The Rear-View Mirror: Lemmings (1991)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

I’ve been playing computer games for… well, it’s been a while. My parents got a C-64 when I was about nine years old, back in the Cold War-and-neon days of 1983. Many of my fondest gaming memories go back to the time when pixels were the size of your fist and anything more than 16 colours on the same screen was not just luxurious but simply not possible. Later, when I was a teenager, I upgraded to the next Commodore model, the Amiga, but it never felt as iconic as the good old ‘breadbox’ did. When I think of the games that I grew up with, I think of the likes of International Soccer, ParadroidWizball and World Games, all of them on the C-64. Sure, I had some fun times playing Amiga games, but they didn’t have that ineffable thing that the technically more primitive games on the older, slower, less capable machine did.

There are a handful of exceptions, though. And the one that comes to mind in an instant is best described by the sound of a squeaky voice going “Oh no!”

Lemmings

Lemmings may just be the Amiga game that I look back on most fondly. It was inventive, weird and fun. It wasn’t about shooting things or beating things up; instead you had to guide a herd of lemmings – not the brownish rodents but blue-clad, green-haired creatures somewhat like off-brand Fraggles – to the exit. What these lemmings had in common with their wilderness cousins, though, was their disregard for survival: they’d just walk until they either bumped into something and turned around or until they dropped off a ledge or fell into a body of water. What they needed was the player assigning them functions, so that this lemming would dig downwards, that lemming would build a bridge and those over there who would fall down a cliff no matter what? They’d be equipped with umbrellas that would break their fall.

Lemmings

Each level required you to guide a certain number of the suicidal critters to the exit, but obviously my childish ego wouldn’t let me get away with saving only the required number of lemmings. No, the Holy Grail of Lemmingdom was to save all of them, every single one – which was easy enough in the early levels but became fiendishly hard very soon. Which is where the game’s best/worst feature came in: the Nuke button. Lose a single lemming and you could still finish the level – but no, that wasn’t enough for me, so I’d click on that stylised, fiery mushroom cloud… and a countdown would appear over the head of each and every lemming. 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… and they’d all hunker down, hold their heads in their teensy little pixel hands, squeak “Oh no!” – and explode, taking large swathes of level geometry with them. Tabula rasa. Next try.

The levels killed off many a lemming – but I committed wide scale lemmingcide over and over and over again. All in the name of saving every last damn lemming.

Thanos has nothing on me.

P.S.: The creators of the Lemmings games, DMA Design Limited, an Edinburgh-based company, later developed an obscure series of games that was all about cars, stealing them, committing crimes, driving around and running over pedestrians. Something along the lines of Large Vehicular Larceny. I wonder what became of them.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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