Franchise Festival #57: Lemmings

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we will be lining up the facts about Lemmings. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.

Though many online resources were consulted, the key source for this article was the series of retrospective articles written by Bobinator and Kurt Kalata for HardcoreGaming101. Please consult those articles for more details and images of each game.

Background

Acme Software was founded by a small group of computer enthusiasts in Dundee, Scotland in 1984. David Jones, Russell Kay, Steve Hammond and Mike Dailly would develop a handful of small PC games before signing a publication deal with Psygnosis and renaming their studio DMA Design in 1987. They continued to release games on the Commodore 64 and Amiga platforms before finally achieving an unqualified hit with 1991’s Lemmings.

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Lemmings (1991)

DMA Design was working on a follow-up to sidescroller Blood Money (1989) when it hired freelance artist Scott Johnson from a nearby McDonald’s restaurant. Johnson would acquit himself well at the company, quickly designing pixel art of a robotic head for their next game. As the game was to be a side-scrolling shooter and the head needed a target, Johnson started drawing little men being mowed down by the head’s laser cannon. In the spirit of competition, DMA co-founder Mike Dailly meanwhile set about trying to one-up Johnson’s design. Dailly created an animation which featured Johnson’s little men walking into a line of fire and being destroyed. The studio collectively got a rousing laugh out of this, then realized that these “Lemmings” might be the seed of an even greater project.

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The original Lemmings animation. Source: Mike Dailly

DMA co-founder Russell Kay developed a demo based on Dailly’s animation and revealed it to publisher Psygnosis at September 1989’s Personal Computer World (PCW) tradeshow. Rather than using Scott Johnson’s original Lemming character or Mike Dailly’s updated one, Kay made use of artist Gary Timmons’ more well-articulated character model. Psygnosis green-lit a full release based on the strength of DMA’s 1989 demo.

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A still image from the demo which convinced Psygnosis to support development of Lemmings. Source: Mike Dailly

The Lemmings’ basic outline changed little from Dailly’s initial sprite animation even as it was adapted to the limited color palette of the PC platform’s mid-1980s EGA standard. Gary Timmons would also update his original Lemming to reflect a wide variety of skills and appearances while retaining its overall simplicity. Art for the game’s stages would simultaneously be developed by freelancer Scott Johnson.

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Early concept are of the lemmings doing jobs which would appear in their first game. Source: Mike Dailly

Level design, on the other hand, was a highly collaborative process. Timmons, Johnson, and Dailly would each create levels using DMA’s proprietary level editor software and the art assets developed by Timmons and Johnson. Much of the programming for this editor and the basic mechanics of Lemmings was done by studio co-founder David Jones, though few of his own level designs would make it into the final game. Jones’ stages were ambitious but tended to fall short of DMA’s goal: crafting 2D puzzles so challenging that Psygnosis staffers were unable to complete them during the quality assurance process.

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Lemmings‘ iconic first stage on the Amiga. Source: Reign of Victories

Lemmings was released across several platforms in 1991. Europeans received versions on the Amiga, Atari ST, and ZX Spectrum, while Americans could play Lemmings on their MS-DOS and Macintosh computers before the end of the year. An Amiga version followed in the United States in 1992, while worldwide audiences were treated to Lemmings on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive, and SEGA Game Gear during the same year. By the end of 1994, versions had been published for the Amstrad CPC, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Commodore 64, 3DO, Atari Lynx, Game Boy, Phillips CD-i, and Amiga CD32.

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The Phillips CD-i version, as one might expect, features a mind-bendingly unpleasant opening cutscene. Source: Retro Gaming TV

The gameplay on all versions is functionally identical. Players guide up to one hundred small bipedal lemmings across a 2D stage from a starting point to a goal, avoiding or overcoming obstacles along the way. Some levels are straightforward, with lemmings digging vertical shafts or building bridges to reach the level’s end, while others are quite complex.

