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What long-time gamers will ultimately remember about the Lemmings games is their ingenuity. How many different ways are there to endanger the lives of a band of green-haired rodents willing to tromp blindly along whatever paths you lay for them? Thousands. In game after game, the developers, DMA Design (you probably know them better by their later name, Rockstar North), proved they could come up with hundreds of variations on this simple theme.
It works like this. Each stage of the game is either a labyrinth or a Death Trap (and frequently both). A gate opens somewhere on the level and begins to release lemmings into the stage one by one, who mindlessly walk forward into whatever awaits them, whether it means falling down a Bottomless Pit, into water, fire or lava, or any number of actual traps. Enter you, the player, armed with a cursor and a set of very limited tools for altering the lemmings' behavior. Your task is to make the critters traverse each screen towards a specific exit without letting too many of them get splatted, scorched, sliced, beheaded, or otherwise killed in the process. The solution to a level could be devilishly hard to find, and until you did, you had to put up with the sight of your adorable little lemmings meeting their maker by the dozen. The bizarre combination of cutesy graphics, mind-bending puzzles, and grisly, relentless death of the pixelated creatures no doubt left many a seventh-grader scarred for life.
For the first game, at least, there were eight tools available for the purposes of getting the hapless lemmings to the exit:
- Climber — Lemmings with the climber skill will climb up any vertical wall in their path, rather than turning around. One of the two persistent skills that lasts the entire level.
- Floater — These lemmings possess an umbrella which allows them to fall any distance without splatting. One of the two persistent skills that lasts the entire level.
- Applying both of the above would lead to the character being called Athlete.
- Bomber — After a five-second countdown, the bomber explodes, taking out nearby walls and obstacles. Naturally, the lemming doesn't survive the process.
- Blocker — The blocker stands in place, preventing other lemmings from passing by. However, once set, the blocker cannot be removed except by blowing him up or digging the floor out from under him.
- Builder — The builder constructs a short diagonal stairway out of bricks, allowing him to cross gaps and get other lemmings to elevated positions.
- Basher — The basher punches through walls, creating a horizontal tunnel through an obstacle until it hits air or a steel wall (or it's told to do something else).
- Miner — Armed with a miner's pick, the miner digs a hole diagonally downward through solid dirt.
- Digger — Similar to the above two, only the digger employs its claws to dig straight down.
Sure, the puzzles are simple — at first. In one stage, you might have to turn your lemmings into "Diggers" and burrow through the soft soil to the exit. In another, you might have to use the "Blocker" skill to keep the lemmings from walking off cliffs, or the "Builder" skill to allow them to climb one. But by the time you get to around level 20 or so, you'll be staring at the screen and saying "Now, wait a second. There's just no way to solve this one. They must have made a mistake!"
They didn't. Like few others, these games reward cleverness, persistence, and non-linear thinking and keep you coming back for more.
Originally developed for the Commodore Amiga, Lemmings is one of those games that has, like Tetris, been ported to virtually every console and platform in existence. New games were inevitable, and include:
- Xmas Lemmings, a series of Christmas-themed Mission Pack Sequels. The first two installments were brief four-level demos, followed by a full game (and then a year later, an expanded version of that game).
- Oh No! More Lemmings, another Mission Pack Sequel, except this time, all difficulty modes besides the lowest were Nintendo Hard. Lampshaded in the level titled AAAAAARRRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!. Some ports of the original Lemmings contain this game as a bonus, and the most recent PC release (Lemmings for Windows 95--yeah, it's been a while) bundles both together.
- Lemmings 2: The Tribes is the biggest and most true-feeling sequel to the original game, adding more skills to the lemmings' arsenal, a wide range of gimmicky themed locations and changing the formula of the gameplay - rather than saving a set amount of lemmings in each level, the player has the exact same batch of lemmings for every level in each tribe, and has to let all (or all but one for a couple of tribes) of them survive for every single level.
- The Lemmings Chronicles removed some skills and adjusted the engine, adding some Platform Game elements.
- 3-D Lemmings moved the classic Lemmings gameplay into 3-D.
- Lemmings Revolution returned to 2-D, but with pseudo 3-D graphics, as the levels were wrapped around a cylinder. Featured two groups of colour-coded Lemmings a a time, each with different entry and exit points and able to pass over different obstacles.
- Lemmings Paintball was an isometric action game in which lemmings play paintball. A bit like Cannon Fodder with puzzles.
- The Adventures of Lomax, a pure Platform Game and Spiritual Successor to the non-Lemmings game The Misadventures of Flink.
- Lemmings on PSP was a remake of the original, with a very nice graphical overhaul and added level editor. It was later ported to Play Station 2 where it gained a number of Eyetoy levels where players use their body to form a path
- Lemmings on the PlayStation 3 was a PSN download which returned to pure 2D. New mechanics included levels shrouded in darkness, so only the areas around torch-carrying Lemmings could be seen, bubbles that increased the number of tools you had, and clone vats that would copy the first lemming to walk by them, actually increasing the number of lemmings you have. And even more traps and ways to die.
