The sea will grow larger with our fall

Psygnosis were often accused of producing (or championing) games that were little more than style over substance. Lemmings is their ultimate defence; style is the cherry on the substance… and it’s no ordinary, bog-standard, artificially-preserved glace cherry either. We’re talking about exquisite French Glamour Edoa cherries that infer an air of indulgence and flair. They meant business this time!

Lemmings is a real-time, action, platforming puzzle game developed by DMA Design and published by Psygnosis in 1991 for the Atari ST, Amiga and DOS, and went on to spawn a thriddelybong of ports, sequels and spin-offs for every known piece of electronic circuitry on the planet… and probably a few board and Top Trumps games too.

 The game was a run-away, instant classic smash hit, embodying the benchmark by which all future puzzle games would be measured. Sales for the fledgling version on the Amiga alone topped 55,000 copies on the first day of release. It was also largely responsible for shifting more Amiga 500 hardware than any other bundled game when it was included in the ‘Cartoon Classics’ pack along with Captain Planet, Bart Simpson vs. the Space Mutants and Deluxe Paint III. This pack was sold in greater numbers than all the others combined.

The lowest score awarded by the English-speaking press was 90%, and the highest (in several instances in fact) was 100%. Only the Swedish magazine, Svenska Hemdatornytt, didn’t offer to have its babies, insulting DMA’s magnum opus with a 72.5% score, though the reviewer, Derek dela Fuente, was clearly having “delusions of ganja” at the time.

Amiga Power magazine professed it to be the “2nd best Amiga game of all time”, and a forerunner to games such as Command and Conquer in that it was “the first major game to introduce the ‘indirect-control’ concept”, a facet that is today taken for granted in RTS games.

The birth of the humble lemming sprite was a serendipitous accident which emerged from the development of DMA’s mouse-driven, scrolling shoot-em-up, Walker, in August 1989.

[Go west, life is peaceful there.]

This was intended to be a sequel to their earlier game, Blood Money, from which the main sprite is taken and expanded upon, yet it took an entirely new direction and the finished game bears little resemblance to it.

Graphician, Scott Johnston, was tasked by DMA founder and coder, Dave Jones, with creating the infantry that would oppose the protagonist’s mech warrior and was given a canvas of 16 pixels x 16 pixels in which to work. Lemmings coder, Mike Dailly, thought he could shrink them further without compromising our recognition of them as humans, and one lunchtime set about the challenge of smushing them into an 8 pixel by 8 pixel canvas.

While he achieved his goal, the sprite’s animation was stilted, awkward and cried out for the next level of evolution. Graphician, Gary Timmons, tweaked his shaggy-haired babies and the result was the lemmings we know and love today. They advance with a more fluid, floppy trundle within 8 frames of animation and take 0.8 seconds to cycle. How something so tiny and primitive can exude such a vivid, charming personality is anyone’s guess.

[Walkers, erm, walking in Blood Money. They’ll never get away with that!]

Programmer, Russell Kay, saw this early experimental artwork and had the foresight to envision a game emerging from it. We also have him to thank for the name as ‘Lemmings’ was his suggestion.

As development picked up speed, Gary was assigned to completing all the animations in the game, while Scott took care of drawing the landscape backdrops. The lemmings’ blue and green trademark garb was chosen based on the PC’s limited EGA colour palette to ensure that graphics were easy to share between platforms. Actually, as the first demo of the game emanated from a DOS PC, ‘choice’ is a bit of a misnomer here.

Scott Johnston’s mother provided the voice of the first lemmings, so every time you hear them shriek, “oh noooo!” followed by an explosive pop, spare a thought for the poor lady who had to be detonated from within to lend our rodents realistic sound effects. She’s a star!

Progress far enough into the game and you’ll be rewarded with a number of novelty homage levels. These are the work of Mike Dailly and feature graphics and music taken from the first two Shadow of the Beast games, Menace and Awesome; some of Psygnosis’ much-treasured back-catalogue. Regrettably they were either omitted from the ports to other platforms, or modified to anonymise their astute allusions.

[“A Beast of a Level”]

The original music was composed by Scott’s younger brother, Brian Johnston, who got a bit carried away sampling copyrighted music, particularly from the contemporary rock genre. To avoid any legal ramifications Timothy Brian Wright was commissioned to support Brian in getting the project back on track.

The final version of Lemmings instead included a mixture of reworked, less copyright-sensitive classical and traditional tracks such as, “Here Comes the Bride”, “London Bridge is Falling Down”, and “Ten Green Bottles”.

Amongst the most creative and memorable tunes are a mashup of the festive carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and the melody from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” movie, and “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” interspersed with “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?”.

[“What an AWESOME level”]

In the game’s development brief, one prominent goal was to produce a game with a fair and balanced learning curve that would allow everyone, no matter what their level of dexterity and expertise, to enjoy the game. The result was a series of 120 levels split across 4 steadily escalating difficulty levels (fun, tricky, taxing and mayhem). While the majority of gamers would never finish the ‘mayhem’ levels, they could still experience a sizeable chunk of what the game had to offer, and get their money’s worth.

Even if the means of solving a level isn’t immediately obvious, you will appreciate that DMA have gone the extra mile in helping you to work it out one way or the other. Some level titles include cryptic clues as to how to proceed, which can mean the difference between success and tearing your hair out.

