Why Lemmings is the Best Real-Time Puzzle Game Ever
Published: 25 May 2023, 5:07 pm
A bunch of green-haired little guys and the iconic confetti-like explosions. Those are things the original Lemmings game is probably most recognizable for. But to become a retro classic, a game needs more than that. Continue reading to know more about the history of the game, how it was created, and why it is so good.
In case you don't know, Lemmings is one of the most successful puzzle games of the early 1990s. It is often mentioned in the All-Time Top Amiga games, C64 Games, Most Important PC Games, Funniest Computer Games, and so on. It sold more than 15 million copies, and its game design inspires developers to this day.
There were multiple ports of Lemmings on different platforms. After the initial release of the game for the Amiga, MS-DOS, Atari ST, Commodore 64, and ZX Spectrum, there were also console versions for SNES, Genesis, Master System, Game Gear, and many more. Some newer versions even had updated graphics. But we will talk about the original DOS/Amiga version. It is considered to be the best by many players, after all.
There’s a Game in That! and the Creation of Lemmings
The idea of Lemmings came to be in 1989 in the office of DMA Design. The minds behind this legendary title are Mike Dailly, Steve Hammond, Russell Kay, Gary Timmons, and David Jones. The studio was then brainstorming ideas for a game called Walker. The challenge they had in front of them was to create a character in an 8x8 pixel box (because it’s less work than 16x16).
They started with an animated sprite of a "walker" (who will become a lemming). The first version was drawn by Dailly, but it was improved by Timmons. Then they started messing with the little men, creating an animation with lots of them, with creative ways to "kill" them. Guns, weights, explosions, you name it. Dailly added a gun and a 10-ton weight, while Timmons added other fun ways to crush them. Lemmings themselves got no mercy. In the game itself, you can use them as live bombs or just nuke all of them (nuking the lemmings is also a way for you to restart the level).
Apparently, programmer Russell Kay was the first to say the famous words: There’s a game in that! Eventually, all this fun transformed into an actual game. A game in which you guide a bunch of lemmings to an exit and make sure they don't die. Or at least some of them don't. You have to make use of their skills (including bombs) to make a path through a set of detailed levels, each with a unique setting and a challenge.
Fun fact: an earlier version of the game even had a split-screen option. There were 20 multiplayer levels that had different goals from the regular ones. But since PCs have issues with controlling input from 2 mice (which was the way to play the game), the idea was dropped.
Lemmings has 120 levels, and each is uniquely themed with a great soundtrack and sound effects. There was a good variety of levels in the game, including a few very easy ones to kick off your gameplay.
The first ones would tell you what to do in their name (like the first level, “Just Dig”). And then, gradually, you will learn new ways to solve puzzles. In due time you will have an arsenal of different strategies to tackle anything in your way. This game design practice was a perfect formula for how the game should teach its players, building on the knowledge level by level. It might seem a normal practice now, but in the past, it was normal to see games that required a manual to understand not only how to win but even how to start. Lemmings is a brilliant puzzler that anybody, even a kid, can start playing with and learn what to do, step by step.
One of the reasons for the success of Lemmings was its level editor. DMA created a tool similar to Amiga's famous drawing program, Deluxe Paint. With this, creating new levels of Lemmings was much more accessible. The guys could design a new level, test it, and change it, and test it again. This is the core of every successful product creation.
Some of the levels’ names are easter eggs themselves. The developers each added their own levels to the game. And some loved creating references more than others. For example, a level called "The Island of the Wicker people" made by Mike Dailly is a reference to a line from Batman.
The secret ingredient to perfecting every single one of the levels in the game was the immense amount of feedback. Something new games can definitely learn from. Many people in Liverpool were interested in playing and giving their take on the game. Which ultimately made the game even better and a sensation we know.
Make Them Float or Explode
Skills are how you will complete a level in Lemmings. When you apply a skill to a lemming, he will start using it as soon as possible.
There are eight different skills in Lemmings:
- Digger: simply digs a hole straight down
- Floater: deploys an umbrella when falling to avoid dying
- Blocker: stops any other lemmings and sends them another way
- Builder: builds a certain number of plates to walk up
- Miner: digs the ground diagonally
- Basher: destroys the obstructions horizontally
- Climber: climbs up obstacles in front
- Bomber: explodes…
Each skill is available in limited amounts. This means you have to plan your moves in good detail (there’s a handy pause feature in the game) to save as many lemmings as you can. That is, if you care about them, of course. The game allows for many mistakes, and no one will say a word if you leave some lemmings behind.
For many levels, you will have some amount of all the skills available to use. This creates a degree of freedom when it comes to choosing how to complete a level. We say “degree” because most of them have an intended way to complete them. But nothing will stop you from doing what you want. In part, Lemmings can also be considered a sandbox game: you are free to solve the puzzles in the way you prefer.
Inspiration of the Decade
Lemmings inspired many games in the 90s, like The Incredible Machine and Pushover. Both of which are platformer puzzle games in which you make use of different tools to complete the level.
After the release of the original Lemmings game, it had a few sequels and special editions, even books. If you like the first Lemmings, you must definitely try Oh No! More Lemmings or Lemmings 2: The Tribes. And don't forget to play Holiday Lemmings on Christmas Day!
As you probably know, DMA moved on to making other games. They are now known as Rockstar North and are working on the Grand Theft Auto series. Maybe you’ve heard of it.
So what are you waiting for? Follow the links below and test your skills! Just don't nuke them all, please!