Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

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MAR
04
2016
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Lemmings Box Cover

#17 – Lemmings

Follow the leader to the ends of the earth no matter what the cost.

Let's play a New Level!

Let’s play a New Level!

To Beat: Beat the last level (Mayhem 25) to reach the ending
To Complete: Beat all 100 levels
My Goal: Complete the game
What I Did: Complete the game
Played: 2/5/16 – 2/28/16
Difficulty: 9/10
My Difficulty: 8/10

I haven’t looked ahead at my master game list for Take On The NES Library since I first finalized it many months ago, but I remember Lemmings was on the list early on and I knew it was going to take me a long time to get all the way to the end. That proved to be correct! Despite the long play time and figuratively banging my head against the wall on some of the final levels, I had a lot of fun with Lemmings. The NES port has many limitations but despite that it is a surprisingly faithful version of this classic title.

Lemmings was originally released on the Amiga in February 1991. It was developed by DMA Design and published by Psygnosis. The NES version was developed by Ocean Software and published by Sunsoft. There is an account on the history of the development of Lemmings by Mike Dailly, who is one of the founding members of DMA Design as well as a programmer and artist. Definitely check that link out if you want to read the whole story. The idea for the game all started with an animation of what would become the lemmings in the game. They were mocking up little men as targets for a game they were creating called Walker. The idea was to make very tiny men around 8×8 in pixel size. After some refinement of the animation, one of the team members, Russell Kay, noted that “there’s a game in that!”

Update 5/27/16: There is some confusion around who exactly developed the NES port of Lemmings. The opening scene and most sources I found say that Ocean Software developed the port, but in the credits of the PAL version of the game the developer is listed as Special FX Software. They are not listed in the credits of the NTSC version that I played. It appears that Special FX Software was formed by members of Ocean Software after they left the company, so perhaps they acted as a contractor to Ocean at the point of release. It is also possible that they only worked on some sort of conversion to the PAL release, though from what I can tell the NTSC and PAL versions are the same except for the difference in the credits. My hunch is that Special FX Software was indeed the developer of NES Lemmings, but I cannot say with 100% certainty. Special thanks to Nintendo Age user ruudos for the tip!

The game even has a cute little intro scene when the game is turned on.

The game even has a cute little intro scene when the game is turned on.

There most definitely was a game in that! Lemmings was a big hit for DMA Design and it was easily their most successful game to date. It is also one of the most widely ported games ever. I found a list of Lemmings releases in this article in Hardcore Gaming 101: Amiga, Amiga CD32, Amiga CDTV, IBM PC, Windows 95, Apple IIGS, Macintosh, Atari ST, ZX Spectrum, PC-98, Acorn Archimedes, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, SAM Coupé, NES, SNES, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Turbografx CD, Lynx, Master System, Game Gear, Genesis, 3DO, CD-I, PlayStation, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, PSP, and Mobile. As you can see, Lemmings was just about everywhere! There would be a few Lemmings sequels and additional level packs along the way. It may have been DMA Design’s biggest hit, however the company would go on to later launch the first game in an even bigger and more successful franchise. DMA Design created Grand Theft Auto in 1997. After a series of acquisitions, DMA Design became Rockstar North and they are still developing Grand Theft Auto today.

Now, onto the actual game! Lemmings is a puzzle platformer, but it can also be considered as a predecessor to the real-time strategy genre. The object of the game is to guide a group of lemmings to a goal. The lemmings themselves have very basic behavior. They will always walk forward only turning around in the other direction if they collide with a solid object. They will fall off ledges and into traps to their death if you let them. You cannot directly control the lemmings, Instead, you control a cursor by which you can assign specific lemmings a task. There are eight tasks that you can give to the lemmings that aid in creating a path to the end of the level. There is a limit to how many times a task can be given within a level and sometimes a skill is unavailable. The game plays out over 120 levels spread out in groups of 30 levels over four difficulty settings, and there are passwords handed out after every level. Each level dictates how many lemmings appear in the stage, what percentage of lemmings must be saved to win the level, the amount of time given, how fast the lemmings emerge from the entrance, and how many of each skill is available. Early on the game provides more than enough options and leeway to finish a level, but later on you are not given that much to work with so you must be creative and resourceful in determining how to solve a level. In fact, some levels are repeated with a different, more limited mix of skills that greatly changes the way you approach the solution.

The game starts off with a nice safe area.

The game starts off with a nice safe area.

