In my retrospective examination (hur hur) of School Bus Driver, I cited one other DOS game to which the formative years of my adoration for the gaming medium may have stemmed from. Being deprived of video game consoles as a small child, my adoration of games was mostly enacted vicariously through friends as I cemented myself to their side and watched them play classics such as Doom, Wolfenstein, Donkey Kong Country and SNES Disney platformers, longing for an opportunity to get my hands on those titles myself. However, there was one DOS title, that when opened, I switched from being relatively passive observer to source of copiously edifying input.
This game was Lemmings.
Lemmings, whilst having only tangential relations to their real-life namesake, is a title that evokes multitudinous sentiment for me to this day. Released mere months before I graced planet earth with my existence (you’re very welcome) for the Atari ST, Amiga and DOS, this little puzzle-platformer was eventually ported to myriad platforms, apropos for the hours of entertainment it provided me, and, evidently, millions of others. With the goal of guiding a certain percentage of the little suicidal little hellions from their trapdoor in the sky to their egress at the end, to the tune of a rearranged classical soundtrack, Lemmings’ premise is conceptually simple. However, a plethora of obstacles, cavernous pits, heights, earth, stone, time, and Lemmings themselves serve as an impediment to this final goal.
However, Lemmings, aside from harbouring deep self-loathing tendencies and have a penchant for blithely ignoring any hazards around them, could circumvent this shortcoming by fulfilling a variety of functions at a mouse click. Lemmings would head stage right upon being unceremoniously dumped straight from limbo at the beginning of each level, which often necessitated that they be stopped from plunging off into the nearest abyss. Cue the blocker. Needed to dispose of the blocker at a level’s end because they were fundamentally useless otherwise? Turn them into bombers and nuke the fuckers. Needed to scale a wall on that one level that necessitated it? Turn them into climbers. Were your Lemmings being dropped from a height and you didn’t want to turn them into Lemming pancakes? Make them floaters (not to be confused with other floaters, as lemmings are made of lead and make like Harold Holt in the water)! Got an insurmountable wall that isn’t made of metal? Use a basher! Want to use a less-efficient basher? Use a miner! And of course, in order to surmount almost any apparently insurmountable obstacle, use the real MVPs of the Lemmings world; builders. So long as you had the capability to turn your Lemmings into builders, 90% of levels could readily be solved.
(Fun fact: to pause the game, you simply clicked the little ‘paws’ icon along the bottom. Paws- pause- geddit? Good, because I completely forgot when I revisited the game. I have brought dishonour upon my pun forefathers).
Lemmings themselves, in spite of their miniscule pixel forms, were (and continue to be, in their many iterations) rather adorable. There was something capital in the manner in which they ambled intently across the screen, lower limbs cycling. Their designs bespoke simplicity, their colour palettes limited to cooler hues, yet resplendent against the stark backgrounds and warmer tones of the environment around them. If you squinted hard enough, they possessed somewhat of a resemblance to Luigi, down to his high-pitched shriek in dire situations and adorably characteristic ineptitude at life. However, maybe that was just me and my imagination, or else my apparent need for glasses.
The environments, whilst not utilising most of the black abyss they serve as foreground to, were richly detailed, and served to heighten the ponderous premise of the entire happening. Why were the Lemmings there? Where were they being dropped from through that sizeable trap door? What drew them to their destination, and why was it sometimes a pyramid, and other times, the maw of hell itself? What lay beyond? Like School Bus Driver, was it all another metaphor for the afterlife? Who knows? Who cares? Lemmings is still intrinsically rewarding, even for levels that necessitated a more trial-and-error approach, and there remains deep satisfaction to be derived from painstakingly jotting down the codes to access levels at any later time. Possessing four difficult levels- Fun, “Tricky, Taxing and Mayhem- Lemmings ensured plenty of challenge, even as levels appeared recycled upon first impression, as it limited the kind of units Lemmings could be turned into.
Unlike School Bus Driver, the narrative itself is not the focus in Lemmings. Rather, it’s the voracity of one’s wits and determination, their rationale and ability to make sound judgements, although you’re not exactly punished for failing the latter. In fact, it’s rather satisfying in a schadenfreude sort of way to nuke the lot of the tiny little bastards, as they emitted endearing little squeaks and exploded in a glibbish splendour highly reminiscent of confetti. Given the catalogue of titles made by Lemmings’ developer, DMA Design, such carnage, albeit relatively modest, served as little surprise. However, as an aside, the sound and animation was excellent, though not necessarily from a technical perspective. Each unit had a simple, yet distinctive animation, and even the seemingly perfunctory sound that played upon each Lemming leaping jubilantly through the doorway at the finish is understatedly apt.
It’s a seldom feat for a studio to survive across a span of decades and not be closed, but in a sense, DMA Design, have managed just that, buoyed by sojourns as second-party developers for a number of consoles. DMA may be an esoteric name in modern times, but one that, perhaps, ought not to be, considering that they would eventually come to amalgamate to form the prominent Rockstar Studios. Their 1997 title, Grand Theft Auto, may have spawned the more lucrative franchise, but for me, nothing comes with more of a cognitive challenge or with more fond reminiscence than the original Lemmings.
Given its longevity and numerous ports, the original Lemmings is a game that hardly requires my extolling of its excellence, but I can’t help myself. This was the title that unwittingly spawned my life-long love of a medium.
Until next time