difficulty as you played through them one after another. And then Brøderbund encouraged Smith to polish up his level editor and include that as well.
Lode Runner got a rapturous reception upon its release in June of 1983, quickly becoming the best-selling product Brøderbund had ever released to that point; Smith was soon collecting more than $70,000 per month in royalties. If anything, its reputation among students of game design has become even more hallowed today. It stands out from its peers of 1983 like a young Glenn Gould in a beginner’s piano course.
That said, Lode Runner is not quite the sui generis game which its more enraptured devotees are sometimes tempted into claiming it to be. When James Bratsanos first created what would eventually become Lode Runner on the Commodore PET, he was according to his own testimony working from a friend’s description of an arcade game: “He didn’t explain it well, and I took creative liberties and assumed I understood what he meant. So for certain elements I completely misinterpreted it.” Bratsanos, an acknowledged non-gamer, may later have come to believe that the game his friend had been describing was Donkey Kong, and assumed that the major differences between that game and his stemmed from his youthful “misinterpretation” of his friend’s description of the former. But the chronology here doesn’t pass muster: Donkey Kong was first released in the summer of 1981, while Bratsanos is sure that he started working on his game, which originally went under the rather unpleasant name of Suicide, in 1980. Suicide became Kong only after Donkey Kong had been released and become an arcade sensation, and Bratsanos had started at the University of Washington the following fall.
So, what was it that his friend actually described to him back in 1980? The best candidate is Space Panic, a largely forgotten Japanese stand-up arcade game from that year which would seem to be the first ever example of the evergreen genre that would become known as the platformer. Not only did Space Panic have you running and climbing your way through a vertical labyrinth, but it also allowed you to dig holes in it to trap your enemies, just like Suicide, Kong, and finally Lode Runner. Space Panic was not a commercial success, perhaps because it asked for too much too soon from an audience still enthused with simpler fare like Space Invaders; it was reported that the average session with it lasted all of 30 seconds. But it does appear that it entranced one anonymous teenage boy enough that he told his buddy James Bratsanos all about it. And from that random conversation — from that butterfly flapping its wings, one might say — eventually stemmed one of the biggest games of the 1980s.
But if it isn’t quite an immaculate creation, Lode Runner is a brilliant one, a classic lesson in the way that fiendish complexity can arise out of deceptive simplicity in game design. It offers just six verbs — move left, right, up, or down; dig left or right — combined with only slightly more nouns — platforms of diggable brick or impenetrable metal, ladders, trap doors, overhead poles for shimmying, monks, treasures. And yet from this disarmingly short list of ingredients arises a well-nigh infinite buffet of devious possibility.
Although Lode Runner does retain some vestiges of its arcade inspirations in the form of a score and limited lives, it’s as much a puzzle or even a strategy game as an action game at heart. (Your lives are essentially meaningless in the end; you can save your progress at any point.) Playing each level entails first experimenting and dying — dying a lot — until you can devise a thoroughgoing plan for how to tackle it. Then, it’s just a matter of executing the plan perfectly; this is where the action elements come into play. The levels in Lode Runner are dynamic enough that getting through them doesn’t require stumbling across a single rote, set-piece solution envisioned by the designer; there’s space here for player creativity, space for variation, space for quick thinking that gets you out of an unanticipated jam — or that fails to do so just when you believe you’re on the brink of victory.
The levels build upon one another, each one training you for what’s still to come as it forces you to think about your limited menu of verbs and nouns in new ways. This sort of progressive design was not a hallmark of most computer games of 1983, and thus serves to make Lode Runner stand out all the more. The world would arguably have to wait until the release of DMA Designs’s Lemmings in 1991 to play another action-puzzler that was its equal in terms of design.
Just as in Lemmings, every single detail of Lode Runner‘s implementation becomes relevant as the levels become more complex, from the timing of events in the environment to the rudimentary but completely predictable artificial intelligence of the monks. Consider: the pits you drill are automatically filled in again after ten seconds, while monks climb out of pits into which they’ve fallen in just a few seconds. But what would happen if you could time things so that a pit is filled in while a monk is still inside it? The monk would get buried there permanently, that’s what, giving you a precious reprieve before the replacement who is spawned at the very top of the screen makes his way down to you once again. By the time you reach level 30 or so, you’ll be actively using the monks as your helpmates, taking advantage of the fact that they too like to pick up gold — for there’s now gold in places which you can’t reach, meaning you must depend on them to be your delivery men. Once one of them has what you need, you just need to make him fall into a pit, then walk on his head to steal the booty. Easy peasy, right? If you think so, don’t worry: there’s still 120 levels to go, each one more insidiously intricate than the last.
And then, when you’re done with all 150 levels, there’s still the level editor. Even by the standards of today, the original Apple II Lode Runner provides a lot of content. By the standards of 1983, its generosity was mind-boggling.
A phenomenal game by any standard, Lode Runner became a phenomenon of another sort in the months after its release. Doug Smith, a private, retiring fellow who loathed the spotlight, nevertheless became a household name among hardcore gamers, joining the likes of Bill Budge, Richard Garriott, and Nasir Gebelli as one of the last of the Apple II scene’s auteur-programmer stars. At a time when a major hit was a game that sold 50,000 copies, his game sold in the hundreds of thousands on the Apple II and in ports to the Commodore 64, the IBM PC, and virtually every other commercially viable computer platform under the sun. First it became the Apple II game of 1983; then it became the game of whatever year it happened to be ported to each other platform, collecting award after award almost by default. And then there was Japan.