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Crossovers with other Psygnosis games, including this rather alarming monster from Awesome (1990), are a highlight. Source: ReignOfVictories

All require the player to assign distinctive roles to his or her lemmings. These roles include climbers, floaters, bombers, blockers, builders, bashes, miners, and diggers. Each role allows the relevant lemming to engage in some activity other than the characters’ default routine: walking right until stopped by an obstacle. The supply of lemmings in a given stage is endless, but the stage is only completed once the player secures a path for a specified number of lemmings to reach their goal.

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The Game Boy port of Lemmings is fascinating to behold, though it’s hard to imagine it being particularly playable. Source: Reinc

Paths are created by lemmings who have been assigned certain jobs. Builders, for example, can lay down bridges across gaps. Bombers, on the hand, can detonate themselves to remove physical impediments. Roles must be assigned in real-time as lemmings move in single file across a stage’s landscape and can only be assigned a limited number of times on any given stage. If the goal becomes inaccessible due to misused skills, all lemmings can be blown up by the player at the tap of a button.

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The Amiga version’s two-player mode did make it into the SNES port. Source: Cannot Be Tamed

Visual design and content is surprisingly consistent across all platforms, though there are exceptions. A controversial stage featuring a hellish aesthetic, in which lemmings navigate around three massive sixes, is absent from some ports. No console or portable device supported the use of a mouse, so ports for these hardware configurations still depend on an on-screen cursor moved using a directional pad, leading to an additional layer of challenge when assigning roles to individual lemmings. Digitized speech is present in some versions, including the Amiga original, but is omitted from many ports. A two player mode was similarly included in the original version but technical issues saw it dropped from most others, including the popular MS-DOS port. Animated introductory cutscenes of varying quality were added to the 3DO, Phillips CD-i, and PlayStation releases. The Windows 95 version would be the most impressive of the game’s early ports, launching with an expanded selection of levels and improved graphics.

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Holiday Lemmings features a new set of sprites, including lemmings in Santa suits, though ice physics aren’t in play. Source: World of Longplays

Two major expansions to Lemmings were published in the early 1990s following the title’s widespread critical and commercial success. The first, Oh No, More Lemmings (1991), adds new art assets, songs, and one hundred additional stages. The second consists of four level packs released annually to coincide with the Christmas holiday between 1991 and 1994. All stages feature seasonal music and holiday-themed art design.

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Lemmings‘ first stage recreated in a 2.5D polygonal style on the PSP. Players can zoom in if the default camera is too distant. Source: Retro Gaming TV

Lemmings‘ only major remake, as of writing, is a 2006 version published on the Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP). The remake dramatically overhauls Lemmings’ audio/visual presentation, depicting stages as 2.5D landscapes populated by polygonal characters, while introducing the ability to assign roles when the game is paused; a level editor is also included. Surprisingly, a Europe-exclusive PlayStation 2 port featuring support for Sony’s EyeToy peripheral would follow the PSP remake.

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The arcade prototype features a unique screen in its attract mode which explains what each lemming role does. Source: Retro Gaming TV

Though Lemmings would gain a reputation for its abundance of ports, one intriguing version would never see the light of day. A misguided attempt to re-release the game in arcades during the 1990s would be abandoned long before release, but the prototype is available through the use of emulation software. Lemmings arcade edition would offer the ability to select any of 56 stages from the beginning, though a strict timer ensures that few could be completed without inserting more quarters to continue. New levels have been introduced, along with a pause-screen role assignment mechanic similar to one that would be included in the 2006 remake, but it is unlikely that any of these improvements would have mitigated player frustration over the inability to complete a level without inserting more quarters. Lemmings is an excellent puzzle-platformer, but would never have been a good fit for arcades.

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Lemmings 2: The Tribes (1993)

With Lemmings becoming ubiquitous across almost every piece of video game hardware in the early 1990s, it’s no wonder that a sequel would soon appear on the Amiga. Lemmings 2 was planned to offer more of what had worked in its predecessor without sacrificing the concept’s simplicity. The result was a game that iterated only slightly upon Lemmings’ visual and mechanical design.

