Long before Rockstar Games published Grand Theft Auto, indeed long before Rockstar games were called Rockstar Games, they were a small video game company that called themselves DMA Design. They were a small development studio based out of Dundee in Scotland, and made a number of smaller titles throughout the late 1980’s to 1990’s. Yet their big breakout didn’t come thanks to the mature tones of Grand Theft Auto. Indeed, the company’s first big hit was a quaint little title called Lemmings in 1991.
In early February 1991, Psygnosis released DMA’s latest game, Lemmings, to the mass market on PC, Amiga, and Amiga ST. The game was an instant hit, resonating heavily with gamers who couldn’t get over just how fun it was guide these docile creatures to safety. Positive review scores piled up and DMA Design had their first major hit on their hands – with sequels spun off quickly to capitalise on the popularity of the game.
But what made this indie puzzle game so popular? No offence but compared to the fast paced Sonic or the carefully timed leaps of Mario – Lemmings felt like a slower game all together. But here’s where the game truly shone – it didn’t need to be like those other 2D games.
At its core, Lemmings has a very simple premise. The player gets a set number of Lemmings, the titular green haired, blue bodied protagonists at the beginning of the level, dropping from the ceiling. It’s the player’s job to then lead them to the end of the level, overcoming the various pitfalls and dangers that litter the path there. The more Lemmings survive, the higher the score given to the player. Getting them through these deathtraps though was another thing entirely.
Deathtrap is a very accurate word for where they go to. Each level either (a) looks complex and is complex, or (b) looks simple but is built as evil as possible. Either way, you’re basically screwed without quick wits, logic and careful pre-planning. Add in a healthy dose of trial and error as you scream in abject horror at the sight of yet another failed endeavour, and it’s easy to see why the game connected with audiences so well.
Running against you at all times are the titular characters – who willingly walk off cliffs, dive into lava and do everything possible to invoke Darwin’s Law. There’s no stopping our hopeless protagonists – and that’s all part of the fun. There’s a sense of satisfaction when you save enough to progress to the next level. A sense of relief as your plans don’t collapse under the weight of yet more Lemmings.
The game is about planning out your strategy, assigning Lemmings various roles (such as Blocker, Builder, Bomber, and Umbrella.) then working from there. Because this is a puzzle game, only so many skills are available each level and there are only so many of each available, so you’d better not assign Lemming #2 to build a staircase heading towards that pit of lava. You’re screwing us all #2! Goddamn #2….
Escape lava, stop them from falling to their death, blow up segments with suicide lemmings, and guide them through the escape. Where you’ll have to do the whole thing over again with different skills but the same suicidal, stupid-as-bricks Lemmings.
The Lemmings franchise would go on to shift in the region of 15 million units across all the games. Of course, this pales wildly in comparison to the other huge hit the studio would eventually stumbl onto But that’s for another day entirely….