One of Doug Carlston’s smartest moves in the early days of Brøderbund was to forge links with the burgeoning software and gaming scene in Japan. He was particularly chummy with Yuji Kudo, the founder of Hudson Soft, Japan’s biggest software publisher of all. (A model-train enthusiast extraordinaire, Kudo took his company’s very un-Japanese name from his favorite type of steam locomotive.) The two men already had a deal in place to bring Lode Runner to Japan even before it was released in the United States. During the summer of 1983, it became one of the first ten games to be made available for the Nintendo Famicom — the videogame console that would later conquer the world as the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Like Wizardry before it and Populous after it, Lode Runner turned into that rarest of birds, a Western videogame which the Japanese embraced with all the fannish obsessiveness of which they’re capable — which is, to be clear, a lot of obsessiveness indeed. Before there was Super Mario Bros. to drive sales of Nintendo consoles all over the world, there was Lode Runner to get the ball rolling in Japan itself. Sales of the game in Japan alone topped 1 million in the first eighteen months, prompting one journalist to declare Lode Runner Japan’s new “national pastime.”
The country’s Lode Runner mania reached its peak in the summer of 1985, when Hudson Soft, Brøderbund, and Sony joined forces to sponsor a national competition in the game. Of the 3700 players between the ages of nine and fourteen who entered the competition, 50 became finalists, invited to come to Tokyo and play the game on what was at that time the largest video screen in the world, 86 feet in width. A slightly uncomfortable-looking Doug Smith, coaxed into the spotlight by Brøderbund’s marketers, presided over the affair and even agreed to join the competition. (He didn’t last very long.) “I like the people of Japan,” he said. “There’s an honesty among the people that is so refreshing — they would never think of pirating computer games, for instance.” (A more likely explanation for Lode Runner‘s high sales in Japan than the people’s innate honesty was, of course, the fact that piracy on the cartridge-based Famicom was a possibility for only the most technically adept.)
By decade’s end, Lode Runner‘s worldwide sales had topped 2.5 million copies. I can hardly emphasize enough what absurdly high figures these are for a game first sold on the humble Apple II.
When you take Brøderbund’s generous royalty and combine it with sales like this, then reckon in the fact that Lode Runner was essentially a one-man production, you wind up with one very wealthy young game programmer. Still in his early twenties, Doug Smith found himself in the enviable position of never having to work another day in his life. He bought, according to his friend Rick LaMont, “a Porsche 911 Carrera, a Bayliner speedboat, and a house in Issaquah.”
In the face of distractions like these, Doug Smith became one of a number of early Apple II auteurs, such as the aforementioned Bill Budge and Nasir Gebelli, who weren’t able to sustain their creative momentum as lone-wolf developers became teams and the title of game designer slowly separated itself from that of game programmer. He did provide Brøderbund with one Lode Runner sequel of a sort: Championship Lode Runner, with 50 new levels that had mostly been sent to the company by fans and that were (correctly) advertised as picking up in difficulty right where the first game had left off. But its technology and graphics were barely tweaked, and the decision to aim it exclusively at the hardest-core of the hardcore put a natural limit on its appeal.
After that, there followed several years of silence from Smith, off enjoying his riches and pondering the strange course his life had taken, from starving student to wealthy man of leisure in a matter of months. And truly, his is a story that could only have happened at this one brief window in time, when videogames had become popular enough to sell in the millions but could still be made by a single person.
Just as they did with Wizardry, the impatient Japanese soon took Lode Runner into their own hands, making and releasing a string of sequels in their country that would never appear elsewhere. But what ought to have been a natural ongoing franchise remained oddly under-served by Brøderbund in its country of origin; they released only one more under-realized, under-promoted sequel, for the Commodore 64 and Atari 8-bit line only, created by their recently purchased subsidiary Synapse Software without Smith’s involvement. Perhaps they were just too busy turning all those other products into icons of their era.
It wasn’t until 1994, when Brøderbund’s ten-year option expired and all rights to the game and its trademarks reverted to Smith, that anyone attempted a full-fledged revival in the United States. Irony of ironies, the company behind said revival was Sierra, finally getting their chance with a game that had slipped through their fingers a decade before. The project was driven by Jeff Tunnell, the founder of what was now the Sierra subsidiary known as Dynamix, who had just made the classic puzzler The Incredible Machine.
Lode Runner: The Legend Returns was a symbol of everything that was right and wrong with the games industry of the mid-1990s. Dynamix added beautiful hand-painted backgrounds and a stereo soundtrack to the old formula, but in the minds of many the new version just didn’t play as well as the old; it had something to do with the timing, something to do with the unavoidably different feel of a 1990s 32-bit computer game versus the vintage 8-bit variety — and perhaps something to do as well with Tunnell’s decision to add a lot more surface complexity to the elegantly simple mix of the original, including locks and keys, snares, gas traps, bombs, jackhammers, buckets of goo, and even light and darkness. The Legend Returns did reasonably well for Sierra, but never became the phenomenon that the original had been in its home country. And as for Japan… well, it now preferred homegrown platformers that featured a certain Italian plumber. The various revivals since have generally met the same fate: polite interest, decent sales, but no return to the full-blown Lode Runner mania of the 1980s.
Smith did return to playing an active role in the games industry in the 1990s, working as the producer of a couple of Nintendo games among other things. He disappeared from view once again after the millennium, occupying himself mostly with the raising of his five children. He died by suicide in 2014 at the age of 53.