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The in-stage character models are identical, but the player’s tribe makes a humorous appearance on each stage intro scene. Check out that Cavelem. Source: RickyC

The primary difference is found in Lemmings 2’s titular tribes. These represent twelve distinct groups of Lemmings, each bearing its own set of voice clips and a unique set of thematically appropriate stages. Tribes include Beach, Cavelem, Classic, Polar, Space, Outdoor, Medieval, Highland, Egyptian, Sports, Shadow, and Circus. The player must guide each to the center of an island, assembling the twelve tribes in an effort to overcome a catastrophe known as The Great Darkness. This thin narrative is spelled out in an amusing introductory animation.

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The opening cutscene is surprisingly beautiful. Source: RickyC

The journey of each tribe is articulated as ten puzzling stages in the vein of those found in Lemmings. Environments are diverse, but landscapes are still primarily comprised of static images interspersed with traps for lemmings to overcome or avoid. New environmental features like catapults do allow for greater mobility than had been present in the preceding game. Lemmings can also be assigned a much wider set of skills, as DMA added 43 new roles to the game. Only eight appear in any given stage, however, ensuring that the player isn’t paralyzed by choice. The vast array of abilities was a point of interest to fans who enjoyed new roles like Jetpack and Bazooka, but developer Mike Dailly later reflected that the new abilities may have over-complicated the final game.

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In an Aladdin crossover (not really), the lemming in the middle of this frame takes flight on a magic carpet. Source: RickyC

An update to overall level progression is the last major change that the Lemmings franchise underwent between its first and second entries. Each tribe begins with sixty lemmings, though only one individual needs to make it to a stage’s goal to move on to the next one. The total number of lemmings is carried over from one mission to the next (within each tribes set of ten stages), though, so a reckless player might be left with too few individuals to fulfill all necessary roles in later stages. This dead-end scenario can be overcome by replaying earlier stages.

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Note how cool the backgrounds in the SNES version are! Source: Retro101uk

Lemmings 2 would receive widespread critical acclaim, with most contemporary outlets regarding it as superior to its predecessor. New abilities opened up complex new stage designs while quality of life features like a fast-forward button and the ability to save were welcome improvements. Still, Lemmings 2 would not be re-released as frequently as Lemmings. Most ports remained faithful to the Amiga original, though some featured unique elements: the SNES port includes alternate levels, adds more animated backgrounds, and integrates the SNES Mouse peripheral while reducing the total number of lemmings in each tribe to forty; the SEGA Genesis version features a distinctive soundtrack by composer Matt Furniss; the Game Boy version reduces each tribe’s total population to eight while also altering levels to suit the platform’s small monochromatic screen. Though fewer ports were produced, they tended to be more unique and well-considered than those of the preceding game.

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All New World of Lemmings /  Lemmings Chronicles (1994)

According to developer Mike Dailly, the third Lemmings game was produced largely to extract DMA Design from its publishing contract with Psygnosis. Still, the development team managed to introduce a host of new mechanics and even slightly revise the eponymous characters’ appearance for the first time. The result was a game which bore the imprint of its predecessors without being overly beholden to them.

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A slightly more expressive lemming sprite is emphasized with the large role images depicted at the bottom of the screen. Source: Psychedelic Eyeball

Lemming sprites are now larger than they had previously been. Their visual signifier, including a distinctive patch of floppy hair, makes for a more charming sight than the indistinct figures of Lemmings and Lemmings 2. The enlargement was apparently carried out at the request of The Children’s Television Workshop in preparation for a failed television tie-in.

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It’s difficult to make out due to the darkness of this image, but an oversized bird patrolling the upper-right of the map must be avoided to complete the stage. Source: Psychedelic Eyeball

Lemmings are not the only newly robust animated figures, however. Enemies are present for the first time in the series. These foes must now be avoided or battled as the title characters attempt to cross ninety new landscapes. To do so, lemmings now make use of free skills and tools rather than discrete roles. Every lemming has the ability to walk in two directions, block paths, jump, pick up items, and drop items; each action is engaged by a player clicking a lemming and an accompanying prompt in the user interface (UI). Tools explicitly take the place of specialized roles, as each allows a lemming to carry out a unique ability for a limited number of times when held. The practice screen – which had previously featured as a sandbox environment in Lemmings 2 – makes its return, allowing players to experiment with tools before using them in puzzle stages.

