Anyone familiar with lemmings will probably relate the story of how they all commit mass suicide off cliffs and or drown themselves in large bodies of water. Well, that isn’t exactly true. According to Wikipedia, an Astronomer named Zeigler of Strasbourg once believed that lemmings would fall out of the sky during storms through spontaneous generation. Sadly, we were deprived of something that would have been a very awesome spectacle thanks to Swedish zoologist Linnaeus, who later proved that lemmings have a natural origin. Similarly, lemmings do not actively seek death in numbers, but are instead prone to migration when their population becomes too great. So while it is something of a misconception in real life, the mass suicide idea worked perfectly in a virtual sense, and programmer Mike Dailly and the team at DMA Design capitalised on that. The inspiration behind Lemmings came from an 8 bit character sprite that was created using Deluxe Paint, and the moment team member Russell Kay remarked “There’s a game in that!” a legend was born.
While the objective of Lemmings is the same for each level, it never becomes a monotonous experience for several reasons which I’ll discuss in due course. To begin, please look at the animation on the right. Those miniature tri-colour creatures that are falling from the sky (perhaps Zeigler had a point after all) are the lemmings. They look like tiny blips in your visual field. Tiny, baby, pixel darlings that just need a bit of a hand to get from A to B. Your job is to assist them to reach their burrow in safety. The next thing to point out are the multiple different tabs at the bottom of the screen, which are like command buttons. Each one has a different function. For instance, the ‘blocker’ lemming stops any other lemmings from getting past it, and the ‘digger’ lemming is able to break through surfaces. Players must use the cursor to click on the desired function, and then click on a lemming to assign it that function. In level 1 (shown right), a digger lemming is all you need to win. This is nice and basic, the perfect way to get players into the swing of things. But as the levels progress, so too does the complexity, and therefore the strategic planning you must use. The last thing to note is that each level is timed, and if you don’t save all the lemmings quickly enough, they will all explode. Gameplay becomes a careful juggling act between picking the right function to save enough lemmings before time is up, and making sure that they don’t die in the process. Before each level begins, there are a few precious seconds that you can use to assess a) what kind of lemmings you need, and b) where to use/put them. It’s a bit like chess, where you have to predict what will happen several moves in advance. This is extremely rewarding when you get it right, but the consequences for slipping up in your train of thought can be pretty fatal for the beloved lemmings.
As you go on, the levels expand in size and are no longer limited to a single screen, which means you need to constantly keep checking the minimap in the bottom right hand corner. After all, lemmings can only continue to fulfil a particular duty for a short amount of time. After that time period elapses, they forget what they were doing and return to normal. This is where the ability to multitask comes in very handy. Quite often you’ll find yourself ‘micromanaging’ one part of the map whilst thinking about another group of lemmings on another, and this was something that I found rather challenging. At the same time, the management side of Lemmings makes it a very satisfying game. It keeps the gears of your brain turning, and sustains your interest until completion. The other factor which makes Lemmings so enjoyable is the variety of level types. Each level has a different structural arrangement, with a different nuance of challenge. And there are so many ways to approach the problem it’s delightful. In this way, the game’s core mechanic of assigning a duty to the lemmings to help them to the end of the level never feels repetitive. During my playthrough, there were moments were I felt like it was an exercise in creative writing, or perhaps more accurately, a complex maths equation. The only difference is that Lemmings is a visual kind of equation, and that makes it special. Lemmings does a good job of achieving that so called ‘sweet spot’ of difficulty games aspire to reach, where they’re neither too hard nor too easy. The first 9 levels or so are fairly straightforward. You’re safe. They’re introductory and aren’t designed to scare you in any way. But then, almost imperceptibly, things change. The fact that the difficulty increase is so subtle is testament to excellent game design, but it is definitely there. The screenshot below highlights such a moment, where the player must quickly decide the most effective route to take in order to secure the lemmings’ survival. Each solution is as beautiful as the last. Over time, the problems become harder, and the solutions become more difficult to find. But along with that comes an increased reward-the satisfaction of using your mind to conquer Goliath with your mini ‘Davids’. Lemmings is a tried and tested puzzle game that is not only one of the giants of its time, but a game which successfully stands the test of time. If you’re looking for a casual puzzle experience with good difficulty progression, dizzying amounts of challenge and cute sprites, this one’s for you.