(Sources: the book Software People: Inside the Computer Business by Douglas G. Carlston; Retro Gamer 111; Ahoy! of April 1986; A.N.A.L.O.G. of March 1984; Computer Gaming World of January/February 1983, October 1983, and March 1986; Electronic Games of June 1983 and January 1985; inCider of April 1984; InfoWorld of October 31 1984; Macworld of August 1985; MicroTimes of December 1984 and September 1985; Brøderbund News of April of Fall 1985; InterAction of Fall 1994. Online sources include IGN‘s 1999 interview with Doug Smith, Jeremy Parish’s eulogy to Smith, and a 1991 Usenet reminiscence by Rick LaMont.
Feel free to download the original Lode Runner and its manual for play in the Apple II emulator of your choice.)
December 18, 2020 at 6:32 pm
Lode Runner definitely has an interesting legacy though I am highly perplexed as to why you decided to do a post on it.
Also you missed probably the best source of info about the game from Retro Gamer Issue 111, which did interview Smith as well as the creator of the original game Suicide, James Bratsanos.
December 18, 2020 at 6:40 pm
Yeah, I am not the type to generally advocate major rewrites (and your amazing blog really never needs them), but you may want to consider tracking that issue down and adding a couple of paragraphs at the start here. There is a lot of history to the game before Smith got his hands on it.
December 18, 2020 at 7:29 pm
Ah, don’t know how I missed that. I normally make a check through my Retro Gamer archive as a matter of course before I write something like this. Edits made. Thanks!
As for my reason for writing this piece: Lode Runner is a game whose absence on this site people have noted frequently over the years. Certainly it’s very important in the history of game design. I thought now would be good chance to correct for its absence, as a bit of a holiday palette cleanser between heavier topics. Apologies if I misjudged.
December 18, 2020 at 10:10 pm
I have no problem with you covering it, I just thought it’s more out of scope for what the blog is. I love anything you put out so you never need to apologize, just noting the oddity.
Happy Holidays to you Jimmy!
December 18, 2020 at 10:25 pm
December 18, 2020 at 10:39 pm
It’s an important game. I’m very glad you wrote this piece!
December 22, 2020 at 12:52 pm
Another very interesting piece, on a game that was before my time (I only discovered the joys of gaming in the 90s, and even then the Loderunner remake went unnoticed by me). It’s incredible how well you bring those times to life and track the fate of games entwined with those who made them! Thanks for your great work.
That said, and because I’m a square and boring enough person to remark on this: it’s a palate cleanser, not a palette cleanser. The former is best served by offering a snack or drink of altogether different flavor in between courses; while the latter end is best achieved through applying some rather nasty chemical. Better not mix the two.
December 22, 2020 at 12:56 pm
Ah, I always mix those two up. (No pun intended). At least I usually manage to catch it in articles these days…
January 4, 2021 at 7:24 pm
Almost forgot about this game… hard to believe after how many hours I sunk into it at the time
June 17, 2021 at 10:48 pm
The only problem with Loderunner is that it rewards the poorer players by posting the high scorers as #1. The really good players are those who can get to level 150 with the most leftover men and the lowest score. Too bad that couldn’t be changed.
I discovered this game when we had our first computer – a macintosh 128K ($2000 on sale!!) The original version didn’t let you leave and return to the same level. You had to start all over again. As a result, no one was allowed to touch the computer until I either got to the top or lost all my players. It took me most of the weekend to do it. I’ll be 75 in a few weeks and I still love the beauty and simplicity of it. I turn off the sound forget about all the problems in the world.
December 18, 2020 at 6:45 pm
I must nitpick here and point out that the paragraph symbols is not an ASCII character. :) No idea what sort of extended ASCII the VAX-11/780 might have used; the MCS doesn’t seem to have been introduced until 1983.
December 18, 2020 at 7:32 pm
Fair enough. Thanks!
December 18, 2020 at 7:15 pm
“and to Sirius and Synergistic, a pair of more brief-lived early Apple II hit-makers”
I am not sure its fair to call Synergistic “brief-lived.” While Bill Clardy gave up on the publishing racket very early, the company continued to exist as a development house well into the 1990s. In fact, Sierra ended up buying it. The studio was finally shut down by Sierra in 1999.
December 18, 2020 at 7:34 pm
December 18, 2020 at 7:21 pm
I feel like you might have buried the lede a little bit here. I believe Lode Runner was the first game–or at least the first blockbuster game–to have a level editor, which has huge implications for the gaming landscape of the 90s, with DOOM/Quake/etc. The wargame Ancient Art of War had a level editor a year later.
My memory of Lode Runner–one of my first memories of PC games at all–was building Lode Runner levels and handing them off to my babysitter to play. He never had much problem overcoming the challenges concocted by a nine-year-old.
Anyway, there’s something extraordinary about those rare games that put the very same tools that the developers use into the hands of players (especially if they’re usable by a nine-year-old). The game needs to be simple enough to have manageable tools, and deep enough to have a million viable levels inside its possibility space. That’s the magic of Lode Runner and not that many other games.
December 19, 2020 at 1:30 am
+1. Also, having a PC (actually an XT clone) in the early 80s (well, it was my father’s, but anyway..) meant a very barren game selection, rendered in 4 color CGA and the occasional PC beep. Boy was I envious of my friends with C64s and Atari 800s (even though the XT was technically much more powerful). One of the few games that stood out was the PC port of Lode Runner (which for some reason someone had bought for me), and I did spend many happy hours creating new levels with the level editor.