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Lemmings of each tribe are now visually distinct. These ones… (groan) walk like an Egyptian. Source: Psychedelic Eyeball

Stages are divided into groups of thirty, each bearing a central theme and a lemming tribe which must complete it. The tribes have similarly been scaled back: only Classic, Shadow, and Egyptian tribes reappear, corresponding respectively to stages set in a laboratory, a haunted house, and a pyramid. Each tribe now begins the game with twenty members and, while only one is needed to complete a stage, the set of stages may become unwinnable if the tribe’s total membership drops too low; additional members can now be discovered and rescued in levels, however. It is speculated that the remaining tribes would have appeared in expansion packs if such content had been produced.

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The world map is All New World of Lemmings‘ most significant concession to the graphical trends of its era. It almost looks like a screen from Myst. Source: Psychedelic Eyeball

All New World of Lemmings was greeted with little fanfare upon its European release on the Amiga in 1994. The North American Amiga version, renamed Lemmings Chronicles, and MS-DOS ports in both territories were likewise limited in their commercial performance. DMA Design was ready to move on to new projects, too. The studio would sell its Lemmings IP to Psygnosis,  ink a publishing deal with Nintendo, produce time-traveling action-adventure game Body Harvest (1998) for the Nintendo 64, and evolve into the highly prolific Rockstar North by the end of the decade. Reversing the diminishing returns of the Lemmings series would now be somebody else’s responsibility.

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Lemmings 3D (1995)

Psygnosis Games now fully owned the Lemmings IP and would assign development to Clockwork Games, which had previously produced Necronom (1991), Cytron (1992), and Wiz ‘n Liz (1993) under the name Lunatic Software. None of the studio’s three earlier efforts on the Amiga platform had any 3D elements, so Clockwork Games would need to build a new engine from scratch if it wanted to keep up with the medium’s rapid visual evolution during the mid-1990s. In the process, Lemmings made its first leap out of two dimensions.

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Lemmings 3D very loudly proclaims its biggest new feature with a garish twirling graphic on its title screen. Source: Psychedelic Eyeball

Lemmings 3D was developed for the MS-DOS operating system rather than the aging Amiga. Ports were then produced for the SEGA Saturn and Sony PlayStation. All versions of the game – for the first time in the series’ history – are identical.

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Note the similarity of the PlayStation and Saturn versions. Source: therealbluedragon

The basic goal of Lemmings 3D remains unchanged from the preceding three releases. The player must assign roles to individual lemmings to guide their group from a starting point to a goal. With one exception, all roles are pulled directly from the series’ first entry. The one new job is Turner – this is similar to Blocker, but causes lemmings to turn 90 degrees rather than 180 degrees. Such a skill is necessary because lemmings can now move in four directions instead of two. Obstacles require movement along the z axis in addition to the x and y axes, though true 360-degree freedom of movement remains impossible. Levels are effectively 3D grids obscured by appealing visuals.

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At its best, depth adds to the complexity of the Lemmings series’ puzzle design. Source: Psychedelic Eyeball

While lemmings are locked to four-directional navigation, the player’s perspective features a shockingly wide range of motion. Each stage includes four virtual cameras from which the player can view and interact with his or her lemmings. Cameras can be switched between at will, and each can be rotated, raised, or lowered to get a better view of the stage. The camera cannot move through solid structures, so the player must occasionally make use of a first-person perspective called Virtual Lemming. As the name suggests, this mode allows the player to see from a selected lemming’s point-of-view.

