Overall Rating: 2/5 Stars
Released in 1992 by Sunsoft, Lemmings was a cartridge for the Nintendo Entertainment System that was based on a PC game. The concept was developed by Sygnosis (with some coding help from Ocean for the 8-bit model), and the NES version is just one of many, not only including different computer models but the Game Boy and SNES systems as well. There was a time when it was difficult to avoid familiarity with the Lemmings franchise in some form or another; however, was this a game truly worthy of its fame?
Lemmings is a puzzle game, though not one featuring geometrical shapes, matching colors, a static-frame screen, or inanimate objects. This is a challenge of survival, as you must guide the titular characters level-by-level in an attempt to clear all 25 stages of a particular difficulty setting (Fun, Tricky, Taxing, to the hardest mode, Mayhem), each setting having a completely different set of levels, thus bringing the total game levels to 100.
When a Lemming drops onto the game screen, they begin walking to the right and will not stop until they die (by walking onto a trap or walking off an edge and falling to their death, either by pit or by an overly long fall) or hit a wall, in which case they will turn and begin walking to the left. The player must figure out how to get all the Lemmings to the exit. In order to do so, he or she must assign tasks to specific Lemmings, the number of available jobs of each type (like Climber, who will can the next wall he comes across when given that task; Floater, who can survive longer falls; Bomber, who blows up after five seconds and can be used to eliminate a wall; Blocker, who stands still and acts as a wall to reverse the path of other oncoming Lemmings; Builder, who forms a bridge up diagonally; Basher, who punches through a wall he runs into; Miner, who traverses diagonally downward into soft terrain; and the Digger, who burrows straight down. Holding the B button and pressing left and right on the directional pad highlights a task, and the A button assigns that task to whatever particular Lemming is highlighted on the screen. There are also options to pause the game or kill all Lemmings on-screen if the level has been rendered impossible and the player does not wish to sit there waiting for the time limit (which begins at three minutes) to run out.
Thus, the player must utilize careful planning along with clever strategies and basic inventory management in order to beat the levels. Completing
a stage gives the player a password, which can be used at the title screen. Sometimes the solution is brutally obvious and easy (the first level of the easiest difficult, Fun, is called “Just Dig,” with the Lemmings dropping onto a platform, and the only available task is Digger – literally all the player needs to do is assign Digger to one Lemming, who digs through the floor, all the Lemmings drop through, and walk to the exit), while other stages demand a very particular sequences of tasks, yet still others offer a wide array of tasks and allow the player room for flexibility. For example, there are stages that feature traps on the floor that instantly kill any Lemming that steps on it, yet there are multiple solutions: Have a Lemming build stairs over it, have a Miner dig under it (certain grid-like levels are built in cross-hatches that actually let the player dig down only to be able to walk right up again), etc. When coming across a wall, does the player assign Climbers, dig under it, build stairs over it, or blow it up? Sometimes the correct answer is determined by the number of Lemmings needed to rescue, since most stages do not actually require all the lemmings to make it to the exit in time.
This is an odd video game to try and judge on the terms of its visuals, and the reason is, in most basic terms, that some parts of the gameplay are impressively well-rendered yet others look terrible. For instance, the tasks bar at the bottom of the screen is vague and ill-defined; the Climber hardly looks like a climber, and the straight-down Digger requires quite the imagination to realize what the icon represents. Yet the backgrounds of the levels are inventive, colorful, and evocative, bringing the environmental sensations of slimy sewers, Egyptian landscapes, mechanical industry, and other such areas, providing a pleasant variety. The menu screens and in-between status screens feature bizarre choices of text color against background colors, but at least remains legible. The lemmings themselves are tiny and barely recognizable for what they are, yet this is a gameplay necessity. The title screen is well-done and features an animation of a Floater landing and walking over to the title carved into a mountain, but you must watch this little cinematic scene every single time you fire up the game.
There are no sound effects at all in the gameplay, not even a simple “beep” for choices made or even an explosion when Lemmings blow up. The background music is generic, and can repeat, such as the Jacques Offenbach’s Can-Can track (if you are not sure what it is, you have heard it, and may remember it better as the music that formed the basis of the Spectacular Spectacular song in Moulin Rouge; though, mentioning a musical in a video game review may be forbidden), which on its own merits is fine but seems forced into this title. The lack of sound effects truly is bizarre and worth emphasizing.
The concept certainly is original, taking the puzzle-game mechanics of using planning, tactics, and management skills to accomplish a level-by-level goal, but using little cartoon-like characters that make the idea seem more organic. The individual elements that, together, make up the entire experience in themselves may not be 100% unique or completely original, but no other game quite puts together anything approaching a cartridge like this.
Lemmings has its proper place, though minor, in the pantheon of gaming history. This is a quirky, unique little featurette of a game, and some people may love it, but overall, it gets old quickly and has not aged well. Even if it is fun to beat the 100 levels, what replay value is there once they are conquered? This could be seen as an argument against any video game, but considering the very “do X to accomplish Y” nature of Lemmings, but without as much room for freeflow as a platformer, beat-’em-up, shooter, two-player, or other type of video game, especially on the NES, this title suffers. Your mileage may vary, but it also seems like Lemmings is content to be mediocre, when you consider the lack of original music, the astounding absence of sound effects altogether (was the eerie silence intentional; if so, why, as in: How does having no effects whatsoever really enhance the atmosphere of a game that needs more of it, not less?), the one-trick pony nature of gameplay, the visuals that do not seem fully polished, the NES version just being another iteration of a money-sucking ploy to capitalize on a fleeting trend, the evidence begins to mount against the idea of this being an especially noteworthy game. It can be addicting, but only for the short-term, perhaps worth a playthrough but no more, and just as many who love it will also fail to see the appeal at all. That is, almost definitively, the description of a game that gets rated two stars out of five, regardless of how many Climbers it assigns.
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