December 20, 2020 at 6:47 pm
Yup. I think Lode Runner is actually pretty comparable to the slightly earlier Boulder Dash in terms of elegance and level design—I don’t really know which I prefer. But Lode Runner is clearly the more important game (and I assume the bigger seller, though Boulder Dash was no slouch and has had at least as many remakes), because of that built-in level editor, whereas Boulder Dash’s only came out a few years later as a separate product. Between Lode Runner and Pinball Construction Set, that’s like 90% of any Gen X game designer’s first experience with level design right there.
On that note, Naomi Clark starts her chapter on “Conversation” in A Game Design Vocabulary with a very insightful dicussion of designing Lode Runner levels for her little sister and learning valuable lessons about game design from it. Can’t find a proper excerpt, but these snippets from Google Books will give you a bit of the gist: https://books.google.com/books?id=sZTlAgAAQBAJ&lpg=PA110&vq=lode%20runner&pg=PA110#v=snippet&q=lode%20runner&f=false
December 18, 2020 at 7:33 pm
Gah, I am sorry for all the scattered comments; I usually wait until I am done reading a post and consolidate all my comments in one post. Anyway…
“After that, there was only silence from Smith, off enjoying his riches and pondering the strange course his life had taken, from starving student to wealthy man of leisure in a matter of months.”
“Smith did resurface from time to time in the 1990s in other games-industry contexts: working as the producer of a couple of Nintendo games, doing a bit of coding here and there.”
This really makes it sound like he essentially left the industry after Lode Runner, which is hardly fair. He worked as a programmer for EA on several titles and spent several years at DMA, where he quite fittingly contributed to a couple of Lemmings games, among others. And his time at Square was pretty substantial. He was one of the main development managers at the short-lived US branch. He contributed to the CG movies of the genre-defining Final Fantasy VII, oversaw the localization of Secret of Mana, and was executive producer on the studio’s failed attempt to carve out its own niche with the original title Secret of Evermore. That’s a lot of video game industry career.
December 18, 2020 at 7:44 pm
There was a long gap between Lode Runner and his 1990s work. He did apparently have one project on the boil, but he seems not to have been able to muster the energy to see it through. Rick LaMont describes it thusly:
I didn’t want to get too down in the weeds on all this, but perhaps my characterization was a bit harsh. Edits made. Thanks!
I was uncertain about that Lemmings 2 credit; Doug Smith is a *very* common name, and I couldn’t find a primary source for this other than the game manual. I take it we’re sure that the Doug Smith named there is the same one?
December 18, 2020 at 7:58 pm
Pretty sure, though not 100% positive. USGamer and other sites that eulogized him said he worked at DMA, while Moby Games and other credit sites link him to the games. I get what you mean about the common name, so it might be a mistake, but if so, its wide spread in game journalism (which is sadly more plausible than it should be).
December 18, 2020 at 8:04 pm
Yeah… it’s a connection I’d love to be true, given the parallels I draw in this article between Lode Runner and Lemmings, but I don’t know of any other association between Smith and British game developers. A voice in the back of my head says to be cautious of this one…
December 18, 2020 at 8:14 pm
Yeah, the more I dig the more I believe your instincts were correct. I am just not finding anything solid. I also made the mistake of assuming Moby Games credit pages accurately reflect the credits themselves (I know most of it is fan created and none of it fact-checked, but I naively figured the contributors might at least transcribe properly). The Moby Games Body Harvest credits page specifically lists “Douglas E. Smith” as a programmer, but I checked out footage of the actual credits screen on YouTube, and its just “Doug Smith” there, which as you say is such a common name. Us Smith’s do get around.
December 19, 2020 at 10:45 am
It’s not impossible, but it would be an odd career move for Smith to decide to become a level designer for a (relatively) small Amiga developer in Dundee in the early nineties, especially given that he must have been pretty settled in the US with his house, five kids, boat, etc.
December 19, 2020 at 10:55 am
Yeah… and DMA was doing a *lot* of interviews at the time of Lemmings 2, thanks to the success of the first game. I would think somebody would say at some point, “We’ve got this American bloke working with us who designed Lode Runner, a game that’s sold even more copies than Lemmings 1!” Nor has anyone actually involved with the Lemmings franchise ever mentioned his involvement since. I suspect this all stems from that one in-manual credit and one overeager fan who happened to spot it. As Alex Smith noted, such is the state of gaming journalism…
December 18, 2020 at 8:04 pm
The 1995 sequel, updated to run on Windows, “Lode Runner Online: Mad Monk’s Revenge” was made available to download by one of the original devs on their site (now archived) — https://web.archive.org/web/20190705131126/http://www.daggert.net/Folio/Programming/Presage/LodeRunner/Loderunner1.htm but there’s now a modern engine-remake project making it easy to play on Mac, Windows & Linux! https://mmr.quarkrobot.com/
December 18, 2020 at 9:05 pm
Another fascinating article, thanks!
I have always found Lode Runner to be beautiful, with not a pixel out of place.
It’s also unusual for a microcomputer game to get an arcade port.
December 18, 2020 at 9:43 pm
Jimmy, you could link your Mac screenshot to the in-browser emulation at the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/mac_Lode_Runner this should be standard practice for your articles by now! There’s no need to download floppy disk images and emulators before being able to play games that you’re writing about
December 19, 2020 at 8:49 am
I’m a little reluctant to do that because a) playing that way is sometimes okay for trying a game quickly, but is seldom a great way to really dig in play seriously (and I do like to think that most of the games I recommend here reward such a commitment); and b) the stuff hosted on archive.org is often hosted illegally. I don’t want to bring potentially unwelcome attention to it by linking to it. The whole organization’s future is already in doubt thanks to the boneheaded decision to start “lending” unlimited copies of the copyrighted books hosted there. I’d be devastated if it was destroyed by lawsuits — which, yes, may very well happen anyway. (All we can hope for is that the big book publishers who are currently suing see some value in the Internet Archive’s mission and show some forbearance. Legally, the archive doesn’t have a leg to stand on.) I don’t want to add game publishers to the list of plaintiffs.
