How circular gaming has become. Over the past couple of decades, portable and PC gaming have essentially existed on opposite ends of the medium’s total spectrum; handheld systems lend themselves to low-power, efficient game design, whereas PC developers typically revel in the format’s raw power, sometimes designing games that demand so much processing muscle that the machines capable of running them optimally won’t exist for several years. With the advent of widespread independent game development, though, PCs now play home to some of the most modest creations the medium has to offer — and, thanks in particular to some canny folks at Sony, the best of those games have made their way to PlayStation Vita. Handhelds and PCs have been reconciled at long last.
In its early days, though, Game Boy played host to quite a few PC games as well. Admittedly, they weren’t really contemporary by the time 1989 rolled around, but the modest power and shoddy (read: non-existent) color output of Nintendo’s first portable console made it a perfect home for PC games of the early ’80s. Not only did the likes of Boxxle/Soukoban, Shanghai, and Heiankyo Alien originally show up on a number of monochromatic computers themselves, some of the machines they ran on used the same fundamental Z80-based architecture as Game Boy. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Game Boy was a natural successor to 8-bit microcomputers of the ’80s, what with its lack of a keyboard and all, but some of the once-cutting-edge classics that defined the likes of the VIC-20 and Apple II made a surprisingly good fit for the portable.
In that light, you’d think that Lode Runner would have been a perfect match for the platform. Debuting in 1983 on Apple II, Doug Smith’s seminal trap-em-up platformer was in many ways the prototype for the likes of The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle. As in Pac-Man or Lode Runner‘s contemporary Mappy, the player avatar himself had no means of direct offense; only through indirect action could you hold your swiftly moving enemies at bay — and even then only momentarily.
Lode Runner, as the name implies, sees players dashing through complex mazes in search of gold under the protection of deadly antagonists (it’s hard to call them “bad guys” since you are, after all, the one looting their mazes). Generally the enemy runners appear as robots, though in the original PC version’s source material they were referred to as monks — presumably the Eastern variety of martial arts monk rather than the Christian version with tonsures and chants — and for god knows what reason they’re depicted as skeletons with evil glowing eyes on the Hyper Lode Runner box art. They can destroy you on contact, whereas you can only slow them down by drilling holes in the ground (that whole “mining” theme made into a play mechanics). A pit-fallen monk will extricate itself after a few seconds, so unless you time things so that the self-healing pits seal up while an enemy is inside, trapping enemies really only buys you a short respite. Even if you “kill” a monk/robot/Skeletor, a replacement will respawn immediately — often in a place that doesn’t exactly work in your favor.
With the odds stacked against you and such complex mazes to deal with, Lode Runner plays out as a fast-paced, frenetic adventure. But one visually optimized for Game Boy’s miserable visual specs; the original Apple II version of the game used stick figures for characters, racing along a stark black field and plain blue bricks. By comparison, Game Boy’s four shades of greenish-grey seem downright luxurious.
Not only that, but Lode Runner had an extra boon working in its favor for the new portable system: Japanese developers had adopted the series as a personal favorite, and thanks to its success on Famicom it had basically become synonymous with Nintendo systems. Hudson kind of lucked into great timing with their Famicom port of Lode Runner: It was the first-ever third party release for the system, and it arrived just as Japan decided to go crazy for Famicom. With barely a dozen games to choose from, these new console owners snapped up anything they could find, and that included Lode Runner. The original PC versions definitely qualified as a major blockbuster success, but that amounted to a few hundred thousand units moved across multiple formats. Lode Runner on Famicom reportedly sold 1.5 million copies, and then the U.S. release allegedly sold another million.
Clearly Lode Runner worked quite nicely as a console title, and Bandai (who had picked up the Lode Runner licensed from Irem after Irem snagged it from Hudson) must have seen in Nintendo’s new Game Boy an opportunity for history to repeat itself. While Hyper Lode Runner wasn’t quite the system’s first third-party release, it definitely had front-row seats to the event, launching a mere five months after the system’s debut.
Alas, history was not to repeat itself. While I can’t find exact numbers for Hyper Lode Runner, we can safely assume it didn’t become a second blockbuster; the series wouldn’t return to Game Boy for more than a decade, and Bandai would quickly hunker down behind a steady stream of easy licensed anime releases for Game Boy. Had Lode Runner simply passed its prime? Maybe — after all, the Famicom version arrived a mere year after the original Apple II release, whereas this arrived five years after that — but let’s not fail to take into consideration the fact that Hyper Lode Runner simply wasn’t very good.