Others can seem like irrelevant red herrings, but if nothing else, it’s fun to try to spot the pop culture references contained within them.

[“Menacing”]

One of the rare occasions where the game could be accused of being unjust is in its awkward means of assigning attributes to lemmings where they are accumulating rapidly in confined areas. Try turning one specifically into a right-facing bridge builder when dozens of them are criss-crossing the scenery in both directions.

DMA note this is an issue, though designate it a design choice serving to augment the level of challenge. The lifeblood of the game is clawing back order from the grasp of chaos. Of course the lemmings are going to do their own thing regardless.

The password system is a welcome bonus in that it allows you to save your hard-earned progress, returning to pick up where you left off at a later stage. This and learning through trial and error really do improve your chances of reaching the game’s denouement.

[The iconic critters were immortalized in summer 2013. The Lemmings sculptures in Seabraes, Dundee, situated a few hundred yards away from DMA’s former office in Nethergate.]

 The game mechanics can be summed up in a few brief sentences, while mastering Lemmings could take a lifetime… even if yours is cut unduly short through stress and obsessive late-night gaming sessions that run well into the twilight hours and beyond!

A predetermined number of critters – up to 100 – are released from their station onto a hostile landscape at the beginning of each level, and immediately set about blindly sauntering to their doom. They have no common sense, no self-defence mechanisms, or even a vague inclination to survive, yet are surrounded by sheer drops and lethal traps.

As their shepherd and guardian it is your task to confer upon them a range of 8 skills (including digging, building, blocking, climbing and so on), that will allow them to interact with their environment or each other, and hopefully bring about the circumstances that will lead them to safe harbour.

Rescue enough of the empty-headed vermin within a limited time frame and you can proceed to the next level, where you will be presented with an entirely new challenge that will need to be tackled in a totally contrasting manner, and with a different range and number of tools at your disposal.

The game supports a split-screen, two player mode using separate mice, where the goal is to guide more lemmings into your exit than your opponent. 20 two player levels are included, in which you can only assign skills to your own set of lemmings, yet if your opponents’ lemmings are steered into your exit, they also count towards your score. Rescue two more lemmings than your opponent and you’ll begin the next level with two more lemmings than they have to work with, further improving your chances of beating them for a second time.

The two player mode was originally going to be a full screen affair using separate computers connected with a null modem cable. I imagine it was dropped because the split screen approach would have made two player games a viable option for far more people.

If you ever manage to tick off completing the 25th mayhem level of Lemmings on your ‘things to do before I die’ list, you may be left feeling a little underwhelmed by the finale. 

You’re met with a rudimentary congratulatory text message and a picture of a lemming encircled by the game’s producers.

I was half-expecting my toiling preservation of the rodent species to spark an evolutionary shift which would lead to a super-race of lemmings who would go on to cure cancer, or at the very least, devise a way to plug pigeons, preventing them from releasing their ‘ballasts’ on unsuspecting pedestrians mid-flight.

Personally I felt a bit short-changed after I’d slogged my way towards an early grave, completing each and every level… vicarious by passively watching competent players on YouTube.

Since its inception in 1991, Lemmings has been ported to 30 different platforms, and by 2006 sold in excess of 15 million copies worldwide. The art of recreating the magic is so prolific you could be deeply engrossed in a pixel-perfect remake in your web browser 5 seconds from now.

In terms of modern hardware, a PSP remake was released by Team 17 in 2006, which includes all 120 of the original levels plus 36 brand new ones, DataPack support and a level editor with online social sharing facilities. In the same year it was ported for the PS2 by Rusty Nutz for use with the EyeToy, and then in 2007 a similar remake was released for the PS3.

iOS users were very nearly graced with a port of their own in 2010, only Sony (who now own the rights to the Lemmings IP) issued a cease and desist order to the developers, Mobile 1Up. Instead a de-Lemmingsed version was released the following year as, ‘Caveman’.

Amongst the most notable clones are the open source Pingus released for Linux in 2003 and subsequently ported to Windows and OS X, and Team 17’s Flockers (opening the floodgates for ‘Meet the Flockers’ jokes) released in 2014 for PC, PS4 and Xbox One. Here the Lemmings have been supplanted with copyright-safe penguins and sheep respectively.

Lemmings possibly marks Psygnosis’ finest hour; a genuinely unique, original concept repleat with wit, imagination and a fiendish ‘one more go’ allure. It’s the perfect blend of strategy and action with game-play mechanics approaching Tetris levels of addictiveness.

Lemmings is the one puzzle game that even appealed to people who don’t like puzzle games. The game people with no patience gave their undivided attention to for unhealthy swathes of time. The game that officially, unequivocally confirmed the myth that lemmings possess a hard-wired impulse to commit suicide. The only game where en masse, self-imposed annihilation is as entertaining and satisfying as success. How many precious Amigas were spared decimation due to the presence of the virtual nuke, rage-quit option?

My one and only reservation is that DMA haven’t left me any scope to cynically mock their work for cheap laughs, making myself feel big and clever, without ever having contributed to the herculean task of putting together a complex computer game.

There’s only one thing in the universe that’s better than the sound of a Lemming ‘boinging’ like a spring into the safe arms of a level exit, and that’s watching a throng of them, kitted out in Santa outfits, lolloping across a snow-capped, candy-strewn landscape to the dulcet tones of a Jingle Bellsed up Amiga mod tune in ‘Holiday Lemmings’.

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