Christmas Lemmings!

George Bachaelor looks at the phenomenon that was, and is, Lemmings

My task, should I accept (and you did – Ed) was to write an article about Christmas Lemmings as a segue into Lemmings in general. The reason behind this, is simply to meet my brief for the Christmas / holiday season issue of Paleotronic, so naturally we want to keep this issue as Christmassy as possible.

After researching as much as I possibly could about Lemmings, (no this is not a look at those small fury hamster like rodents found near the Arctic) I thought it was much better to start at the beginning of where it all began with Lemmings, the home computer video game, once you have read the origins of the story, you will be ready for the holiday / Christmas versions (yes there was more than one) of the game.

The year was 1992 when I first took a glimpse of what Lemmings, the computer game was all about. Little did I know the game had been released on the 16-Bit juggernaut, the Commodore Amiga, almost a year earlier. When it came to 16-Bit gaming, I was like Sargent Schultz from the 1965 American TV show, Hogan’s Heroes – “I know nothing”. As i reflect back, Lemmings was my wake up call. Not only did Lemmings change how I perceived the world of computer gaming, it was such an incredible success story that it changed so many people’s lives and careers, hopefully in a positive way. Reading the warning label on the original released game box, you’d be thinking this game caused much greater negative chaos in people’s lives, as developers and distributor of the game DMA Design and Pysgnosis stated “we are not responsible for: Loss of sanity, loss of hair and loss of sleep”. Remembering my own experiences of playing it back in the day, I would say that’s a fair call.

To find out why such a claim was made, let’s take a look at the unconventional origins of the game. Initially DMA Design challenged its programmers to come up with a believable walking man sprite in 16 by 16 pixels as an animation demo on the PC ,for the sequel to the game Blood Money, called Walker. This occurred in August of 1989. What happened as a result of this particular challenge, the programming team were able to get a walking animated sprite into a 8 by 8 pixels form and from there the walking glimmering animation was born and came to life. A month later In late September of 1989, DMA Design were able to show a demo to Psygnosis. Various testing methods were undertaken, according to Wikipedia, DMA Design developer Mike Dailly “was able to quickly produce an animated graphic showing his creations moving endlessly, with additional graphical improvements made by Gary Timmons and other members of the DMA Design team to help remove the stiffness in the animation. One member, Russell Kay, observed that “There’s a game in that!”, and later coined the term “Lemmings” for these creations. Levels of the game were designed based on a Deluxe Paint interface, which allowed several members of the development team to design levels, resulting in hundreds of levels”.

Well you know the rest (like me, no you probably don’t – Ed), but to coin a phrase and to cut a very long story short, as the saying goes, and the rest is written in computer gaming history.

So, it’s 1991 when Lemmings is first released to the world wide (internet-less) computer gaming community through the Commodore Amiga. 100 levels of puzzle solving craziness becomes an instant smash hit home computer game. Magazines are falling over themselves, doing cartwheels backwards with their reviews, some of the following reception demonstrates just how highly the game was thought of back in the day. Amiga Computing (May 1991) overall score 97%. The One magazine (Jan 1991) overall score 96%. Génération magazine (Feb 1991) overall score 100%. AUI magazine Vol 5, No 4 (Apr 1991) overall score 100%. Amiga Power (Dec 1991) 5 out of 5 and CU Amiga (Feb 1991) 94%. The overall scores are quite remarkable, because back in those times computer game magazines were very reluctant to give any game if it was any good a rating higher than 96% or 97%. That was the way it was, there was this unwritten rule by magazines that no game was perfect. Lemmings certainly made magazines rethink this rule.

This was just one game launch on one machine, what happened next was a mad rush for ports to every other popular system that still had an active buying market. I have read over and over in computer magazines over the years a quote along the lines of “all graphics and no gameplay does not make a great game”. There is all sorts of variables that don’t make a great game, but true, if the gameplay is uninteresting, lacks fun in what is required to perform the ultimate goal of the game, then more than likely you won’t enjoy playing the game. In this era, home computer based puzzle games were really hitting their strides as a growing and financially successful genre. Home computer games from 1990 such as E-Motion, Klax, Pick N Pile and Puzznic were all receiving high acclaim. While those mentioned games were enjoyable and fun to play, they remained in a status quo puzzle gaming environment. When Lemmings comes along, such is the unique style and simplicity of the gameplay, it totally blows people’s minds, destroying the way people play their puzzle video games quite possibly forever.

How did this happen ? Why was the gameplay so good ? And what the bloody hell was a Lemming? I mean i was reading about them in magazines everywhere, i was getting the loss of sanity, loss of hair and loss of sleep the developers had warned me of and i wasn’t even playing the game yet (tutt, tutt, tutt – Ed).

It happened because the gameplay and playability of the game was just so fantastically simplistic it really couldn’t fail to be so good (ok maybe if i did it i would probably have failed: yes most likely – Ed). If you are reading and don’t know what was involved, the game was basically this: At the start of each level a trap door opens from the top of the screen, falling through it are a predetermined number of Lemmings, anthropomorphised to take on human form. The amount of Lemmings released changes as you progress further towards the 99th level (there is 100 as the levels start counting at level one). Levels have different status such as ‘Fun’, ‘Tricky’, ‘Taxing’ and ‘Mayhem’. You can guess that the fun section would be the easiest of the puzzles to solve and mayhem would be diabolically hard puzzles to solve. The one and only objective in the game is to get a percentage amount of Lemmings safely to an exit door within a specified time limit. Within the game the player can provide different skill sets to Lemmings so they can perform jobs such as building ladders or digging through surfaces to get to another part of the screen, so that the Lemmings may eventually reach the exit door. The number of skills is always set at eight and the types are always the same for every level. But the number of times the player can assign one skill to a level varies in every level. It can even happen, that the player can’t choose a skill at all. This makes solving some levels a real challenge and adds to the unpredictability and addictiveness of the gameplay.

