Welcome to the final instalment in CelJaded’s Top 100 Best Video Games. This concluding post features entry #1 – Lemmings!
Be sure to read the introduction that I put together beforehand too as it gives a more detailed introduction on what I’m trying to achieve here as well as a few other random musings that you may find insightful.
If you’re looking for another post in this same series then consider visiting the associated index which includes a readout of all published entries and the posts in which they appear.
#1 – Lemmings
Principal Platforms: Amiga, almost anything else that can play video games… | Developer: DMA Design | Publisher: Psygnosis | Genre: Puzzle, Strategy | Year: 1991
The fourth generation of home consoles was in full swing by the early to mid Nineties and it was during this lucrative “16-bit era” that many new companies and franchises saw mainstream success for the first time.
Sega went head-to-head with Nintendo in one of the most prominent ‘console wars’ of all time, Street Fighter II was forced to share the spotlight with the new kid on the block, Mortal Kombat, and the advent of CD-ROM technology threatened to dethrone ROM cartridges as the media of choice for the next generation of home video games.
Although the technology was undoubtedly widespread at this time, console cartridges were still very expensive to manufacture and despite their advantages in durability and near-instant load times, they were simply not as cheap as the disc or cassette-based alternatives commonly used on the home computer market.
Developing video games for systems such as the Amiga and Atari wasn’t necessarily a “bargain”, but the cheaper delivery method inherent in your typical diskette meant that publishers were more willing to take creative risks on the sort of progressive or ‘commercially suspect’ works common to those formats. From Prince of Persia to Theme Park, this is a cycle that has resulted in some bona fide success stories over the years, so too has it produced many popular console ports, and not to mention some remarkably good games at that.
Six years before they would begin dominating the video game landscape with their all-conquering Grand Theft Auto series, the Scottish outfit known as DMA Design (the company that would later become Rockstar North) was primed to create their first genuine classic. Lemmings actually began life as a simple test animation that programmer Mike Dailly created in an attempt to prove he could fit the sprite of a walking man into a tiny 8 by 8 pixel box.
With help from fellow programmer Gary Timmons, Dailly soon had scores of these little animated characters walking to their doom amidst all sorts of gory traps and it would be colleague Russell Kay who would first laugh the now famous line: “There’s a game in that!”
The rest of course, is history. Lemmings would go on to experience massive mainstream critical success and quickly spawn a legion of ports and copycat titles all desperately trying to ape its unique and addictive premise.
In each level players are tasked with guiding a set number of mindless little green-haired humanoids called ‘lemmings’ back to their home without them falling victim to the various traps and pitfalls along the way.
Once lemmings spawn from their entrance point they’ll mindlessly wander in a straight line and using an on-screen crosshair, it will be your job to assign the little critters appropriate roles such as ‘digger’ or ‘builder’ and instruct them to create a safe path to the goal.
Every stage comes with a set percentage of lemmings that must be saved in order to advance, but although there tends to be a set solution in each level, many encounters also rely on split-second timing and resource management for success to be achieved. It’s in this way that Lemmings blends genres somewhat, with certain critics noting it as one of the earliest examples of the real-time strategy genre as much as it is a raw puzzle game.
Whichever genre you settle on though, one thing is clear; Lemmings is a mind-bending title with more than enough challenge to be found across its four divisions of increasing difficulty.
As masterfully constructed as the harder levels can be though, the easy levels in Lemmings are a real highlight in terms of design with each one introducing the core concepts and different roles in a way so that even younger or less experienced players will enjoy tackling them. In the same vein as Pac-Man and later Angry Birds, Lemmings is definitely one of those rare games that transcends a few barriers surrounding the medium and possesses good potential for introducing non-gamers to the hobby.
Having said that, one of the wonderful little ironies in this game is the sheer amount of pixelated violence hiding behind its otherwise cutesy façade. Whether the lemmings are falling to their deaths off of cliffs, being crushed by rocks, or boiled alive in hot lava, there’s more than enough danger present in some levels to make for a gruesome spectacle.
The cathartic ‘nuke’ button is another fun inclusion in this spirit; a sort of twisted reset button that detonates all remaining lemmings on-screen in a cacophony of pure explosive destruction.
There’s no doubt that Lemmings can be absurdly gratuitous at times, but when the stress mounts during a punishing level, there’s no denying the satisfaction that comes from simply aborting your attempt with a few “fireworks”!
Magazines at the time were quick to heap praise upon Lemmings for its wonderfully original concept and addictive gameplay. Its popularity grew so quickly that multiple ports and sequels would appear for the various handhelds, consoles and home computers of the time with nearly thirty different iterations of the original game (!!) now available as of 2015.
Indeed, the gameplay itself feels so different, not only from games of the same time period, but also from the games of today. Originality is a key facet of the experience as there’s nothing else quite like the thoughtful and sometimes frantic “save-em-up” that a typical Lemmings level quickly turns into.
