Friday, 16 March 2012

Lemmings (1991/Amiga)

Every so often, the gaming community is captivated by a simple puzzle game. Often enough, it’s a passing gimmick with pretty colours, or an import from puzzle books, newspapers, card games or board games. Solitaire, Scrabble and Sudoku all spring to mind as examples with varying degrees of success, with the foremost being a mainstay of Windows for many years. These imports made the leap because they’re something you can do between phone calls, data entry, or whatever other tasks people are trying to avoid whilst being paid to do some actual work. The more immersive puzzles, particularly in a fickle modern era, tended to have their fifteen minutes and that was about it.

Of the enduring ones, many were simple enough to move out of an immersive atmosphere. I remember playing Tetris on dedicated handheld devices, and that was what feels like a lifetime ago. Often copied more or less directly, or with twists and updates, of which there have been plenty on the Flash game circuit, Tetris is an immersive but faceless game that can have any personality whimsically stamped onto it, which made it so ubiquitous. Such games that came with their own personality were always more likely to be rejected by the remodelling scenes, as a budding game creator would need to rip off the theme, attempt to deconstruct that theme, or come up with a contrived alternative. A lot of people who create remakes of these games are fans of the originals, and may see that efforts to alter what they deem to be a classic as a disservice. Even concepts that are fairly bland don’t lend themselves to being overwritten too comfortably. Can you imagine flower-power-themed Breakout, flying demonic squirrels raining down a nutty hell in Space Invaders, a robot-flavoured Pushover void of shameless product placement and the inimitable Colin Curly, or a toasted sandwich-munching Pac-Man trying to justify his purchase of the gimmicky toasted sandwich maker he saw on that shopping channel he was inexplicably watching, intoxicated, at half past two in the morning for reasons that even he doesn’t understand? While the sheer absurdity of these suggestions had me drifting off into the realms of “what if” before I’d even completed the sentence, you don’t really want to imagine alternatives (although the SNES version of Pushover did indeed have a transmogrified theme, and this particular Pac-Man ideology would actually provide a vague narrative for his wife to have divorced him and go and make a name for herself). You look at the efforts made in earnest to copy these classics, you play them, and you get a yearning to play the original regardless of how much you enjoyed the update.

Lemmings is one of those really inimitable games, but one that’s shown an uncharacteristic endurance, and the flames of nostalgia burn brightly worldwide. I have seen ambitious re-themed takes on this gem from 1991 on the Flash circuit, and I’ve seen them done well. The truth is, even though they’re good, they leave you with a stronger feeling than just “I wish it had the original theme”. The feeling you get is “I need to play the real thing, I miss it, I crave it, and it shall be mine”. While almost every sequel ever produced makes the discerning gamer shrug and think “I preferred the first or previous version, depending on the game and depending on how nostalgic and probably correct the author is constructing my imaginary vehicular persona to be”, even the updates to the Lemmings franchise make you desire some quality time alone with the original to erase any memory of playing the sequels, because it just isn’t the same.

A lofty introduction indeed from someone whose praise for most of their favourite games can be boiled down to a singular sentiment of “it’s a great game, in spite of the many flaws listed, dissected and magnified by the needlessly malevolent but undeniably accurate author who avoids imperfection by not assigning numbered ratings”. So what is it about Lemmings that makes it so well regarded?

For beginners, the clue is in the
name of the level
Do as it says, and the lemmings will
find their way to the exit
Simple enough that a
child could do it
The controls are simple and easy enough to grasp. You grab the mouse, you aim it, and you click it. You need the mouse to do pretty much everything. Select the task/ability to assign, select the individual lemming that you wish to perform, and… well, that’s more or less it. Not entirely, though. You can scroll edges with the mouse, click on the mini-map for a fast screen reposition, and click on the “paws” button to temporarily stop the game. The best joke in the review isn’t even mine! How am I supposed to top that? The keyboard is largely redundant apart from the option to press the P key for a more efficient pause with whichever hand you’re not using the mouse with, which will be the left hand assuming your parents raised you correctly. This allows you to most quickly assign parts and juggle coinciding builders more efficiently, although it won’t be necessary for players on the easy levels or people with quick mouse skills. If you’re using a trackpad, you might struggle a bit, but remember that those things don’t actually exist, so you may need to reconsider your place in history.

If at first you don't succeed...
...blow it all to smithereens!

