Stay in Line: Lemmings Turns 25
Those adorable, anthropomorphic followers started walking in line and onto computer screens two and a half decades ago. It's time we celebrate an often overlooked classic in the puzzle-platformer hybrid genre. Lemmings has hit its big 25 year anniversary, so let's look back at the origins and impact these little guys had in video game history. AMA Design, previously known for their work on the '80s MS-DOS, Amiga, Atari, and Commodore 64 titles of Menace and Blood Money were starting to work on their next game, Walker. It was basically a big video game ripoff of Star Wars' AT-ST, but inadvertently spawned the development of a small character sprite.
Making this sprite animated and watching it walk endlessly in place resulted in DMA's team members realizing they could make an entire game based around it. The sprites were initially used to walk across the backgrounds in Blood Money, but they decided to refine it even further into its own standalone game which starred dozens of these animated characters walking in tandem. DMA was able to spawn all kinds of levels, with each member of the team trying to outdo their coworkers with more intricate levels for the characters, called Lemmings, to navigate. The developers then started adding traps, pitfalls, and all kinds of hazards for the platoons of Lemmings to try and survive. The controls for the overall group of Lemmings started to become more intricate, as you were able to assign tasks to the group and even send individual units out to do different things as well.
Lemmings debuted on the Atari, MS-DOS, and Amiga formats in 1991. You had to navigate a group of Lemmings through all kinds of death traps and ensure a certain number of them survive in order to successfully complete a level. In order to do so, you had to assign tasks to the group. Floaters could parachute to lower levels from high heights. Bombers could suicide-bomb a hole through an obstruction. Blockers can be assigned to stand and prevent other Lemmings from moving past them, causing them to bounce back and walk in the opposite direction. Builders can assemble stairs, and there are three different Digger classes who could dig in different directions (diagonally, downwards, or sideways). As the Lemmings would drop down from a trapdoor into the level to begin their automated progression, you were able to pause the game and look throughout the rest of the stage so you could plan your actions accordingly. If you messed up too many times and realized you can't win, you could cause all your Lemmings to convert into Bombers and make them all self destruct in order to restart.
Lemmings was well-received across the board, making it one of the most popular and highest-rated puzzle-platformers of its time. It spawned all kinds of sequels and spin-offs, as well as a variety of games that openly copied its gameplay format and formula. Many believe Lemmings was the progenitor to the real-time strategy genre, due to the micro-managing of various units in a fast-paced manner. While the puzzle, platformer and even RTS genres have all moved on, we salute Lemmings for what it brought to the table, as it played a pivotal role in moving things forward and away from pitfalls.