December 19, 2020 at 10:07 am
This is a bad take, IMO! Some explanation of the nuances of the Archive here: https://www.vox.com/2020/6/23/21293875/internet-archive-website-lawsuit-open-library-wayback-machine-controversy-copyright
December 19, 2020 at 10:12 am
I hope that article’s take is correct; I was indeed going by the Ars Technica reporting. I rely on the Internet Archive extensively in both my work here and The Analog Antiquarian.
December 18, 2020 at 10:48 pm
Also worth pointing out that the latest remake came out just three years ago!
December 19, 2020 at 4:33 am
Irem even ported it to the arcades. Quite playable in MAME, assuming you can find ROMs for it.
December 19, 2020 at 5:41 am
Alex and Ethan haven’t beat me to it yet, but I wanted to point out something important about the timeline.
In the Retro Gamer issue it says Bratsanos started college in 1981 right after high school. That means he would’ve graduated HS before summer 1981 and started college after summer 1981. Donkey Kong was released that summer, which means either he misremembered the year he graduated, or he’s misremembering the Kong connection.
Space Panic was released by Universal USA in late 1980. I think it’s more likely that his friend described Space Panic to him, he created Suicide based on the description, and then in college he renamed it Kong after this popular game with ladders. Since he never saw Space Panic and didn’t remember the name, maybe he even concluded Donkey Kong *was* the game his friend described, after discovering it had ladders and platforms.
December 19, 2020 at 8:38 am
Yeah… Lode Runner’s early history was really hard to pin down even before I belatedly turned to the Retro Gamer article. We have no physical or textual evidence at all, only often-vague memories to go on, combined with a clear motivation on the part of Doug Smith not to set the record entirely straight — although I’m happy that he finally made some attempt to do so before his life ended. I would say that Space Panic — and the slightly later Apple Panic — are *so* similar to Lode Runner that there almost has to be an influence there. But it’s basically impossible at this point to tease out the exact chain of causation and influence.
Anyway, I’ve added a couple of paragraphs to try to unpack all of this as best I can. Thanks to you and everyone else who helped out. I’m afraid I whiffed a bit on this one.
December 19, 2020 at 11:26 am
Space Panic was relatively common as a first party release for the Colecovision. However CVAddict.com says it was a 1983 release and is a 2-3 out of 10 rarity loose and boxed.
I’d say some of Lode Runner’s levels make it superior to the very abusive Space Panic but in general they don’t really play alike outside of being able to dig. Space Panic is more about setting up combos to kill enemies whereas Lode Runner is about collecting stuff. Oddly enough the double action button of the Coleco really helps it. (Why so many systems seemed content with single button controls when 1979s Intellivision and the odd kludge in the Apple 2’s sticks showed more buttons were huge ill never know.)
December 19, 2020 at 11:56 am
““What used to be a struggle strictly between the commando and the Budgeling guards is now also a battle between you and the [mouse] pointer,” wrote Macworld magazine.”
The Macintosh version I played long ago may have had mouse control (which sounds like an awful idea), but if so it also had keyboard controls (J, K, L, I to move, S and F to dig), which seemed just fine to me.
I haven’t played the Apple II version, so it’s of course quite possible that it was still the superior version.
Also, is it supposed to say “Budgeling”?
December 19, 2020 at 12:42 pm
Nope, a typo. Thanks!
Jacen aka Jaina
December 19, 2020 at 1:55 pm
arranged them all so that they steadily progression in difficulty as you played through them”
I’m hesitant to post that because I genuinely can’t label why my brain thinks there’s a typo there, but you’re the English major
I’m really loving the Analog Antiquitarian, especially the stories about topics I was less familiar with than the pyramids. The hanging gardens one was fascinating, ty!
December 19, 2020 at 7:40 pm
It should be “steadily progress” or “there is a steady progression”.
December 19, 2020 at 8:47 pm
December 19, 2020 at 6:57 pm
Not sure if it fits within the scope of the article (and you may be already aware of it), but there was also a Lode Runner 2 in the late 90s that had an isometric perspective with 3D levels. It’s the only game in the series I have played so I can’t really compare it to the others.
December 19, 2020 at 8:48 pm
A bit out of scope, I’m afraid. I wanted to focus on the original, classic Lode Runner.
December 19, 2020 at 10:03 pm
Fun bit of trivia related to Hudson’s Famicom Lode Runner port: the Famicom version of Hudson’s Bomberman was, supposedly, knocked out in about a day. One of the shortcuts taken to do this was using an enemy sprite from Lode Runner for the player character. So, the now iconic design for the main character of Hudson’s most enduring series only exists because of their collaboration with Brøderbund.
December 20, 2020 at 11:08 am
Interesting article and I will admit that Lode Runner was flying below my radar – not my type of game, though I recall a certain Dig Dug that seems similar.
I would like to remark however on how many puzzle games got an “iconic” status in the early days of computer games (this one, Lemmings, Incredible machine). In more recent years, the only puzzle game with such an impact that I can recall is Portal (1 & 2) and this came on the back of a successful franchise, but stood out for its story and narrative as well. Most other puzzle games I am aware of usually cater to a niche audience; e.g. SpaceChem, TIS-100, etc. from Zachtronics or Baba is You all seem to be programming simulations in different skins and, while successful within their scope, they never sold in huge numbers.