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At its worst, as in virtually every interior stage, the player quickly develops an intense sense of claustrophobia and confusion. Source: Psychedelic Eyeball

Stages are comprised of textured polygonal environments. Though level geometry is fully 3D, the lemmings themselves are rendered as 2D sprites. This produces an effect similar to other early 3D games like DOOM (1993) and Mario Kart 64 (1996). Level themes are more similar to the first game than any subsequent entries, as stages are divided by difficulty rather than by lemming tribe. Some stages are rather bizarre, while other depict the lemmings exploring real-world environments like a work desk. Most include distinctive environmental hazards like slippery ice or the occasional area which can only be navigated from the Virtual Lemming perspective.

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Lemmings were not made to be seen from this angle. Source: Psychedelic Eyeball

Lemmings 3D was an impressive leap forward for Psygnosis’ puzzle franchise. The rules for 3D games had not been well-established by this time, making Clockwork Games’ ambitious multiple-camera system even more impressive than it would have been a few years later. Even a series as rooted in 2D game design as Lemmings could evolve beyond its original constraints in the hand of a talented development team.

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Lemmings Revolution (2000)

Lemmings Revolution is at once more conservative and more experimental than its direct predecessor. The game spent more time in development than any Lemmings title so far and, according to lead programmer Chris Chown, was abandoned by publisher Psygnosis in 1999. As the game was already nearly finished, it was picked up by a small developer called Talonsoft – a subsidiary of increasingly powerful industry player Take-Two Interactive – and published by Take-Two on Windows PCs in 2000. Development was still credited to Psygnosis.

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The opening cutscene features sinister weasels watching a silent film depicting earlier games’ lemmings in grainy black and white; it’s wonderful and I encourage watching it. Source: Stranno

Players are tasked with guiding lemmings from a starting point to a goal once more, though Lemmings Revolution adds a few key wrinkles. Immediately noticeable is the absence of true 3D environments. The lemmings are indistinct 2D sprites, as ever, but their environments are now 2.5D landscapes wrapped around a cylindrical tower. As the lemmings move right or left, the player can rotate this cylinder to gain a broader view of the terrain. The playable 2D space is therefore set within a wider 3D context.

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Goals are represented by floating air balloons. Source: Stranno

Some stages also feature multiple goals for the first time in Lemmings history. Different types of lemmings, including water and acid lemmings which can respectively cross pools of water and acid, must be guided from unique starting points to unique end points. Most other abilities are imported directly from the series debut.

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Look at those li’l water lemmings crossing a pool with ease. Source: Stranno

Uncharacteristically, Lemmings Revolution includes a narrative framing device. The lemmings have at last freed themselves from the seemingly endless set of deadly puzzles they’d been forced to participate in throughout earlier adventures. Unfortunately, a sinister group of weasels kidnaps the furry bipeds to subject them to new puzzles for the weasels’ own entertainment. This articulates in gameplay through the presence in some levels of weasel enemies. The weasels quickly eliminate hapless lemmings, but can fall victim to stage hazards as easily as their targets if the player manipulates his or her lemmings wisely.

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Oodles of new stage hazards include portals which teleport lemmings between two points. Source: Stranno

Stage hazards are generally more impressive than those in Lemmings 3D. Aforementioned water and acid pools gate progress to all but one type of lemming, while a variety of gates and switches require the player to judiciously choose paths for his or her charges. Most inventively, gravity pads reverse gravity for any lemmings who step on them and permit movement along the ceilings of a cylindrical stage’s corridors.

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The stage selection screen. Each circle represents a stage which unlocks the two circles to which its arrows point. Consequently, a player could conceivably complete the game while experiencing only 12 stages. Source: LY203 Productions

Stage progression is again altered for this sequel. In contrast with the difficulty-oriented stage groupings of Lemmings and Lemmings 3D, along with the theme-oriented stage groupings of Lemmings 2 and All New World of Lemmings, Lemmings Revolution offers a branching set of stages. The player begins at the left side of a selection screen and has the opportunity to choose between multiple stages unlocked after he or she completes each level. 102 stages are available, though the player can conceivably get to the right side of the selection screen and see the game’s ending after having played only a fraction of these.

