It's a rare situation when a game catches me offguard, surprises me with its inventiveness, and leaves me pondering the seemingly limitless potential of the medium. Lemmings is a game so creative, so deep, and elaborate that I wondered how its creators came up with its puzzles almost as much as I contemplated the puzzles' solutions. It takes a lot of brains to play it to completion, and took a lot of brains to create it, despite being centered around the very idea of brainlessness.
Lemmings & Oh No! More Lemmings is based on the misconception regarding small rodents that (allegedly) commit suicide en masse by jumping off cliffs and/or swimming into the ocean. Although this myth has been proven false, the legend has endured throughout the years, notoriously perpetuated by staged footage in the 1958 Disney documentary, White Wilderness, and various other pop culture references.
In the Lemmings video game, the eponymous creatures (who look more like green-haired elves than any known rodent), are dropped feet-first into twisted, nightmarish terrains where they proceed to march mindlessly forward and never stop unless they bump into something, at which point they turn around and continue plodding along. They will walk directly into traps and pits, or simply die a gurgling unpleasant death from falling too far. As the unseen player, you must assign the little simpletons appropriate skills to help them cross these obstacles and reach their destination. (What they do after they get there is anyone's guess.)
The skillset includes builders that construct staircases, climbers that scurry up vertical surfaces, floaters that can fall any distance with the aid of a parasol, blockers that turn other lemmings around upon collision, bombers who explode and take part of the scenery out with them, and diggers, miners, and bashers, all of which can cut paths through background objects (except metal). The types of skills and the available amount of each change with every stage. Sometimes you are given an abundant surplus and other times only exactly what you need to survive. While the first few levels are mere training courses that are practically impossible to lose on, they become progressively more difficult the farther you advance (though not necessarily on a steady slope. It's not unusual for a tough level to be followed by an easier one.)
The sheer variety of stages and combinations of skills available bestow a compelling, addictive nature to Lemmings. Unlike many games that share the puzzle genre, you're not confined to one screen that barely ever changes. Instead, you manipulate your intrepid nomads across countless convoluted worlds, many of which you'll start off swearing are impossible. Getting the mop-topped protagonists past everything the game throws at you is like being an artist with a very limited number of paint colors, brushes, and time to create the Mona Lisa.
Some of the most difficult stages require you to multitask individual lemmings in different parts of the playing field. The timing required necessitates a tight "rhythm" for switching between the skills and plunking them down on the right lemmings at the right instant. Considering that the buggers never stop moving, and the timer never stops ticking, making one wrong move could bring your carefully thought-out plans to a crashing halt. But defeat breeds determination, and watching it all come together when you get it right can be exhilirating.
We're aren't told why the lemmings are being dumped from one green pasture and have to traverse a frangible purgatory to reach the next. We don't ever see the lemmings' original or destination worlds, but only the surrealist's nightmares that come between: mysteriously abandoned archaeological digs, topsy-turvy art deco structures, fractally arrayed giant ice shards, decaying dinosaurs, and even stages set in the belly of Hell itself. It's all beautiful for us, but clearly unihabitable for the lemmings.
Adding to the lush atmosphere is an ethereal soundtrack that is sometimes haunting, other times energetic. About half the songs are reinventions of public domain folk and classical numbers, such as "Ten Green Bottles", "London Bridge is Falling Down", and Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker", while others are completely original. Since the songs are in Redbook Audio format, the game cycles through them in the order of the track list each time a level is started or restarted. It is a breathtaking sight to see the lemmings marching between two giant icy spider webs on a single thread across a starry backdrop to "Dance of the Four Swans".
Included on the Playstation Lemmings port is the Oh No! More Lemmings expansion pack. It is essentially to Lemmings what The Lost Levels was to Super Mario Bros. - more of the same exact gameplay lathered across increasingly difficult situations. While ONML is a good game in its own right and offers more should Lemmings leave you wanting more, I do have a few reservations about it. The most glaring issue is that the first round of easy-rated "Tame" levels are complete throwaways and wouldn't even given trouble to someone who had never played a Lemmings game before. Then there's a ridiculously steep difficulty spike right after you're past them, sending you nose-first into a puzzle with a solution unlike any in Lemmings. For this reason, I definitely recommend starting with Lemmings first, even though you're given the option to choose either game at the start.
One caveat I do have about the Playstation port is that there are a few issues that may not be present on other versions. Foremost are several annoying glitches that are caused by picky collision detection. There are certain levels where you must build a staircase up against a wall and then immediately bash through the wall upon completion of the stairs. This often causes the lemming to fall off the staircase to his death. Sometimes the final step of the staircase will disappear if it's against a wall, also resulting in a deadly freefall.
Even ignoring the glitches, another problem is that you can't select skills while the game is paused, which makes certain levels of the Playstation port much harder than they might be on versions that have this ability. There is no lock-on feature, and the game can be really stubborn about which lemming gets the skill assigned to him when there are many overlapping. This makes it feel like luck is involved in completing some levels, especially those that only have one possible solution (as many on ONML do). These problems can be annoying, but they do not ruin the experience since they can be worked around. The underlying game is so well-crafted that it would have taken a much more conscious effort to botch it.
Lemmings is a concept so bizarre that I dare say if it hadn't been made when it was, it could not have been conceived today. We live in an era where gamers and game developers alike care more about emulating reality than they do about escorting a horde of Mr. Magoos to their Promised Land. Indeed, I'd be lying if I didn't occasionally ask myself why I dwelled so much on these poor wee creatures who have only miniscule potential for a workable society.
It's because this game is about what gaming is truly about - challenges and overcoming them. No matter what obstacles are thrown in front of us on the playing field and what pitiful tools we're given to deal with them, we don't want to believe we can be out-thought. If someone, somewhere, could think it up, then we can solve it. Considering that the creators of Lemmings often attempted to stump each other with their levels during the game's development, it is clear that they understood and believed in that concept, too.
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