Does this have to do with the innovation and design effort and required to go into such games or to the fact that the wider gaming community just has different tastes?
December 20, 2020 at 4:35 pm
I can’t quite agree with your premise. The games you mention are ultra-hardcore puzzlers, but there are also more casual puzzle games — the Angry Birds franchise comes immediately to mind — that are hugely successful. And of course there are countless platformers which are essentially puzzles — i.e., you ‘re expected to play each level again and again until you can work out a successful approach, just as in Lode Runner. Indeed, I’d argue that games like these have more in common with Lode Runner than something like TIS-100.
December 20, 2020 at 7:13 pm
Braid and The Witness are indie puzzle games but I think they had a pretty big impact too.
December 20, 2020 at 10:45 pm
These are all fair points and I have to agree. To be honest, I did not overlook the Angry Birds games, but I admit that I thought they didn’t fit in the description, due to the perceived (by me) ease of going through the levels. I guess that’s just one of the games’ ways of keeping the player hooked after all.
December 20, 2020 at 4:29 pm
Speaking of Dynamix, have you got any story about Impressions Games or other American strategy game developer/publisher of the 1980s-90s, like Quantum Quality Production? I’m always curious about these forgotten games that failed to make it to today’s game canon like those published by MicroProse. They always look no less interesting in screenshots and descriptions.
December 20, 2020 at 4:33 pm
And Impressions in particular published a lot of strategy games in the 1990s. Surely these titles must have some merit of their own?
December 20, 2020 at 4:41 pm
Impressions was actually a British studio. ;) I’ve looked at some of the Impressions games, but most of them are dogged by balance and interface issues that make them less than what they might have been. A pity, as their themes were often quite interesting. It’s probably the usual story about a lack of play-testing.
I confess that I know nothing about Quantum Quality Productions…
December 20, 2020 at 7:51 pm
That was an excellent game for the time, which I spent hours on. I still have the sound of the holes being created or closing up etched in my brain to this day.
Ice Cream Jonsey
December 20, 2020 at 9:33 pm
This was a great article. I’ve been setting up a lot of emulators lately, and Lode Runner just always holds up. Thanks for choosing this one to write about. :)
Runnin the Lode Since 1987
December 20, 2020 at 10:49 pm
It’s a real shame people weren’t able to interview Doug Smith before Video Game History became A Thing. He’d be right up there with David Crane and the Williamses.
December 20, 2020 at 10:54 pm
Growing up, I was obsessed with a Lode Runner clone called JetPac, which had both a shovel and a jet pack and an awesome level editor. I was hoping to read something about it.
December 22, 2020 at 12:56 am
Jetpac or Jetpack? They appear to be two different games, and the former doesn’t really strike me as a Lode Runner clone (The latter I wouldn’t have thought of as such before, but now that you mention it, that sounds fair). I loved that game a lot and was disappointed when (the release I had at least) was unplayable on a Pentium-class PC (It’s not unexpected for DOS games of that era to become unplayably fast on a modern PC, but Jetpack because unplayably slow. I assume they’d over-optimized something in a way that was playing merry hell with branch prediction.
December 24, 2020 at 5:03 am
Going by Wikipedia, ‘ Jetpack is a platform game available as freeware, developed by American studio Adept Software and originally published as shareware by Software Creations in 1993.’
That’s the one I played as a kid. And it wasn’t a shovel, it was a ‘phase shifter’.
December 21, 2020 at 1:27 am
I think it’s Porsche, not Porche
December 21, 2020 at 8:56 am
December 27, 2020 at 7:59 am
That was my mistake. Jimmy just copy-pasted it.
December 21, 2020 at 2:05 am
A brief interview with Doug Smith that may be of interest:
December 27, 2020 at 7:52 am
This is Rick LaMont, the one quoted in the article. My 1991 Usenet post on Lode Runner certainly had legs. I’m not sure how much I can add.
There’s some confusion as to whether I was Doug’s classmate at the University of Washington or a friend. Doug was about 5 years older than me. We both attended UW but not at the same time. So we were friends, although “colleagues” or “acquatances” would be more accurate. I recall Doug saying he tried to get into the Computer Science department and then fell back on a Physics major before dropping out. Biographies usually say he was an Architecture major but I don’t remember him ever mentioning architecture.
Here’s how we met: I was a senior in high school and had published three games for the TRS-80 Color Computer including “Lancer”: http://www.lcurtisboyle.com/nitros9/lancer.html
A reporter for the local Renton newspaper, The Record Chronicle, heard about it and interviewed me for an article. To my surprise, it was the front page story on the Sunday edition.
Doug also lived in Renton. He saw the article, looked up my phone number and gave me a call. His main message to me was that the Apple II had a larger market than the TRS-80 and I should develop games for it instead. He invited me over to his house to see his work in progress on Lode Runner. I took him up on both suggestions.
At this time Doug had accepted an advance from Broderbund, changed the title from Miner to Lode Runner, and was in the process of making improvements they had suggested. In particular, he made the characters move one pixel at a time rather than in 10 pixel hops. When I started writing games for the Apple II, Doug gave me a hardcopy listing of Lode Runner’s source code. It proved to be very educational because I was switching from 6809 assembly language to 6502, which is a big step DOWN.