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One more quick shot from the opening movie because it’s adorable – the lemmings, freed from solving puzzles prior to be captured by weasels, fill their time with back-breaking labor. Source: Stranno

Lemmings Revolution would represent the last truly experimental outing for the franchise. It had already begun to reintroduce more conservative elements – particularly a 2D landscape – even as it offered unique new approaches to level design. Future entries would grow increasingly focused on recapturing the identity of the series’ earliest entry while introducing incremental new mechanics.

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Lemmings (2007)

When Sony acquired Psygnosis in 1993, it had acquired the rights to the Lemmings IP. Psygnosis remained a partially independent publisher until 2000, however, allowing Lemmings titles to be published on platforms outside of Sony’s PlayStation ecosystem. This arrangement ended when Psygnosis was merged into Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE) Europe and was renamed SCE Liverpool following the release of Lemmings Revolution. Sony would contract British studio Team17, of Worms (1995-2016) fame, to develop a remake of the original Lemmings for the PSP in 2006.

 

Team17 consciously developed the remake to remain faithful to DME Design’s original release with a handful of updates. Character models and environments were now fully polygonal, though the play space remained steadfastly two-dimensional. Quality of life improvements, including the ability to assign roles to lemmings while the game is paused, were integrated alongside a new map editor and online stage sharing functionality. Team17 would then port this remake to the PlayStation 2 with added support for stages featuring Sony’s EyeToy peripheral.

 

Based on the success of their remake, Team17 was assigned a new project within the franchise. Lemmings (2007) would share a name with its PlayStation 2 and PSP predecessor but would represent a sequel featuring entirely new stages and gameplay elements.

 

Designer John Eggett set about establishing mechanics that hadn’t been used in the series before but which would not upset the series’ long-established traditions. The basic gameplay remained highly conservative: players guide as many lemmings as possible from a starting position to a goal through a 2D stage populated by obstacles and hazards. Layered upon this reliable structure is one major new mechanic – skills are acquired throughout stages rather than being available to assign to any lemming from the user interface. Items can also be retrieved, allowing the presence of stages in which lemmings must gather candles to illuminate otherwise darkened landscapes.

 

Unfortunately, additional features and variety are scarce. The PSP remake’s level editor was even omitted from this version, which makes the presence of only 40 stages feel even less substantial. Team17 had crafted a competent but unremarkable new Lemmings. Given the challenge inherent to offering meaningful evolution without compromising a long-running series’ core identity, though, perhaps we should be grateful for Team17’s qualified success. 

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Lemmings Touch (2014)

d3t would be the next British studio given an opportunity to craft a new Lemmings game. Founded by Jamie Campbell and Stephen Powell following their release from THQ Digital Studios Warrington in 2011, the studio would develop a relationship with Sony through its support for Sumo Digital on LittleBigPlanet 3 (2014). d3t was contracted to create Lemmings’ next download-only release for the portable market on Sony’s newest handheld device, the PlayStation Vita.

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The lemmings are cuter than ever, which makes blowing them up all the grimmer. Source: Pocket Gamer

Lemmings Touch would be released in North America in May 2014. Unsurprisingly, its basic gameplay is highly reminiscent of the original Lemmings. The visuals hew closely to the template established by Team17’s PSP remake of that release, though the lemmings themselves have undergone a makeover. Their polygonal models are now larger and more rounded, offering a slightly more expressive performance as they explore the game’s 100 new stages.

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Even a hellish background zone has been faithfully updated from the Amiga original. Source: N4G

The most significant addition to the series’ formula would be Lemmings Touch’s innovative user interface. Rather than selecting lemming roles using an on-screen heads-up display (HUD) or having lemmings collect skills throughout stages, the player now taps a lemming to expose an action wheel surrounding the little critter. The player can tap any of the surrounding actions to apply that role to the targeted lemming. Similarly, environmental hazards can be manipulated using the Vita’s touchscreen.