It's as if they knew...
The initial levels, dubbed a “fun” degree of difficulty, are so easy that a small child can do them, yet the addictive play makes the slow learning curve more than bearable for a highly skilled master of logic to work their way through, providing ample opportunity for you to learn how to win the game, and more importantly, how to lose it. Plenty of margin for error is available to discover the myriad of ways in which you can allow your lemmings to die, or outright kill them, from letting them fall from too great a height without umbrellas, to leading them into water, fire, lava, green liquid of undisclosed quality, through the level floor, into weird spinning blades and a host of hazards and booby traps both displayed and hidden, to exploding them all! The “nuke” button is very handy for this, and is also the way in which you’re supposed to reset the level. It’s not really some giant bomb flying into the level and killing every living creature in sight, so much as every lemming getting a headache that causes them to explode more or less simultaneously, which is much less disturbing.

Naturally, you progress through increasingly difficult levels, many of which have names that are puns based on inserting “lemming” or “lem” into a phrase such as “you live and lem”. It’s very satisfying. The “tricky” levels are there to challenge the youth of today who aren’t very good because they’re too busy customising their Sims, or soldier outfits, or Wayne Rooney’s beautiful face. The “taxing” levels are for people like you who have the staying power to complete over sixty levels and stick through half of a review like this, and the most challenging “mayhem” levels are for people like me, who are excellent. If you’re feeling cocky, you can skip sets of levels entirely by choosing your difficulty from the menu, where you can also enter codes for completed levels. Pencil and paper at the ready for the end of the levels if you’re not feeling so bold, need to leave, or enjoy replaying a puzzle that you just completed, which makes you a bit odd. Not that I’m judging.

The Sydney Opera House?
A decapitated albino Edwardian
hedgehog? Or a completed game
of four-dimensional Solitaire?
The sound is excellent. I say that because my experience is with the original Amiga version, also known as “the best version”, “the correct version”, “the only version that matters”, and simply “the version” by everyone who wrote this review. The music has been rearranged for almost every single port, same melodies, different chip sounds. The Windows tunes sound like an eerie foreboding precursor to the cheerfully bland music featured on The Sims games, the SNES renditions sound like the Harry J Allstars did a “Liquidator”-style cockney pub reggae mix, the Turbografx-16 port could be easy listening or the backing track to a Bonnie Tyler b-side, and the NES versions are woeful to the point of being genuinely amusing. I know the technology in the Amiga is supreme and such a pinnacle will never again be reached by civilisation, but come on, you can do better than that. I can do better than that. The Sega Megadrive version sounds okay, but the heavy bass notes and the slight tackiness make it sound more appropriate for a side-scrolling platformer like Chuck Rock II: Son Of Chuck or Jazz Jackrabbit or some such surreal endeavour. We have to go to the original version to find the sounds created by the venerable Tim Wright, as they were meant to be heard. Original tunes, rearrangements of public domain music both classic and contemporary (at the time), and even a treatment of a piece he’d originally crafted in his demo scene days just prior to the Lemmings project, from the Puggs In Space demo. Nothing here was going to top the charts (even though some of them already had), no praise for the ambitious utilisation of two entire orchestras for Mr Wright. He just did what good game music makers did in the good old days, making an exceptional bunch of very nice little pieces that happened to complement the pace and the atmosphere of the game, as well as neatly juxtaposing its underlying dark elements of fiery hell, fatality, suicide for the common good, liberal abuse of a myth, and lemmings carrying umbrellas.

There isn’t an awful lot else to discuss about the game because of its superficial simplicity. It came in a nice box, with artwork that was naturally of a higher resolution than the game itself, and was on two floppy disks. It would appear that all that’s left to do is wax lyrical in a summary whilst wildly swinging at either it or something random, as is customary for my highly stylised reviewing technique, which is in no way embittered by the passage of time.

Some of the puzzle restrictions are
a little backward, although they're
nothing compared to the fashion
sense of these lemmings
Lemmings successfully bridged
the gap from thematic puzzler to
international multi-platform hit
with droves of fans of all ages
Lemmings isn’t one of these modern games full of some randomly-generated levels of generic difficulties that has a million different configurations that are basically the same to increase replayability. The levels have been carefully crafted by the Psygnosis team out of love, care, passion, and notoriously wild orgies. If you want to play a puzzle game that didn’t come out of a newspaper and isn’t thematically void, make sure it’s Lemmings. Not Lemmings 2: The Tribes, not Lemmings Revolution, and definitely not Lemmings: Gritty Reboot Directed By Tim Burton. Fight to keep that man away from the franchises you love if you still care about them. Not that I do, because all that matters is Lemmings. Get it, play it, and thank whoever it was that made you play it, unless it was someone other than me.

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