In the “brief interview” linked above by Lobster Bisque, Doug can’t recall the name of the assembler he used for Lode Runner. I can. It was called “Big Mac”. I had planned on buying the ORCA/M assembler until Doug told me that he had evaluated it and found that it spent too much time creating temporary files on the floppy disk. Besides, he would give me a copy of Big Mac for free. I couldn’t beat that price!
December 27, 2020 at 8:21 am
A couple of months after my picture was in the Renton newspaper, Doug’s picture was in the Seattle Times. That would have been around July 1983. Doug was not at all pleased with how it came out. First of all, his eyes were squinty in the picture. He said they took about 30 pictures with a flash bulb and it was bothering his eyes. The photo they chose to run was from the end of the session. Secondly, they printed something he had told them was off the record about how much money he had made so far.
After Doug had demonstrated the basic gameplay of Lode Runner to me, he said that some people had dismissed it as “just like Apple Panic” but he believed there was more nuance to it. When he said “Apple Panic” I translated it to “Space Panic” (being a non-Apple user at that time) and only then made the connection. So Doug was aware of the similarity in gameplay even before Lode Runner was published.
December 28, 2020 at 11:12 am
That’s really interesting to hear. Thanks for sharing these additional details!
December 28, 2020 at 11:29 am
This Jimmy dude really does not like Ken Williams does he?
December 29, 2020 at 2:45 am
Do you know who had a low opinion of Doug Smith? His partner on his next game, Chip Bulkeley. It was Chip who made the crack about Doug “buying a wife”. When I told him how Doug and I had met, Chip asked what Doug had gotten out of contacting me. I basically said that Doug had helped me in my career and didn’t expect anything in return. Chip said, “That’s not like Doug. He must have had something in mind for you that didn’t materialize.”
My only beef with Doug was that he sometimes took credit for other people’s work. The best example was “his” circle algorithm. The aperture effect between levels in Lode Runner is achieved by drawing concentric circles, each with a radius one pixel larger/smaller than the last. Doug was proud of this circle algorithm because it was all integer math – no floating point. He said he figured it out after reading a book about Cartesian geometry. Doug gave me pseudocode for the circle algorithm, explaining that “The e stands for epsilon.” Later, at college, I would see the algorithm again. It was Jack Bresenham’s circle algorithm. The “e” stood for “error” (i.e. the distance between a point on the true circle and the center of a pixel that approximates it). The algorithm seeks to minimize error.
Another example is the artwork for the player’s character in Lode Runner being identical to the little men in Choplifter. I never confronted Doug about it. When Mathew Jenkins brought it up, at first Doug denied it and then conceded “There is only so much you can do in 10×12 size pixel characters”. I consider it a missed opportunity for Doug to have designed a better animation for his main character. It’s a four frame animation (four different bitmaps to cycle through). Over the course of those four frames the character takes two strides: one with the left leg and one with the right. That makes sense until you consider the character is an inverted silhouette: white on black. Users can’t distinguish his left leg from his right. With four frames you can animate one smooth stride! Repeat the sequence and it appears to be a stride with the other leg. This is exactly what I did in one of my games and it came out looking really nice.
Overall I have positive memories of Doug. He did what he could to help me, even sharing the source code to his game, and never did me wrong.
December 29, 2020 at 3:53 pm
Yes. Doug Smith strikes me as neither a monster nor a saint. On the one hand, he repeatedly said that Lode Runner was all his own work, even though this was not true. On the other hand, he was the one who showed the initiative to port it to the Apple II and get it published, and then worked hard to polish it into the classic it is. I don’t know that I would have passed the test of character any better at his age. (I once heard someone say that moral dilemmas are seldom actually *dilemmas* in the classic sense at all. It’s just that the right choice is *hard*, the wrong one easy. That’s resonated with me ever since.) I’m glad he did finally make some effort to set the record straight — or at least allowed it to be set straight — shortly before his death.
You know who might qualify for sainthood? James Bratsanos, for evincing no bitterness whatsoever that someone else made millions off his game concept.
February 25, 2021 at 1:43 pm
“he repeatedly said that Lode Runner was all his own work”
FWIW, when I interviewed him for the Retro Gamer piece mentioned on this page, he was upfront about that. I don’t have the final published edit here, but in the audio transcript he notes how his friend had the concept and he was the technical person. He adds that the game was pretty similar to how it ended up, and when I asked about the original gameplay ideas, he said: “The co-partner that started it originally, I have to give credit to, because he had the basic ladder and chase concept.”
He did, however, state that Choplifter didn’t impact on his character designs, citing things like the lack of ‘treadmilling’. He added: “People always said I took the people images from Choplifter, but when I wrote Lode Runner, I had never even seen Choplifter. So I think the big game I was playing at that point was Akabeh.”
Given how long ago that piece came out, it’s a bit weird to see James Bratsanos airbrushed out of Lode Runner’s history, though. (I see there’s a debate of sorts in the Wikipedia Talk page, which suggests Bratanos has even lied about the game’s history!) I don’t know how much of the interview I used for Retro Gamer, but the transcript is close to 4000 words. One of these days, I’ll have to get some of these historical interviews out there in full.
December 29, 2020 at 12:41 am
“there followed several year of silence”
December 29, 2020 at 3:42 pm
January 6, 2021 at 7:33 am
I can fill in a side story surrounding the line “He borrowed enough money to buy a color monitor and joystick…”
At that time (late 1981) I was working as the manager of the Computerland Store in Renton, Wa., not far from where Doug had gone to high school (a classmate of my future wife). Also working there at the time was my good friend Mike Wise. Mike and I were both incurable computer geeks with dreams of writing games, especially for the Apple II. Mike had by this time already started a correspondence and strong relationship with key people at Broderbund Software, as both of us were dreaming of getting a job there someday, and submitted various works of ours to try to show what we could do.
