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Lemmings (NES) artwork

Lemmings (NES) review

"There are certain games that you have to have on one system or another. I'm fairly sure that it's some kind of legal requirement or something. Tetris is one such game. Lemmings is another (although you'd probably guessed that hadn't you....) As such when I saw a shiny new copy of Lemmings for the NES in my local game store I had no hesitation in buying it. So with a classic game in hand I scurried off home for what I fully expected to be hours of brain-taxing fun. I didn't count on the one thing..."

There are certain games that you have to have on one system or another. I'm fairly sure that it's some kind of legal requirement or something. Tetris is one such game. Lemmings is another (although you'd probably guessed that hadn't you....) As such when I saw a shiny new copy of Lemmings for the NES in my local game store I had no hesitation in buying it. So with a classic game in hand I scurried off home for what I fully expected to be hours of brain-taxing fun. I didn't count on the one thing that could possibly come between me and this dream - the evil, evil control system - this game is about as easy to control as... something very difficult to do. But more on that later.

If you've never heard of this game, then it could sound very complicated, but really it's pretty simple to play, but, as the old cliché goes, hard to master. Basically you control a horde of suicidal lemmings, who haplessly amble forward until something gets in their way, or until they meet various forms of grisly death. You have the unenviable task of getting these mindless fools home safely across the increasingly large and hazardous levels. To do this you can assign the lil' critters various jobs. You can make them climbers so that they can scale walls, equip them with umbrellas to act as parachutes should they encounter a large drop, builders can create bridges across gaps, the all-important blockers can stop the lemmings while you make the area safe (although the lemmings then turn and continue their mindless, zombie-like walk in the other direction), and the kamikaze lemmings that will explode after a five second countdown, hopefully destroying a wall that's been blocking your path. At the end of the stage you can progress if a high enough percentage of lemmings arrived home safely. It's all simple stuff at first - only one type of lemming is needed to complete the level, but soon it becomes incredible difficult, as you need to work out how to use many (or all) of the abilities together to progress. Yes, if you haven't worked it out by now, we have a puzzler on our hands. This is a massive game - there are several difficulty settings (standard for games of this era) - in this case there are four - Fun, Tricky, Taxing, and the aptly named Mayhem, but in a move that shows that just that little bit of extra effort has gone in to the game, each difficulty setting comes with it's own unique set of levels - it's almost like having three separate games on offer here, as each set of levels is really quite large. In addition, even on the easiest difficulty setting this game is pretty challenging (once you get past the first half-dozen levels - the ones that serve as an introduction). The gameplay is pleasingly addictive, too - it comes complete with that all important feeling that you really will do it next time, and as such a quick five minute session can last for hours on end. Before too long you'll be seeing lemmings wandering aimlessly around every time you shut your eyes, and you'll be thinking up tactics for finishing that level that's had you stumped for days while going about your daily routine. If you let it, this game really will get under your skin and keep you hooked for months. The game also moves at an enjoyably fast and frantic pace (make that frustratingly fast and frantic if you don't like too much of a challenge!), so things can get pretty hectic. You'll shout and swear like anything as you watch the last lemming that you need to get to safety cheerfully amble to his doom the second you take your eyes off of him, but you'll always come back and try again.

The graphics on display here show no signs of suffering after their transfer to the NES, due to the fact that they were never really complicated on any format. It's the usual brightly coloured foregrounds and empty (usually black) backgrounds here, with the lemmings being as tiny as ever as they scuttle around the screen. Aside from the ill-fated and ill-advised Lemmings 3D this is the same formula that all subsequent Lemmings games have followed even on the more powerful systems such as the SNES, which is a testament to how well this works here. Like the best puzzle games out there, Lemmings doesn't need flash visuals to be great.

On the aural front Lemmings fares just as well. The tunes are nice, if unremarkable, and can have you humming along inadvertently in no time. Although they may not seem suited to the game at first, there's no denying that it's strangely amusing to see hordes of animals walk straight into a churning mass of blades to die in a spectacular manner while a jaunty little tune plays merrily in the background. It's all very surreal, but completely charming.
Unfortunately listening to the poor little things saying 'Oh No!' in their singsong voices just before they explode is still one of gaming's classic moments, and this is the only feature that seems to have been omitted from the NES version.

So to the only aspect that lets the side down - the control. Lemmings is a game that was designed with a mouse in mind, so it doesn't translate too well to the NES controller - the D-pad moves the cursor around the screen, the A-button 'clicks' on the selected lemming to give it it's chosen task. This is all well and expected, and works fine, but it is the icon bar at the bottom of the screen that causes trouble. Instead of just being able to click on the desired icon (builder, blocker etc.) you must hold down the B-button and then use the D-pad to scroll left or right. The fact that the game is still in full swing while you do this makes it much more fiddly than it should be. Of course, you get used to this, and once you have got the hang of it you'll never lose it (like riding a bike), but it does prevent that instant accessibility that other versions of the game have, and people who are experiencing Lemmings for the first time with this version of the game, and as such don't realise what a fantastic game it really is, may be turned off for life by the fact that for the first few hours the controls render the game near unforgivably frustrating.

This gripe aside, though, Lemmings on the NES is just as captivating as ever. It may have bad controls and a lack of 'Oh No!', but it is still one of the most playable puzzle games out there. I'm sure that most of you already have this game on another format, which would make getting this version a bit excessive (and, frankly, daft) , as if anything it's slightly inferior, but if you've never sampled Lemmings before and you get the opportunity to buy this game, then I recommend it, but not for the NES if you can help it. Like I said, it really is a game designed with a mouse in mind, so you'd be better off getting it for PC, Amiga, BBC Micro etc. To finish, a little story. A few years ago some little scamp managed to surreptitiously install this game onto one of the school computers. Within a week there was barely a computer in the school that didn't have the game hidden on it. Everyone was hooked once again, and to this day one of the notice boards still displays the scrawled message 'Winter 97 - Lemmings is all the rage' (probably - I've left that school now, but to think it's still there makes a nice conclusion). This just goes to show that rare, timeless quality that Lemmings has, and while it suffers on the NES, you just can't keep a good game down.

tomclark's avatar
Community review by tomclark (February 02, 2004)

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