Within a year of its release on the Amiga, the game had been ported over to systems such as the Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Sinclair Spectrum, PC / DOS, SNES, 3DO, Acorn Archimedes, Apple IIgs, Apple Macintosh, CDTV, Commodore 64, NES, Sega Master System and Genesis, TurboGrafx-16, Philips CD-i and Sharp X68000. During an online interview by Alistair Wallis, on 21 December 2006, titled, “Playing Catch Up: GTA / Lemmings’, on the Gamasutra website, developer Dave Jones stated that after porting the game to 20 systems, he stopped keeping count of how many different machines Lemmings had appeared on. Dave Jones, who is he you ask ? Dave later went on to develop Grand Theft Auto.

Usually, from what i had seen before Lemmings was released, ports from 16-Bit systems to other machines could be classified more on the side of being not so great, football game Kick Off is just one such example of how poor a conversion has been from 16 Bit to 8 Bit machines. Lemmings though, smashed through this curse in quite the most emphatic fashion. My home computer of choice, the Amstrad CPC 6128 received a most incredible game conversion in 1992, such was the game’s likeness to the original Lemmings on the Commodore Amiga, Amstrad Action magazine of July 1992, gave it an overall score of 97%, the second highest rated game in the history of that publication.

By 1996, just 5 years after its original release, Lemmings was considered to be the 8th greatest computer game of all time and only 2nd to Tetris in the puzzle gaming genre by Next Generation magazine. Estimates suggest the game sold around 20 million copies between all of its various ports. The popularity of the game also led to the creation of expansion packs, several sequels, remakes and spin-offs, as well as inspiring similar games. This is where we discuss the Christmas theme of Lemmings in much more detail.

So, you’re a developer and you have a hit game, played and loved by undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, but what do you do next ? You make another game of course. That’s exactly what DMA Design and Psygnosis did. Lemmings the video game was so popular, the market for releasing follow ups was a no brainer. The interesting thing that DMA Design and Psygnosis did at the end of 1991, is release Lemmings with a Christmas / Holiday theme. Strange if you consider that many Christmas related computer games that had come before it, were failures, perhaps not at the cash register but generally more so when you got them home from the store and played them, magazines ratings were generally low as well.

The Christmas themed Lemmings is more than just one more game. In a way, it is its own standalone series or franchise. The original Lemmings game was not required to play it. Each year between 1991 and 1994, around the Christmas holiday season, DMA Design and Psygnosis gave gamers of varying systems, mainly Commodore Amiga and PC systems, a new opportunity to play original levels of the Lemmings game. The 1991 and 1992 versions were free being giving away to readers of popular magazines and classified as demo games. The 1993 and 1994 versions were commercial releases. Later, however the 1993 version was given away free with the 1994 commercial release of the game.

The differences in the Christmas Lemmings game series can be explained below:

1991 version: Four levels to play for free, consisting of two worlds. Two levels as Christmas levels and two levels came from the previously released Oh No! More Lemmings!

1992 version: Four levels to play for free all with a Christmas atmosphere.

1993 version: 32 levels to play as a commercial release, divided into two worlds called “Flurry” and “Blitz”. Both have 16 levels each.

1994 version: 32 levels to play, as a commercial release, divided into two worlds called “Frost” and “Hail”. Both have 16 levels each.

In late 1995 , a version of 3D Lemmings called 3D Lemmings Winterland was released, which included an expansion with four winter-themed levels. Although they were not purely Christmas-themed and followed the 3D Lemmings gameplay, it could be considered as the last chapter in the Christmas Lemmings series.

Instead of the green-haired, blue robed lemmings walking about ordinary background screens from the original game, all the Lemmings were dressed in typical red Christmas outfits, with background screens predominantly illustrated with gorgeous looking snowy Christmas related landscapes. I have been playing the games recently, my thoughts are that the developers couldn’t have executed the game more brilliantly. Heavily winter snow covered environments filled with joyfully bouncing snowmen, hanging Christmas lights everywhere and large overhanging icicles, give this game a real sense of Christmas spirit that many Christmas games before it have and had lacked. Often developers of the time would try and change a winning formula with sequels / expansion packs that altered the gameplay and style of the original. One look at what Ocean Software did with the release of Renegade III in 1989 is an unfortunate example of many during this time. For DMA Design and Psygnosis to stick with a winning formula, allowing the game to be played as it was meant to be played – saving “xx” amount of Lemmings on a particular screen, using Lemmings to find a way home by giving them a special skill set or function to perform such as the ability to build stairs, dig tunnels or stop other lemmings is absolutely genius. If it ain’t broke, why fix it! The Christmas themed Lemmings games turned out to be just as enjoyable as the original Lemmings game.

It may have started out as being a free, special thank you present to Lemmings fans all over the world for making Lemmings and Oh No! More Lemmings massive financial and commercial video game success stories, but i think gaming fans also need to thank DMA Design and Psygnosis for sharing their incredible video gaming invention with the world. Lemmings is as classic a retro computer game you could come across, that has stood the test of time since its release. Somehow Christmas Lemmings, (thats all of them in the Christmas / holiday season games) makes the original Lemmings game even better. It’s Christmas senses overload for all the right reasons. Each of the Christmas graphical designs for each of the levels is pure Christmas magic. Add the jolly Christmas tunes and it’s just about the best Christmas themed game you could play.

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