Doug was a frequent customer at the store, and showed Mike and I his “Miner” game. It looked terrible because it was designed on a black-and-white monitor, which meant you could get more pixels per scan line, but if you viewed this on a color monitor, the colors would be all rainbow-shifty. This is due to the way the Apple II produced color. But it was a LOT of fun to play. Mike urged Doug to send it to Broderbund, which he did, and as you know, Broderbund rejected it. Mike got on the phone almost immediately and demanded an explanation as to why. “It looks terrible” was the answer.
“Did you play it?” He asked.
“What? No, I didn’t play it. It looked stupid”.
“You need to play it. It’s incredibly fun. How can you reject a game you’ve never even played?”
“Okay, Okay, but the color thing definitely needs to be addressed. And it needs to work with a joystick. All our best games support the joystick.”
“No problem”, said Mike.
And with that, Mike lent Doug one of our floor display Amdek Color monitors as well as a joystick. I became a reluctant co-conspirator. If the store owner ever found this out, we’d have been be fired on the spot.
Mike continued to talk with his guy at Broderbund (I forget who exactly he was corresponding with, it may have been Chris Jocumensen), and sure enough, they had played it since the last talk, and it was a hit. Everyone was anxious to see what Doug would follow up with with his new monitor/joystick in hand. Doug came into the store every day or so for the next couple of weeks and showed his progress and we gave what peanut gallery advice we had to offer. Then he sent his completed work to Broderbund and sealed the deal.
Not long after this time, Mike’s lobbying for his and my programming efforts paid off, as Gary Carlston came up from San Rafael to offer both of us jobs: two of the first positions in part of Broderbund’s new wide recruiting effort for in-house development.
So Mike and I travelled together and found new homes in San Rafael to go to work for our ‘dream jobs’.
Of course, Doug still had work to do to reach the final final, and he travelled down to Broderbund many times to complete this.
At Broderbund, Doug became close friends with Dane Bigham, who came aboard the same time as Mike and I.
Years later, Dane, Mike, myself,and Scott Shumway formed the first incarnation of the Presage Partnership. We would have wanted Doug to be part of the group, but by this point Lode Runner was already a huge hit and he was already out of our league at the time.
January 6, 2021 at 2:09 pm
If you folks keep turning up, I’m going have to write a whole new article. ;) Thanks for filling in that much more of the picture!
Roger M Schiavoni
March 13, 2021 at 6:41 pm
Fascinating article and I love all the additional commentary from folks that where there at that time and knew Doug. Discovering Lode Runner as a kid in the 80s inspired me to be a programmer and after 40 years in programming and IT, I still love it. It was, and still is, an amazing game.
BTW, maybe it was out of scope for this article, but there was also another incarnation on Xbox 360 Arcade which you could play cooperatively. I should see if I still have it. It was a lot of fun to solve those puzzle with my son.
Joysticks and game pads aside, the way to play this game is U-I-O and J-K-L. As a kid, I needed two hands, but I eventually got good enough to work 6 keys with one hand.
March 24, 2021 at 12:07 pm
Reading this prompted me to dig out my certificate! http://www.oldcomputerstuff.com/championship-lode-runner-certificate/
February 13, 2022 at 12:41 am
Hello! Doug’s daughter here. I would love to clarify any speculation on my father’s character if necessary. Really don’t like seeing the line repeated about my dad buying a wife. That in no way characterizes either of my parents correctly (y’all my mom is a school bus driver who never gave a shit about his money). My father was an intelligent, kind, hilarious, thoughtful, complicated man who struggled with severe depression his entire life and did not enjoy the fame, attention, or wealth Lode Runner brought him. His parents were farmers from Iowa. He did not know what do do with any of that. He did however very much enjoy his time at SquareSoft and his friendships there and with Dane Bigham (best man in both his weddings btw). By the end of the 90s after SquareSoft moved out of Washington and Big Rain failed, he became disillusioned with the monetary drive in the video game industry and no longer enjoyed it working in it (although he was a prolific WoW player). He sold Lode Runner to Tozai long before he died because they were his friends and responsible for porting it to Japan for success and he no longer wanted money from it. He died by suicide in 2014 after being fired from an underpaid programming job after taking a medical leave for depression. Whatever the case: he was the coolest funniest dad and my brother and I are proud of his accomplishments, however complicated they may be.
February 13, 2022 at 8:20 am
Thank you so much for sharing this! I’ve removed the reference to a trophy wife and made a few other edits. My deepest condolences for the early loss of your father.
August 20, 2022 at 2:48 am
I worked with Doug when he did a tour up in Vancouver Canada at DSI. As a childhood hero of mine I really loved working with him but I was wondering why he was with us lowly Vancouver people! Later I realized we were actually pretty good. He had a temper sometimes but only with regard to when a computer was acting up, not to people, heheh, he was a bit hard to get close to but he was very nice to me. He gave me an HP calculator. It’s unfortunate he had to deal with depression… I was very sad to hear when he passed. Condolences to you and your family.
Simon N Goodwin
February 21, 2023 at 2:46 pm
I’m not claiming it was ‘first’ but Melbourne House’s 1982 side-scroller Penetrator for TRS-80 and ZX Spectrum had a level editor which was a major and much remarked-upon feature a year before Lode Runner surfaced. I played both versions that year. So the level editor was not a unique innovation in 1983.