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Lemmings (NES) artwork

Lemmings (NES) review

"There are only so many times you can listen to the Can-Can while your precious lemmings are murdered."

If you were a gamer during the early Ď90s, you almost certainly had an encounter with Lemmings. During their era, the green-haired critters stampeded across every game system you might care to mention, empowered by cutesy graphics and the seemingly innocent brain teasers which gave the title its surprisingly wide appeal. Indeed, one of my earliest gaming memories is playing Lemmings with my family. That explains why recently returning to the NES version of the title, now over 20 years old, proved a somewhat daunting task. Thankfully, while the experience that I had didnít quite live up to the rose-tinted memories that had formed in my mind, it also didnít throw them off the edge of a cliff.

Chances are good that you already know the basic mechanics contained within Lemmings. Each level offers up what is essentially an obstacle course. Your blue-clad rodent army unwittingly drops into that arena and begins to doggedly march across the screen. The only thing that will stop your precious mobile crew is either a solid wall -- which will cause its members to turn around and march back the way they came -- or a grisly death. Your job is to help them avoid the latter as you guide them safely to the exit.

By modern standards itís pretty basic stuff, but in an era of puzzle games that were dominated by static screens and inanimate objects, colour-matching exercises and geometric shapes, Lemmings offered a fresh challenge. That challenge remains largely intact to this day.

The core component that makes the game work as well as it does is the fragility of your lemmings. Traps will crush them into colourful dust, and even the most minor of falls results in their demise. To overcome such horrors, you must assign jobs to your more intrepid team members. So, for example, Floaters use umbrellas to survive long drops. Builders construct rickety staircases over gaping chasms. Diggers burrow directly into the earth. You can even turn individual lemmings into walking time bombs to blast through stubborn walls.

This system lends the game enormous character. Itís difficult not to grow attached to your most useful units, which makes you all the more determined to protect them. This setup also lends the game surprising depth. The variety of jobs on offer requires you to consider numerous options and utilise thoughtful strategies in order to progress. This point is emphasised by the fact that each job can only be assigned a limited number of times, which forces you to use every tool at your disposal. Without suitable foresight, itís easy to render an area unsolvable. That undesirable outcome does at least offer you the sadistic pleasure that can come from blowing up every lemming onscreen in one glorious blast. Itís actually one of the more satisfying restarts gaming has to offer.

Levels start out on the ludicrously easy side, asking for nothing more than a single Digger, but they soon begin to up the ante. Lemmings contains four difficulty variants, starting with the blissful ĎFuní and ending with the pad-smashing ĎMayhem.í Each stage contains 25 original levels, which adds up to a huge amount of content.

The time you spend with the game will also likely be extended by those levels that require repeated attempts in order to be cleared. Later in the game, itís possible for all your lemmings to be mincemeat within the very first minute if you donít act quickly. Some levels can require significant trial and error, which is testament to how Lemmings often lets you use your imagination. You might overcome a trap by digging underneath it, building over it, or even blowing it up. Many levels are intricately layered, offering multiple routes to the exit.

This sense of variety is further emphasised by the range of settings on offer. Across the gameís 100 levels, your lemmings will wander through Egyptian pyramids, bucolic meadows, monolithic machinery, and intricate mines. These are rendered with eye-catching colours and real imagination. Every level is a nice place to be, even if it is trying to murder your beloved motley crew. Less visually impressive is the task bar at the bottom of the screen, used for assigning jobs. Individual details here can prove difficult to discern, with the images used to delineate the jobs a little unclear. Still, this is only a problem for the first level or so, before you eventually commit each blurry symbol to memory.

The limitations in the sound department are less easily forgiven. The NES version of Lemmings is the most basic in this regard, with all sound stripped away apart from the music. There are no sound effects during the gameplay whatsoever, which has the strange effect of occasionally making you feel detached from the onscreen action. All youíre left with is the basic music which, although far from terrible, is repeated frequently enough that you might consider playing with the volume muted. There are only so many times you can listen to the Can-Can while your precious lemmings are murdered. Music more evocative of each levelís setting would have been a more appropriate touch.

Itís fair to say that the NES version of Lemmings does not offer the definitive experience. The lack of sound effects deals a real blow to the gameís charm, which it otherwise has in spades. Yet the core of what makes the franchise so compelling is firmly in place here in the form of original, entertaining, and challenging puzzles that, due to the downright cuteness of the titular creatures, really feel like they matter.


space_dust's avatar
Freelance review by David Owen (May 17, 2013)

David Owen is a freelance writer who also contributes to VG247, Eurogamer, IGN, and others. He likes Gitaroo Man more than is healthy.

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