Bandai — or rather, developer-for-hire TOSE — based Hyper Lode Runner on the Famicom style for the series. It featured cartoonish graphics, and it ran at a slower pace than the PC originals due to the system’s limited resolution. Since the Game Boy couldn’t fit as much information on screen as PCs could, just as the Famicom’s chunky graphics reduced the live viewing area, these ports took a slower pace in order to give players a fighting chance. It wouldn’t be fair to maintain a PC-like speed while offering only a tiny window into the overall levels.
Unfortunately, TOSE wasn’t nearly as smart about their work as Hudson had been (or Tamtex, who produced Irem’s Lode Runner sequels for Famicom Disk System). While Lode Runner on NES offered a cramped view into the action, the level designs were more limited in their scrolling capabilities. Hyper Lode Runner can scroll in all directions, meaning enemies can potentially hit you from all directions. Hudson’s Lode Runner gave you a quick preview of each stage before the action began, allowing you to scope out the maze and the placement of enemies; Hyper Lode Runner offers no such niceties.
And most of all, Lode Runner kicked things off with a series of fairly reasonable challenges, gradually escalating the complexity of its maze designs to ease you into the more advanced challenges ahead. Not so with Hyper Lode Runner, which starts out with complex mazes and hits “expert level” in no time. And, sure, that’s fine on some levels; Bandai was probably targeting this entry at seasoned fans. After all, there was an audience of more than two million Lode Runner fanatics in the world, so it was safe to assume a good number of gamers who picked up Hyper Lode Runner already knew the ins and outs of the action. But going straight for expert mode left newcomers out in the cold — and considering the Game Boy’s target audience of young players, it’s safe to assume many customers would be new to the franchise.
Hyper Lode Runner‘s level designs would make for difficult play under the best circumstance, but the cramped graphics and slow pace really bog it down. The former makes the already tricky stages unreasonably hard, while the latter creates considerable tedium. Constructs that require repetitive action would have worked under the computer versions’ snappy pace but drag on and on here. Hyper Lode Runner‘s failings may appear subtle, but they prove to be significant.
Nothing more effectively sums up the game’s thoughtless design like the optional Edit mode, which allows players to create up to eight interlinked stages. It’s a flexible and easy-to-use level editor, an important part of the Lode Runner experience (the Apple II original was one of the first games ever to include a level editor), but it’s utterly pointless here: There’s no way to save your creations. The PC versions obviously had diskette support, and the fan community proved to be so creative than entire expansion packs were released consisting entirely of player-built stages. Irem’s Famicom Disk System releases likewise offered save support. Even Hudson’s Famicom cartridge version, published long before Nintendo introduced battery saves, at least offered a save option in its Japanese release: The game supported Nintendo’s cassette-based Famicom Data Recorder. But Hyper Lode Runner supports none of these things; and while the game incorporates a password system, its role begins and ends with allowing you to jump to the game’s later stages. You can’t save level design or even swap them via link cable, so once the system powers off those complex creations are lost forever.
In short, what we have here is a fine example of what not to do with a classic game port. Hyper Lode Runner should have been an easy success, but its numerous minor flaws and poorly considered design choices bog it down. Even the one new feature TOSE added — locked doors that lead to a “sub stage” for many levels — can’t redeem this mess; it just prolongs the agony. Hyper Lode Runner reeks of laziness or lack of care: This is just a portable game, so why make the effort? This would become a running theme throughout the Game Boy’s life, and it’s something you see in plenty of handheld and mobile games today. Like I said, gaming can be quite circular indeed.
Hyper Lode Runner: The Labyrinth of Doom
Japanese title: Hyper Lode Runner • ハイパーロードランナー
Release date: 9.21.1989 [JP] | 2.1990 [US] | 1990 [EU]
Genre: Action (arcade-style platformer)
Super Game Boy: No enhancements
Previous in series: Super Lode Runner II [Famicom Disk System, 8.25.1987]
Next in series: Lode Runner: The Lost Labyrinth [PC Engine, 7.27.1990]
Similar titles: The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle [Kemco, 1989], Heiankyo Alien [Meldac, 1990]
Hyper Lode Runner | U.S. packaging (damaged)
Hyper Lode Runner | U.S. packaging (reverse)
Hyper Lode Runner | U.S. complete contents
Hyper Lode Runner | U.S. box front
Hyper Lode Runner | U.S. box back
Hyper Lode Runner | U.S. cartridge
Hyper Lode Runner | U.S. manual
Hyper Lode Runner | Japanese packaging
Hyper Lode Runner | Japanese packaging contents
Hyper Lode Runner | Japanese box front
Hyper Lode Runner | Japanese box back
Hyper Lode Runner | Japanese manual
Hyper Lode Runner | Japanese cartridge