- And various spin-offs or rip-offs by other companies, that generally nobody's ever heard of, such as Critters.
Lemmings provides examples of the following tropes:
- Action Bomb: The Bomber skill.
- Artificial Stupidity: Intentionally so.
- Brutal Bonus Level: The five exclusive Sunsoft levels in the SNES version.
- Choose Your Own Adventure: Two gamebooks, based on The Tribes, were published. Success revolved around choosing the right selection of abilities to bring into each area.
- Continuity Nod: Lemmings 2: The Tribes's intro references having saved the lemmings to bring them to their present homeland with an elder talking to a child, ending with the two lemmings turning to face "the guide who saved us before" — you.
- Did Not Do the Research: Obviously, the Lemmings' behaviour is closer to the public idea of lemmings than reality. Lemmings don't actually rush to death in mass suicide, but they do move in extremely large numbers when necessary. While doing so they may cross bodies of water and some of them will drown, resulting in the legend of mass suicide. (Also, they don't have green hair and blue outfits, and it's very difficult to teach them to build bridges.)
- Difficulty Spike
- The first 20 levels of Oh No! More Lemmings are painfully easy and can be solved with minimal effort. Once you get out of the Tame difficulty setting, however, the game instantly becomes Nintendo Hard and doesn't let up until you've finished.
- In Lemmings 2: The Tribes, generally, the ten levels of each tribe gradually increase in difficulty. However, for some reason, the game designers saw fit to make the painfully hard "Snow More Lems" the third level of the Polar Tribe.
- Dungeon Bypass: Multiple levels can be solved in a completely unintended way, e.g. by bashing inside the floor and under the whole level. (This is the mildest example; often, these backroutes require the use of Good Bad Bugs. Sometimes, they are also more difficult [or MUCH more difficult] than the regular solution, but allow you to save more lemmings.) There's also at least one completely intentional alternate solution: "Cascade" (see below).
- Embedded Precursor: Lemmings Paintball came bundled with Windows-compatible versions of the original Lemmings and Oh No! More Lemmings. Arguably, more people bought the game for this bonus than for the featured game, especially since ONML had already fallen out of print at the time.
- Escort Mission: Effectively the entire game, since you cannot directly control the Lemmings except through giving them skills.
- Fake Difficulty: The randomness that arises from trying to assign a skill to a lemming out of a large group moving in opposite directions. Bashing through the wrong wall, for example, could easily send the entire group plummeting to their doom.
- In Lemmings 3D, one tool allowed you to click on a specific lemming amidst a group to highlight it, and then assign a skill.
- In Lemmings Revolution, you can pause the game and zoom in really close, making it a lot easier.
- Family-Unfriendly Death: The Lemmings can die in rather graphic ways such as being crushed under building bricks, smashed into the ground by the Potato Beast with blood squirting from under his fist, and picked up by the Buzzard with the top hat that tears its head off and crushes it under its talons with blood spraying everywhere from the victim's headless body.
- Feelies: Lemmings 2 (the Amiga version at least) included a prologue in the form of an honest-to-god, colour-illustrated children's book about the somewhat inept Jimmy B. McLemming's mission to warn the other tribes to bring their talismans.
- Genre Busting: Games of this style are still relatively rare. (They're most commonly called "save-'em-ups.")
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: The level titled "What a load of old blocks!"
- Hard Mode Filler: The first game was particularly bad about making you replay early levels, only with the challenge made more difficult in some way, usually by either shortening the amount of time you have to complete the level or giving you a more limited set of skills to work with (or both). Sort of an inversion, in fact, as the hard versions were created first. However, the designers realized they needed a lot more easy levels than what they had, so they took a lot of the hard ones they had created and reduced the difficulty, then placed the easy levels first in the game.
- Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Each level designer had a different theme for the names they gave their levels. Mike Dailly's titles were hints to what the player needed to do, while Gary Timmons made titles based on pop culture references.
- Luck-Based Mission: Mayhem Level 24, "All or Nothing", which is a one in eight chance of victory on certain platforms. In versions which allow you to assign skills to Lemmings walking in a specific direction, this level becomes disgustingly easy. There is a trick to make the level ridiculously easy. Move the cursor to the side opposite of which you want to bash, and click as far to that side as possible.
- Macro Zone: Many of the more thematic levels; it's not stated whether the levels are huge, or the Lemmings are small.
- Malevolent Architecture: In Lemmings 2, the Space Tribe levels have airlock doors that are triggered merely by walking past them.
- Nintendo Hard
- No Animals Were Harmed: In the end credits of the SNES version of Lemmings 2, complete with Shout-Out to The Simpsons.
- Nostalgia Level: The Classic Tribe in Lemmings 2, complete with skills, backgrounds and music from the original game. More subtly, they explode like the originals (they explode into shrapnel and don't affect nearby Lemmings) and don't have the period of being stunned when falling which was also a new addition for the sequel.