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Red lemmings are a sinister if adorable addition to the series. Source: Irish Times

The game’s other addition to Lemmings’ mechanical palette is the introduction of mischievous lemmings. These red variants on the titular mammals must paradoxically be kept away from goals through manipulation of environmental features. As the presence of multiple lemming types had done for Lemmings Revolution, this new element serves to keep long-time series fans from simply going through the motions.

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Note the ability wheel accessed when a lemming is tapped by the player. Source: Digital Spy

A novel input mechanism and a new type of enemy prevent Lemmings Touch from being a purely rote exercise in nostalgia. Though d3t hadn’t charted a genuinely new course for the franchise, it had managed to apply interesting alterations to Lemmings‘ core systems. Its most important contribution, at least when judged by what came next, would be successfully adapting the franchise to facilitate a touch interface.

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Lemmings (2018)

In 2018, the Lemmings franchise finally made its way to a setting that seemed like a natural fit: mobile phones. Not since the early 1990s had the series been as well-positioned to take advantage of a platform’s unique characteristics. Mobile games had grown in popularity in the West during the 2010s and had become associated with bite-size gameplay presented, ideally, on a single screen with limited mechanical complexity. While Lemmings would fulfill much of this potential, it would also be subject to the platform’s most problematic elements. 

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Lemmings‘ tutorial offers one of the most scathing yet accurate indictments of its title characters. Source: Mr Tom FTW

Gameplay in Lemmings is superficially similar to preceding entries. A group of lemmings must be guided from a starting point to a goal through a 2D space filled with dangerous obstacles and hazards. The visuals are unremarkable but clean, presenting a clear picture of the action even on a mobile phone’s tiny screen. User input is based on tapping the touch screen rather than using emulated console controls, thankfully – the latter had become troublingly common as home console games were increasingly ported to mobile devices in spite of their deficiencies. Owing to Lemmings’ origins as a PC series played primarily using a cursor, it makes the leap to mobile more gracefully than many other franchises.

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To prevent lemmings falling to the ground below, this player is modifying a grid space. Now every lemming which passes through will pull out an umbrella. Source: Mr Tom FTW

The biggest update to the series’ formula is actually quite intriguing. Rather than directly assigning roles to lemmings, players now assign roles to spaces on the gridded 2D playing field. Once a lemming arrives at the relevant space – in the course of the creatures’ typical perambulations – it takes on the role indicated. A lemming will, for example, start building a bridge if it reaches a space to which bridge building has been assigned. Other skills like parasols (which prevent deadly falls) are applied to all lemmings who pass through a space. It’s a meaningful twist on a formula that had threatened to grow stale after two decades.

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All out of lemmings? Don’t worry, just pay real-world money for more. Source: Mr Tom FTW

Sadly, predatory microtransactions are as ubiquitous here as they are in most free-to-play mobile games. Home and portable consoles still tend to have software libraries made up of full-priced video games at the time of writing in 2019, but users in the mobile world have tended to favor casual releases which can be downloaded and played with little financial investment. In the 2010s, this trend led to the rise of game design based around enticing players to repeatedly spend small amounts over their total play time.

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The level select menu strangely sees the player terraforming a galaxy. Source: Mr Tom FTW

In Lemmings, these microtransactions are particularly pernicious. Users can pay to remove traps from stages or increase their number of lemmings, an ever-dwindling resource. Most significantly, the use of roles in stages requires energy, a resource which refills only after a period of time. Users can remove this limitation for two real-world hours at a stretch by paying a small amount of real-world currently but can never permanently remove it. Players can also volunteer to watch ads that contribute to their in-game resource pool if they prefer. In either case, these free-to-play mechanics only serve to undermine the surprisingly strong updates that developer Sad Puppy Games finally applied to Sony’s long-diminishing series.

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Spinoffs

During the height of Lemmings Mania in the 1990s, the series received a handful of intriguing if misguided spinoffs.

