Retro Review: Lemmings

Lemmings is a classic puzzle game from the studio that would eventually create Grand Theft Auto. It popularized an unfortunate misconception about the titular creatures, and spawned a wide variety of knockoffs and clones.

In each of its 120 stages, some number of lemmings will appear at one or more entrances, and your goal is to get as many as possible to one of the stage exits. To do this, you are given eight tools, each of which is an ability that can be conferred upon an individual lemmings. They can dig through the ground at multiple angles, build ramps, and so on. Your uses of each of the abilities is limited based on the stage, and the stage also determines how many lemmings appear and how many you must save.

You can start at stage 31, 61, or 91 if you want, but the progression of stages ramps up on a steady difficulty curve. Early stages exist largely to teach you how the various abilities work, and you’ll occasionally learn some fancy new trick as well. A few of these tricks are not obvious, and you can get stuck in a few places if you don’t experiment enough, but for the most part the difficulty is quite fair.

For most of the game, the challenge is figuring out exactly what you need to do. You have to determine how many lemmings may need to be sacrificed to achieve your goal, and whether that’s too many to successfully complete the stage. Precision becomes more and more vital as the difficulty increases, and you’ll often find yourself trying the same level several times to execute your plan. This can be frustrating for several reasons, the most common of which is the difficulty in targeting a specific lemming (or a lemming walking in a specific direction) among a large group.

Unfortunately, the nature of Lemmings’ gameplay causes the later stages to focus less on clever puzzles and more on difficulty of execution. Nearly pixel-perfect ability use is often required, and you may have to try a stage many times to determine the proper timing. Many stages involve sending off a lone lemming to clear a path before allowing the rest to follow, but late in the game the stage timer is so tight that you’ll need to take major risks to have a chance.

Lemmings is a great concept and a fun game, but the premise can only scale for so long. The lemmings are always going to keep on walking, and there are only so many ways you can direct them around the stage. The game makes the most of its concept, but may have a few stages too many. (The bonus stages in the Super NES version, for instance, show the kind of frustrating nonsense that passes as difficulty beyond the original concept.)

Review Score: B+