- Not the Fall That Kills You: If you can turn a lemming into a Floater before impact with the ground, you're golden. Doesn't matter how close it was.
- Notable Original Music: Track "Lemmings 02"
- Number of the Beast: The infamous Tricky Level 21, "All the 6's......", removed or renamed in several versions. The level takes the shape of three giant 6s, the Lemmings have 66 of each skill, 66% of 66 Lemmings must be saved, and the player has, you guessed it, 6 minutes to save them. The title is a reference to Bingo.
- One-Hit-Point Wonder: Lemmings cannot survive anything. Except for walking. And some falls. And explosions caused by other lemmings.
- Parasol Parachute: The Floater lemmings, who can survive long drops by using their umbrellas as parachutes.
- Pause Scumming: In Revolution, when you blow up a lemming with the "bomber" command, just before exploding, the lemming in question crouches. If you pause while he's crouching, you can give him another command (like "build") and thus save him from exploding. This trick is absolutely necessary on some of the later levels in which you must save every single lemming.
- Pixel Hunt: Two forms. One, one of the ways to avoid the problem mentioned in Luck-Based Mission was to find perfect placement for the crosshairs such that it would only let you select a lemming going the correct direction. Two, choosing where, exactly, to initiate a given job (most notably, builders and miners, although any other than climbers and floaters could run into this) could be the difference between success and failure in later levels, so finding the perfect pixel to use a job could be maddening on harder levels.
- Public Domain Soundtrack
- Schmuck Bait: Any level that requires you to save 100% and still gives you the Bomber skill. Although you can save bombers in Revolutions, as mentioned under Pause Scumming.
- Sequel Difficulty Spike: Oh No! More Lemmings
- Four levels in the original PC release use graphics from and are named after other Psygnosis games of the time, including Shadow of the Beast. In addition, many of the level names contain pop culture references, especially in ONML.
- And the Sega Mega Drive version, developed by Sunsoft, includes an exclusive level based on Sunsoft's NES game Ufouria.
- Lemmings 2: The Tribes: In most versions of the game, the Space Tribe has a rendition of "Blue Danube" as its background music, in reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
- Slippy-Slidey Ice World
- In 3D Lemmings.
- Additionally, the Polar levels in Lemmings 2, which featured slippery ice that would cause the lemmings to fall without the Skater skill.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: There are songs both light and intense in the soundtrack and they get reused all over the place, but there's a noticeable tendency for some of the more frustrating levels to have something warm and poppy playing in the background.
- Super Drowning Skills: Sure, some of the water looks like it could be acid, lava, or a mass of writhing weeds, but there's plain and simple blue water as well. Lemmings 2 gives you the Swimmer ability.
- The Theme Park Version: It's a game about suicidal lemmings. That's all you need to know.
- Timed Mission: All levels have a time limit. Most of the time it's long enough not to be an issue, although on some levels the difficulty derives from completing an otherwise-straightforward puzzle in a very short time.
- Trial and Error Gameplay: Death traps without any indication to their existence? How nice. Bonus points for putting it a few pixels before the exit.
- Unwinnable By Mistake: One of the levels in Lemmings Revolution is unwinnable; the platform the Lemmings start on is too high for them to survive the fall from, and you need to save all of them to complete the level. Do the math. It's fixable via a fanmade patch, although thankfully the nonlinear structure of the game means you never have to play the offending level in the first place.
- Video Game 3D Leap: 3D Lemmings.
- Video Game Caring Potential: Saving 100% (or as much as possible) of the lemmings in each level, regardless of what is required for success. Just try going for the perfect solution in "Cascade" (otherwise an example of the following trope, as the obvious solution is to save 10 lemmings out of 80 and let the rest splat), or in "Upsidedown World" (at the start of which you have to turn the lemmings round on a very thin ledge — easy if you use a blocker, but then you lose one). To be specific, out of the 120 levels in the original game, 101 are possible to genuinely save every lemming on, and two more can be 100%ed via a glitch. Many of them, however, are very hard to do so.
- Video Game Cruelty Potential
- "Oh no!" pop pop pop pop pop! In theory, the Nuke button is there to quickly shortcut to the results screen if the final result is known (either a guaranteed success or failure). From almost the beginning, players have enjoyed instead using it because they enjoy watching every lemming pop in an explosion of confetti. The chorus of "Oh no!" heard when activating this is just the satisfying icing on the cake.
- Don't forget how fun it is to watch them get mangled in the various traps... or fall from a great height and go SPLAT.
- Or timing a bomber so that they explode while falling and produce a comet.
- One level from Holiday Lemmings 94 requires the nuke button in order to emulate the bombers, which are not provided on that level.
- It's also worth noting that almost all later versions of the game after the original Amiga version include a shortcut to skip to the results (Escape on the PC, Start+A on the Genesis, cmd-A on the Mac, etc), making the nuke button purely for unadulterated cruelty.