The first of these – developed by Psygnosis – was The Adventure of Lomax. Released on the PlayStation and Windows PC in 1996, The Adventure of Lomax introduces its eponymous character as a 2D platforming hero. Lemmings had long occupied a 2D space but its puzzle mechanics had offered no opportunity for the platformer genre’s characteristic acrobatics. Psygnosis’ first spinoff sought to remedy this with a game that was strikingly reminiscent, at least in terms of its visual palette, with Michel Ancel’s contemporary Rayman (1995).

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The sprites and animations are remarkably lush. Source: MobyGames

Unfortunately, The Adventure of Lomax fails to draw inspiration from Rayman in the particulars. Its 22 stages are largely comprised of cliche platforming environments while it offers no goals beyond moving from a starting position to a stage’s conclusion. This objective is reminiscent of the core Lemmings series, of course, but causes the game to feel light when juxtaposed with the increasingly dense exploration elements in contemporary platforming games.

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Though it is not otherwise mechanically ambitious, The Adventures of Lomax does feature the slick ability to move between multiple 2D layers. Source: MobyGames

The second and final Lemmings spinoff was likewise released for Windows PC in 1996. Unlike The Adventure of Lomax, though, Lemmings Paintball was developed by Visual Science and only published by IP-owner Psygnosis. Perhaps not coincidentally, it also represents a much greater departure for the series’ gameplay mechanics and visual presentation.

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You must watch the intro movie for Lemmings Paintball, as it features a claymation granny lemming eyeing up and gunning down a hapless foe. Source: LY203 Productions

Players guide a squad of up to four lemmings around battlefields from an isometric perspective as they attempt to shoot rival lemmings with paintball guns. Input is roughly similar to contemporary real-time strategy titles as players use a mouse to select one or more lemmings  and then left-click spots in the surrounding terrain to have the selected lemming(s) move there. Right-clicking, on the other hand, causes lemmings to fire their guns in the direction indicated.

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It ended up as something of a dead-end, but I think the isometric shooting and puzzle-solving of Lemmings Paintball offers a vision of an alternate way that the series’ might have evolved. Source: Pixelated Memories

Completing stages requires the player’s squad to defeat enemies while simultaneously navigating puzzling environments. The latter element seems to be the core series’ primary contribution to this spinoff’s gameplay and is perhaps the most well-developed aspect of Lemmings Paintball. The game’s central shooting mechanics are comparatively undercooked, featuring no alternate weapons and a very high difficulty level; lemmings can sustain only a single hit from enemies before falling in battle and targeting opponents is very challenging. Lemmings Paintball was highly criticized upon its release, presumably contributing to the lack of spinoffs over the following two decades.

Conclusion

Lemmings may have lost some of its vim and vigor over the last 25 years but its core gameplay remains viable even in the late 2010s. The original release has been ported and remade so many times that most console or PC owners have access to one or more versions of it, and all remain surprisingly engaging decades after the series’ debut. It seems to have proven difficult to meaningfully iterate on the foundation established by DMA Design despite many developers gamely trying to do so, perhaps due to the original concept’s strong identity. Given the new mechanics introduced by the series’ 2018 entry, though, Lemmings’ next great innovation may be just around the bend.


What do you think about Lemmings? What’s your favorite job class? How about the biggest disaster you found yourself in while playing? Why did you let this sweet little guy perish:

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Source: Wikipedia

Next week, @LovelyBones will be covering her thoughts on E3 so I’ll be ceding this space – tune in at 9:00 AM EST for her wrap-up on the week’s events.

Get excited for the next Franchise Festival in two weeks too, though, as we’ll be PSI’ing our way through MotherEarthbound at 9:00 AM EST on June 21, 2019. Set an alarm, as it’ll be a great one.

Some readers have expressed interest in a longer-term schedule of upcoming entries too, so I thought I’d provide that here. Be aware that these are subject to change:

  • #58 – Mother / Earthbound – June 21, 2019
  • #59 – The Simpsons – June 28, 2019
  • #60 – Mega Man X – July 5, 2019
  • #61 – Mega Man Legends – July 12, 2019
  • #62 – Call of Duty – July 19, 2019