Level design is a particular strong point actually, as the DMA employees created many devious stages to try and one-up each other during development. Even the names of the levels alone are creative; often loaded with a comedic reference or subtle clue. My personal favourite called ‘It’s Hero Time’, is especially notable for both its fitting moniker and ingenious solution; a feature that characterizes many stages in the latter half of the game.
Fear of copyright infringement (a rapidly growing concern in 1991) led to several classical tunes acting as background music too, but somehow it only adds to the game’s palpable sense of identity. Depending on your version of choice, levels play out to arranged melodies composed by Tchaikovsky or Mozart and sometimes to a medley of nursery rhymes or even original numbers that give the title a very unique overall sound.
Even though the game sits here at #1 though, it’s not without its shortcomings.
Although numerous versions include it, the Amiga original and several ports thereafter have no fast-forward button to speed up the action, which means replaying the same 6 minute level can get tedious very quickly as you’re often forced to start over due to an unforeseen blunder.
There’s no way of skipping these stages without a password either, which means that getting stuck on a hard level pretty much removes you from the game until you can solve it.
This isn’t so much of a problem for the first forty levels or so, but later stages can really tax the old grey matter with ‘Postcard From Lemmingland’ being a notable upward jolt on the learning curve and certainly the rite of passage that leads players to the next plateau in terms of difficulty.
The most common problem however, appears when you try to select individual lemmings out from a crowd. Later levels will often cram your workers together and mistakes inevitably get made when attempting to assign roles in such close quarters. Again, in the earlier stages of the game this is a rarer occurrence, but the later levels don’t allow much room for error and it gets frustrating when, say, your only miner starts swinging his little pickaxe in the wrong direction.
Aside from that though, there’s not a whole lot wrong with Lemmings and I think the many clever challenges do a great job of adding lasting appeal in spite of the apparent flaws.
Several versions of the game also include a 2 player mode; an unbelievably cool inclusion that sees opposing players battling to see who can guide the most lemmings into their goal. It all quickly devolves into a riotous game of sabotage of course, as you use your own lemmings to dig through your opponent’s bridges and block off their freshly bashed-out tunnels.
The final 2 player level named ‘We’re in this Together’ is somehow even more unique in that it features goal points that are way out of reach thus forcing the players to cooperate (at least for a time) if they want to succeed.
The scoring system is a little odd and the field of view is obviously a bit restricted in split-screen, but this mode is just another one of those features with which the game continues to surprise and it remains somewhat of an unsung contender when talking about good local 2 player games from the era.
So, why #1?
In truth, Lemmings did not instantly become my favourite game after playing it for the first time, but instead journeyed to that hallowed spot over the last twenty years.
When Sonic CD became my #1 game in 1993 for example; I still continued to play Lemmings every now and then. Similarly, when Halo was busy kicking my ass in 2002, I still occasionally loaded up Lemmings on the side. And when I sat ignoring coursework in a university flat in 2007, it was because I was still playing Lemmings.
This is one of those games that has a tough time aging, as the fresh premise and habit-forming gameplay that made it great in 1991 can still be appreciated today. In fact, it wouldn’t be until 2013 where I committed myself to completing every level and I think it was about then that I finally realized how far this game and I had truly come.
My renewed interest in the game at this point actually came about as a result of discovering Lemmini; a Java-powered retooling of the Windows 95 version of Lemmings by a German programmer called Volker Oth.
As Oth says: “Lemmini combines the playing sensation of the original Amiga version of Lemmings with the improved graphics of the Win95 port to create the best possible experience on all platforms”.
Indeed, as is the case with Streets of Rage Remake, Lemmini and its enhanced Super Lemmini modification by Tsyu, manages to completely rejuvenate the Lemmings experience for modern computers.
The graphics are made gorgeously sharp, the UI is tidier and the gameplay is reworked to be more faithful to the original version with all the previously exclusive levels, added features and extra bonuses brought in from existing ports.
Selecting lemmings out from a crowd is made a lot easier with the new keyboard commands, the fast-forward button is present and correct and the new ‘skip level’ feature ensures that ‘Poles Apart’ will never again hold your entire day hostage!
Add in the ability to load custom levels, mods and the official Oh No! More Lemmings and Christmas Lemmings expansion sets, and you’ve got an essential piece of fan-made software that no Lemmings enthusiast should ever be without.
Lemmings is a game that really changed my perspectives then. To have experienced such a wonderfully complex and innovative title at such a young age was undeniably significant and it likely raised my bar of appreciation quite high for the games that followed.
It may not be a visual landmark, but it’s a spectacular feat of gaming engineering nonetheless and certainly one of the most charming and original titles you are ever likely to play. But even that impressive sentiment fails to truly convey the game’s tremendous scope and the pure potential that’s brought out by its intuitive mechanics.
At the age of 29 years to the day, I can say with confidence that rarely have I played such an authentic and utterly marvellous video game quite like this.