When you've been a prisoner of the Macintosh for ten years, the release of a 3D Lode Runner game comes as welcome news. I lived, breathed, ate, and drank Lode Runner Returns during stolen moments between playing Myst and SimCity 2000 and actually doing my job. In fact, I'm not ashamed to admit that I still occasionally fire up my mom's old Apple II to play the original. Gameplay in Lode Runner is simple. You run around each level collecting all the gold and try to avoid being killed by wandering monks. Your default tool is a hydraulic pack that lets you temporarily dig away the block of ground in front of you. The block reforms after a few seconds. This talent is extremely useful in dodging monks (you can run over one if you get it to step into the hole) or temporarily killing them (they always regenerate, so this tactic is helpful, but won't rid you of your pesky robed enemies). A combination of skillful digging, dodging, and collecting opens an escape portal to the next level.
Lode Runner 2 is a welcome change from all those card and board game ports - not that I don't love a good board-game port, I just like a little action with my puzzle solving. Instead of moving linearly through the 144 levels of Lode Runner Returns, occasionally pausing to watch the movies, acquire new power-ups, and change backgrounds, Lode Runner 2 lets you choose which world you want to start and any level therein. There's even a handy set of tutorial levels that familiarize yourself with the power-ups, bombs, and maneuvers you'll need.
The graphics are impressive. This game has beautiful backgrounds and tons of details in the playing area. There are five different worlds to play in: jungle, Mona (as in Lisa), gear, wacky, and industrial. Each has its own feel; for example, my favorite, wacky, uses slices of lemons, limes, and oranges as stepping stones. All the worlds have animations as well, like water in the Mona and jungle worlds and steam and fire in the gear and industrial world. The eyeball-plants on the jungle world are the best, but look for the lava lamps in the wacky world for a chuckle.
This time around, you can choose whether you want to be a male or female runner and what color suit he or she wears. This might seem silly, but different colors show up better in certain worlds. The Mona world has a tan theme, and lighter color runner suits don't show up as well. The monks have stepped up a rung or two on the evolutionary ladder. Early Runner fans will remember that you could often outsmart the monks by trapping them or getting them to follow you in certain patterns. Lode Runner 2 has three types of monk. Blue monks are blind and follow a set pattern of movement. The only way to be killed by one is to step directly in its path. Purple monks are unpredictable; these most resemble the monks of the original. Black monks constantly chase you no matter where you go - and are very difficult to outsmart. This combination makes for more fun in eluding the hooded pests and makes you smarter in your strategy to defeat them.
The 3D world also paves the way for a wide variety of bombs. Several different bomb configurations let you blow up different configurations of blocks - and monks, should they be in the way. If you get caught in the line of fire, you're toast. Those who remember the different power-ups gathered as you progressed through Lode Runner Returns will be disappointed in the lack of a few (I really miss the hangman's noose and the goo), but the new ones work well in this environment. One especially fun power-up is the beach ball, which turns you into a one-runner monk-killing machine.
Each playing area is suspended in space, which definitely gives you a feeling of vertigo, especially when swinging hand-over-hand. Fortunately, you're protected from falling into space all the time by forcefields; you can only jump or fall from corners.
The gameplay is exactly what you'd expect from Lode Runner and, thankfully, hasn't been "improved" or succumbed to feature-itis. Just transforming the world from 2D to 3D has opened up vast possibilities in solving the tricky puzzles and getting the gold. And, as with the original, the name of a level often provides a hint to how it can be solved. I'll be the first to admit that most people's game-playing fingers are more nimble than mine, and old habits die hard. My poor brain was so locked into the 2D Lode Runner world, I had a hard time making the switch to 3D - and many of the levels require you dig in unusual patterns, not just straight lines to get gold and bury monks. Once you adapt, however, the fun begins.
My only disappointment with the single-player game is that there are only 75 levels. And, unlike the 144 linear levels in the first, each world starts at the most basic, easy level and gets progressively more difficult. After getting up to speed on my digging, bombing, and power-upping, I wanted more challenging single-player levels. My one complaint turned me to a new direction, though - multiplayer. Unlike Lode Runner Returns, Lode Runner 2 has as many multiplayer levels as single-player levels, and multiplayer really makes this game fun. In the years between the two releases, multiplayer gaming has made such great strides, it's hard to imagine two people sitting down at the same keyboard to play the original.
I fired up the game with a colleague, and we battled our way through some seriously tricky cooperative levels. You really must cooperate to solve the level. Lode Runner 2 does include a deathmatch level, but given the game paradigm, it really doesn't translate well. I found myself chasing players around setting off bombs and occasionally burying them, but the entire puzzle-solving, gold-gathering, monk-burying element was missing, so the game palled. If I want to get fragged out of my senses, I'll commit suicide on the GameSpot Quake server, thank you very much.
Not missing is the all-important level editor. Here, you can build your own puzzles and try them on your friends. I was never very good at building levels, but I'm looking forward to hunting around the Internet to find some new single-player levels to play. All in all, Lode Runner 2 is a great game. I plan on digging my way through all 75 levels, then bugging my coworkers to play with me through all the multiplayer levels. Pity them.