Written by: Stoo

Date posted: May 14, 2008

The lemmings themselves are a bit bigger on-screen this time.

How’s this for a change of thematic direction. Nowadays, Rockstar Games are the chief tabloid-baiters of the gaming world. They’re the guys behind controversial and violent titles like Grand Theft Auto and Manhunt. Which are either inventive and highly entertaining videogames that are defiantly edgy in tone or SICK FILTH, depending on your perspective I suppose. I mean, GTA offers amazingly well-crafted and immersive play, and free-form mayhem, across wide open spaces. Yet it’s always going to be known as that game where you-re a crook, nick cars and kill people a lot.

Look back through their history though and its not all ooh-aren’t-we-controversial guns and gangsters. Under the name DMA they made their name with little green-haired rodents and family-friendly puzzle gameplay. Lemmings was in fact a classic, one of those hugely popular oldies that most of us who were gaming back then have at least some familiarity with. Its premise was simple – dozens of little guys blunder haplessly across a screen full of hazards. To get them safely to an exit point, you assign various skills to them, like digging and bridging. However, uses of skills are limited, forcing you to plan your approach carefully, paying attention to placement and timing. It was inventive, full of charm, and seriously addictive. It also pitched the difficulty curve just right, with plenty of easy maps that anyone could handle, ramping up gradually to tear-your-hair-out levels. Legions of gamers, on many different formats, sat hunched in front of the monitor cursing and tearing their hair out as their lemmings plunged helplessly into a lava pit. Then restarting and trying again. And again.

Shadow lemmings: the cutesification of hooded assassins.

After the success of the original, the inevitable train of follow-ups began. Within a few years we’d already had the Oh No! More Lemmings expansion, four short Christmas specials, and Lemmings 2: The Tribes. That first “proper” sequel added masses of new skills, and the concept of keeping the same pool of lemmings from one level to the next. Beyond that though it wasn’t a radically different game. There’s only so many times in your life that you can boggle over the same processes of tunnelling and bridging (or variations on those) after all, before you’ve just plain had enough.

Still the cash machine rolled on though, with this third core entry in 1994. In America it was known as Chronicles, but our domain name should alert you to the fact that we’re an ocean away from the Land of the Free. So to us, this one is All New World of Lemmings. Is it actually “all new”? Well, not really. A bit. Sort of.

To begin with, there’s a graphical upgrade. The lemmings of the earlier games were essentially an exercise in packing as much charm and character as possible into a sprite eight pixels tall. This time around they’re still fairly diminutive, but the sprites are definitely bigger and bolder than before. This also allows for more fluid and eye-catching animation for when they take actions – and there are nice touches like a blocker (stops others from passing) balancing precariously when stopped on the edge of a drop. The level artwork feels a bit bolder than before, and there’s background artwork now instead of just flat colour. On the downside there are only three different design styles used, which is kind of disappointing compared to the far greater variety of earlier games.

The Classic Lems are in an odd world of grey metal and jungly bits.

More importantly though, the mechanics of play have been reshuffled. There are now three basic actions – jump, stop and block, and resume walking\change direction – that can be handed out freely with no limits. Beyond that, skills are no longer taken from a central pool. Rather, lemmings gain them on an individual basis, by picking up little icons they stumble upon. That might sound a bit fiddly, in terms of trying to find the individual lem with a needed skill, amidst all his friends. It’s not so bad in practise though – any lemming can be highlighted in red to stand out from the mob, and if there are a few under the cursor the game seems to know to action the highlighted one. So that old problem of trying to pick a lemming out of a scrum who’s going in the right direction (say, to start a horizontal tunnel) is now pretty much fixed. Also there are less lemmings per level anyway, never more than thirty. Finally, unused skills can be dropped allowing another lem to pick them up. Generally it’s pretty easy to find the guy you need, and separate him from the mob if needs be through use of blocking and jumping.

The overarching structure meanwhile takes a similar form to The Tribes. There are only three tribes now, though – Classic, Egyptian and Shadow. Each has its own strand of levels and starts with twenty lemmings. Any lost in a level won’t be available on the next one. Also though on some levels you can pick up a new lem or two, up to an eventual maximum of thirty. So the ultimate goal is not just to bring each of the tribes through all their levels, but to do it with their full thirty members still standing. Again though it’s a minor shame we couldn’t have had a few more of the original twelve tribes from the last game, but on the plus side there are thirty maps for each of the three here. Which will keep you going a while.

The mole chap up above will dig for you, if properly triggered.

So, not so much All New as Somewhat Evolved. The changes are in my mind quite welcome, and at least put a bit of a different spin on the gameplay. That said though, it’s still Lemmings, and the same general thoughts apply. It’s sometimes frustrating as hell, failing because of a misplaced click, a wrongly angled dig or messed up timing trying to guide two lemmings at once. Or your plan might just plain not work, forcing a rethink. Yet you’ll keep telling yourself “one more go” – and that’s how lemmings can be so addictive. Ok, you might not struggle to the end nowadays but then let’s be honest, you’ve probably scrounged it for free off an abandonware site.

All New World didn’t have the mass success of the original; gamers were suffering from Lemming Fatigue by this point. Another sequel would try to make the transition to the up-and-coming trend of 3D gaming but no-one really cared about that either, and the series went dormant. That doesn’t mean this game itself sucks, though. I do feel that all retro-gamers should give the original a go – so if after that you’re in the mood for a variation on the theme, this one will provide some entertainment too.