Game Name:  Lemmings (Lemmings for Windows)
Developer:  DMA Design
Publisher:  Psygnosis
PC Release Year:  1996
Review Date:  September 24, 2014

Disney kids have been fed a pack of lies.   Even though I continue to count Aladdin among my favorite animated films of all time, thanks to the voice work of the late Robbin Williams, it is hard for a normal guy to miss the message that marrying a princess is endgame.  Talk about unrealistic expectations.  And yet, something good can come out of even the darkest Hollywood mythmaking.  Take 1958’s nature documentary, White Wilderness, as the perfect example.  Failing to observe a cause for the boom and bust nature of the lemming population in the arctic rim, Walt’s movie crew decided to make one up by purchasing the house pets of local Inuit children and flinging them off of a cliff.  Thus, the legend of mass lemming suicide was born, and despite its horrific origins, it would serve as the basis for one of the greatest gaming franchises of all time.  Fortunately, a modern playthrough of the Lemmings series’ first title is just as entertaining as it was in the ‘90s, when it was ported to nearly every platform imaginable.  Simply put, it is an excellent puzzle game that should be experienced by anyone with a love for PC gaming.

Unlike the fuzzy rodents that populate the grasslands of Scandinavia, Siberia, and northern Canada, the creatures in Lemmings are nameless and faceless humanoids with moppy green hair and blue tunics.  Bobbing along to midi renditions of London Bridge is Falling Down and She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain, they will ceaselessly march until they can go no further, at which point they will turn around and repeat the process.  If they walk into water, they drown.  If they walk into fire, they burn.  If they walk off a cliff, they fall.  They only find safe haven when they are sandwiched between two large objects that cannot be climbed.  Such is the frustrating, yet endearing AI of these little guys.  Combined with their adorable visual appeal, it creates the perfect formula to keep people engaged.  Players will feel an innate need to rescue as many of them as possible, and will undoubtedly experience a twinge of guilt when some must be sacrificed for the cause.  No matter how challenging this setup gets, though, it always seems fair.  This is not like those real time strategy titles where the computer gets more resources than the player, or the first person shooters where enemies have unnaturally high accuracy.  The game world’s rules are crystal clear, and success or failure rests entirely in the player’s hands.

Oddly enough, this minimalist design is the reason that Lemmings holds up so well.  Where modern developers inundate players with new mechanics for every possible scenario, this title establishes a very basic set of constraints and then works within them to create a challenging experience.  Each level, of which there are over 100, has merely three components:  an entrance, an exit, and some array of obstacles in between.  Players are tasked with the role of shepherd, and must guide their group of lemmings from start to finish with as few casualties as possible.  To do this, players are given a toolkit of abilities that change the way their wards interact with the world.  Tunnels can be built down, across, or diagonally.  Blockers can be used to turn lemmings away from a deadly obstacle.  Climbers can be used to scale extremely tall walls.  Umbrellas can be given to slow a particularly long drop.  Builders can be used to create staircases to distant ledges and platforms.  Finally, bombs can be used to blow holes into walls and floors.  That is the entirety of the gameplay.  The catch to it all is that these abilities are limited to a certain number of charges.  While this allows creative freedom in the earlier stages, where the full toolkit is available in large quantities, the game becomes devilishly clever when previously cleared maps are revisited and there are too few bombs or staircases to make it through in the original manner.

All of this is not to say that Lemmings is without faults.  The gaming landscape was very different 20 years ago, and some modern convenience features are noticeably absent as a result.  Controllable game speed is at the very top of this list.  With so much of the experience revolving around trial and error, expect to play some of the later levels as many as a dozen times before making it to the exit.  During these restarts, it would definitely be nice to advance through the construction of the first few bridges or tunnels at a faster clip, since it becomes needless repetition after a point.  Past that, a way to select individual lemmings would be a godsend.  While a skillful player can manipulate the release rate of new lemmings, or otherwise use mineshafts and blockers to divide the herd, it seems punitive to require this.  Gamers should be able to build a staircase in a group without having to guess which way it will face.  Last, but not least, a tutorial would certainly go a long way towards helping new players.  While the basic mechanics are straightforward enough for anyone to understand, there are a few complex maneuvers that take a while to figure out without the aid of a walkthrough.  For example, it is possible to make a single lemming walk in the opposite direction by digging a tiny ditch and immediately building a staircase in it.  Maddening does not begin to describe the first level where this move is required, since there are no tips to help the player along.

Considering these flaws, and the fact that there has not been a new franchise entry in over a decade, it is surprising that a spiritual successor has not since dethroned Lemmings as the king of the A to B puzzle genre.  Some developers have certainly tried, with the closest knockoff being 2010’s Clones.  While I give Tomkorp credit for fixing many of the gameplay annoyances of their classic forbear, they forgot that the key to the original’s success was simplicity.  So while the monolithic levels and inclusion of abilities like bomb throwing and disintegration look good on paper, the gameplay feels less like a brain teaser and more like an obstacle course.  Other developers try to be deferential to their source material, as Team17 does with Flockers.  While the basic premise is the same, and players must guide a flock of sheep through a factory that would make Upton Sinclair wince, the mechanics center more on movement and dodging traps than the building and tunneling focus of the genre’s pioneer.  This keeps both titles relevant, which is great since Lemmings is a real gem with an appeal that extends well beyond traditional puzzle fans.  Nobody is advised to rush through a game like this; it is far too long and challenging for marathon sessions that would end in a rage quit.  However, it is the perfect casual game, and one that most modern players would enjoy booting up when they have a few minutes to spare. 

Verdict:  Recommended