Lode Runner has been inspiring the game developers of tomorrow since the eighties

By Ryan Lambie. Posted

Visually, it looked simplistic, but Lode Runner was forward-thinking in every other area of game design that mattered. The intricacy of its levels meant that collecting gold blocks and avoiding enemies required more thought and planning than most action games of the era. That the game shipped with 150 levels also gave Lode Runner more longevity than many other games released in 1983. What made Lode Runner a true cornerstone of gaming, though, was its level editor. Was it the first game to include such a feature? The do-it-yourself nature of the early games industry, where developers could self-publish their work and sell it through classified ads, makes it difficult to verify; certainly, it was the first high-profile commercial game to include such an editor. What’s beyond doubt is the scale of Lode Runner’s success, with worldwide sales numbered in the millions. This success meant that, in the space of a few months, Lode Runner turned a generation of players into unwitting level designers.

The brilliance of Lode Runner’s level editor shouldn’t be underestimated. The design of the game itself – all tiny 8×8 pixel tiles and simple enemy sprites – meant that creating your own stage layout was simple to grasp. The interface was also straightforward: move a flashing cursor around the screen and press any numbered key to lay a particular block (ladders, destructible floors, gold blocks, enemies, and so on). For anyone in the eighties who felt intimidated by the mere thought of learning a programming language, Lode Runner offered a friendly, approachable means of getting into game design.

Computer magazines certainly recognised the possibilities of Lode Runner’s level editor. US outlet Computer Gaming World ran a competition in a 1984 edition, with a prize of $50 for the best-designed level. Entries were judged on their level of challenge, complexity, and “visual appearance”.

Nor was Lode Runner’s level editor restricted to its home computer versions. The NES port, first released in Japan in 1984, was heavily revised by publisher Hudson Soft, but still retained the editor; users could even save their creations to tape via the Japan-exclusive Famicom Data Recorder.

Lode Runner, then, was one of the first games to challenge players’ creativity as well as their dexterity, and other developers quickly took note. Hudson Soft put a similar map editing function in the NES version of its 1983 platform-puzzler, Nuts & Milk. Not long after, Nintendo released Excitebike; the Japanese version featured a Design Mode which also allowed users to create and save their own tracks. The level editor continued to proliferate through the eighties and nineties, either as functions built into games (Solomon’s Key 2) or as separate creation systems (see box, opposite). The hunger for designing levels for games was such that some cunning programmers even wrote their own unofficial editors for commercial games; British magazine Your Sinclair published a type-in listing for a Gauntlet level editor in a 1987 edition, for example. This allowed the end user to design maps, save them to tape, and then load them into the official game. At the time, it felt revelatory.

All of which built to the great-grandparent of moddable games, DOOM, released in 1993. Although id Software’s shooter didn’t contain a level editor as such, its open design and use of WAD (Where’s All the Data?) packages meant that end users could easily add their own level designs, sound, and graphics using such shareware tools as Doom Editing Utility (DEU). Like Lode Runner a decade earlier, DOOM helped turn a generation of gamers into amateur designers, and some of those amateur designers eventually turned professional – one example being Jon McKellan, whom we interviewed in Wireframe #67. He cut his teeth designing mods for DOOM and Quake as a teenager, which planted a seed that eventually flourished later in life when he crossed over from graphic design to game development, first at Creative Assembly with Alien: Isolation and later at his own studio, No Code, and its BAFTA-winning space thriller, Observation.

Today, there are all kinds of games that foster creativity, from Minecraft to Roblox to Hot Wheels Unleashed and its track editor. All of them have, in one way or another, the potential to turn their players into the game developers of tomorrow. As for Lode Runner, it’s still going strong – having been ported to just about every system imaginable, Lode RunnerLegacy updated the platforms-and-ladders formula for the PC, PS4, and Switch in 2017. Naturally, that pioneering level editor is still present and correct.

From Wireframe store