Hall of Fame: Lemmings

by on November 18, 2011

Hall-of-Fame-LemmingsHoorah, it’s Hall of Fame time again folks. This time around we’re going way back to 1991, to the classic title Lemmings. Way back when people knew who Psygnosis were, Lemmings was actually one of the most popular games going, with school children everywhere trying to find a way to sneak the game onto their brand new school computers, but failing miserably.

So sit back and enjoy as Robin, Martin and Mark will be explaining just why they love the game so much and what it means to them.

Robin Parker: Lemmings is one of the few games that has truly managed to transcend all age barriers and personal preferences. In the early 1990’s, if you had used a personal computer, there was a good chance you would have played Lemmings. The game was even supplied as standard with primary school computers! I remember the queues that would build up at break-time, just so you could play 1 level of the game, before giving up the hotseat to the next expectant student.

My parents (who are far from being gamers) used to play the game for hours. Solving a particularly difficult level became a family activity as we all huddled around the monitor, wondering which Lemming skill was best suited to the problem at hand. The mechanics of the game were simple to pick up and the game eased you in with tutorial-like stages where you learned how to deploy the various skills. Soon enough though, as with all good puzzle games, the difficulty would ramp up and have you tearing your hair out at the little blighter’s actions.

The fact that the sprites were so unclear that you couldnt really make out what the green-haired rodents looked like only added to the charm. You could imagine it yourself and put your own faces to the different Lemmings. As tetris showed the world – gameplay and addictiveness far outweighs presentation and this game would keep you coming back for months. Sequels tried and failed to recapture the formula, but the additions and “improvements” only served to dilute the fun. The original was and still is the best.

Martin Baker: Lemmings, in its original incarnation, is one of the earliest games I remember playing. Sat in my room on the Acorn (showing my age there) pushing the floppy disc (*sigh*) into the disc drive, hearing the distinctive *clunk* and firing up what was probably my favourite game. It’s easy to forget just how much character and charm my own imagination placed on those few Lemmings that can’t have been more than a few pixels tall and wide, but yet I knew exactly what they were supposed to look like. I can still recall the distinctive “woohoo!” each lemming made as they entered the end point, I even used to try and get them to enter all at the same time to see what it did to the audio; I never managed it.

Over the years many games have tried to recreate what made Lemmings special, some have even used the original characters themselves in an attempt to rekindle some kind of old flame, but to no avail. Some games have come close, some have been way off, but there will never be anything as charming yet puzzling, as bright and colourful yet deceptively dark, as that original Lemmings game. Its entry into the Hall of Fame is well deserved.

Mark Bridle: Allow me, if I may, to give a little history lesson. In light of the astronomic development costs of modern “hardcore” titles and in the wake of iPhones and Wiis, publishers are searching high and low for new gamers, to fund their profits and cover their mistakes. In this atmosphere, the family game has gone from niche title to mainstay of the publisher’s lineup.

If publishers are to be believed, the only way to bring people together to play is to produce a game that requires nothing more than shaking hard at a motion sensor, like an offensive Michael J. Fox impersonator trying to break a new toy.

A few years ago, if you asked publishers how they would attract new gamers (and this is a trick that they have not forgotten) they would say the only way was to include a horrible, coffee table cluttering, plastic peripheral that aided singing or dancing or making a clown of yourself. As an alternative, another piece of plastic, the so-called “multi-tap”, a futuristic device that allowed for the connection of more than two controllers at once, was included. All this device really succeeded in doing was splitting the screen of a players 13-inch Sony Trinitron like an old man’s fortune, leaving everyone with a shard of the screen and a fraction of the detail to enjoy.

But if you look back far enough through time, before the plastic instruments, Wiimotes and sharpshooters, then you will see a time before family games were even called family games; they were just called games. There were certainly no gimmicks. No tricks beyond simple, creative, outstanding game design. These were just titles that brought people together around a computer, all sharing in the fun of a great game.

Lemmings was one of those titles.

My memory of Lemmings is completely interwoven with that of my family. I can remember being about eight years old, sitting next to my Dad on the pine bench in front of our Amiga 500+, my younger brother and Mum sitting an arms length behind us, all throwing ideas into the mix and trying to get those little pixel idiots to the nightmarish exit door.

Lemmings worked so perfectly at drawing people around the TV because the concept was explained so beautifully. Each level built on skills that were learnt previously and this simple delivery, which masked incredibly deep and complex puzzling, would pull any straggling family members into the game’s orbit.

The first level is etched on my memory. At top left of the screen, the trap door, which drop the Lemmings into what amounted to little more than a suspended cage. A single digger was all that was required to burrow through and drop the Lemmings onto the path to the torched-flanked door. Safe and easy. Your first Lemmings lesson. No tutorial was required, I can’t even remember if there was one, but these early maps opened up a world that just kept getting bigger. The clank, clank, clank of a Bridge-Builder running out of tiles, nuking a level in a shower of pixels after another failure and the pure satisfaction of seeing the Lemmings file out to safety after you know you have truly beaten a level; all these things are emblazoned on my memory as clearly as any modern title.

Modern Wii, Move and Kinect games, today’s “family” titles, do share some DNA with Lemmings; they get families together and they are simple enough that anyone can play. What they lack is Lemmings’ depth and cunning, and that is why after a few short weeks Wii games tend to rot on the shelf. Because you can share them, but there is nothing really to share. Whilst Lemmings, a largely single player puzzle game from the early 1990s, is a game that defines my formative shared gaming experiences. That is the message to the publishers: marketing “family” games is all well and good, but if that is at the expense of games like Lemmings, with its graceful learning curve, maddening difficulty and boundless character, then you are simply not doing justice to a generation of aspiring gamers.

The GodisaGeek Hall of Fame will return next month! Stay tuned next Friday for Geek in the Tubes.