These are the eight tasks at your disposal:

  • Climber: Allows a lemming to climb vertical walls. This skill stays with the lemming for the entire level.
  • Floater: Lets the lemming pull out an umbrella to float down when falling. Lemmings will die if they fall from too high so this skill lets them survive. It is a persistent skill just like the climber.
  • Bomber: Sets a countdown timer from five and when it runs out the lemming explodes! This explosion kills the lemming of course but it puts a hole in the ground where the lemming used to be. Other nearby lemmings are unaffected when he explodes.
  • Blocker: The lemming stands in place holding his arms out so that no lemmings can pass. If a lemming runs into a Blocker he will turn around. Blockers cannot be assigned any further tasks except for the Bomber skill to blow them away. There is one exception. If a blocker has the ground removed out from under him, he will fall down and resume walking as an ordinary unskilled lemming.
  • Builder: Allows the lemming to build a bridge. The lemming will put down the sections of the bridge piece by piece, building upwards around a 30 degree angle. A Builder will need to be reassigned the Builder skill multiple times consecutively to create large bridges.
  • Basher: The lemming will claw horizontally through the ground clearing a path forward. This must be used near a wall or a mound where the dirt is right in front of the lemming. When the path forward is clear, the lemming resumes his walking.
  • Miner: Same as the Basher except the lemming carves a path at a downward diagonal slope.
  • Digger: Same as the Basher and Miner except the lemming digs straight down.
This ledge is too high without some lofty assistance.

This ledge is too high without some lofty assistance.

As the game progresses, you will discover certain behaviors or tricks that are vital to solving later levels when the available skills are much more limited. One example is that if a Builder bumps his head against the ceiling, he will stop building and start walking in the opposite direction. This is one way to get a lemming to turn around. Sometimes you will need a Blocker and you don’t have one. A way to get around that is to have a Miner go partway into the ground to create a wall and then assign him the Builder skill to stop mining and turn him around since he can’t build into a solid wall.

What I have been describing up to this point is how most of the versions of Lemmings play. The NES version of the game has some significant changes that are there primarily because of the limitations of the NES hardware. There are only 100 levels with 25 per each difficulty level. The maximum number of lemmings per level is 14 instead of 100. This is because the NES can only display 8 sprites per scanline at one time. The lemmings themselves are drawn as sprites and they flicker whenever there are more than 8 in a row so that you can see them all. I suppose the development team decided that 14 lemmings was as high as they could go to make the flickering tolerable in the worst case scenario, and this also keeps the game from slowing down too much. Curiously, there is one level that has a maximum of 20 lemmings but only 14 will appear at the same time. The rest of the lemmings will emerge only if a lemming is killed or exits the stage. The level layouts themselves are shrunk down so that they fit in a map exactly two screens wide. This is done because the NES can have two screens worth of level data drawn out side by side with smooth scrolling without having to draw additional columns of tiles on the fly. I’m sure this was done to save memory of map data as well as for avoiding any possible slowdown or display corruption by drawing out the level one time at the start.

None shall pass!

None shall pass!

The change that has the biggest effect on game play has to do with aligning actions to a grid. The NES background layer that holds the level layout consists of a grid of 8×8 pixel tiles. Every action that affects the level map adheres to this grid, while in other versions these same actions can take place on any pixel. It’s hard to explain but video should help. If you look at this footage of the SNES version, whenever a lemming bashes through a wall he shaves off individual pixels, whereas in this video of the NES version the lemming will remove an entire 8×8 pixel tile at one time. In the NES version, whenever Bashers, Miners, or Diggers are assigned, they will not being taking action until they move to the middle of the tile so that they can remove the entire tile ahead of them. Miners actually affect two tiles at once to make the slopes work. Builders will not start building until they move to the seam between two tiles and they build upward at a 45 degree angle. This causes the segments of the newly built bridge to occupy a full tile when they are finished. To pull off the animation of building the bridge, I think the game swaps in a new tile containing the next step of the bridge. The exceptions to this rule are that Blockers and Bombers take effect immediately after the skills are assigned regardless of tile position.

So after that long explanation that probably made no sense, how exactly does this affect gameplay? This gives you a timing window to make moves that are applied to a very specific location. Because the lemmings must walk a bit to align to the tile, there are several frames where that task can be given which affects the same spot. A practical example of this is with building bridges. A Builder will create a bridge spanning exactly two horizontal tiles before he resumes walking. If you need to cross a gap exactly four tiles wide but you only have two Builders remaining, you can pull it off quite easily. You can assign the Builder when he is standing anywhere on the last tile before the gap and he will walk right up to the very edge and start building. Chain two builds together and his finished bridge will end exactly on the other side so that lemmings can cross. Making exact moves like this is very helpful. The downside to this is that in the later levels you get exactly enough skill assignments to complete the level though you will have plenty of opportunity to practice your precision. The levels were tailored from their original versions to fit the NES limitations which shows how much care was put into making the port work despite the differences between other platforms. There was some really nice programming done on this game to really pull everything together and make this a good experience on NES.

Sometimes sacrifices must be made.

Sometimes sacrifices must be made.

One real negative of NES Lemmings that I want to address is that it is almost impossible to give tasks to the lemming you want whenever they are bunched together. There is just not enough precision in the cursor and when lemmings overlap while walking in different directions that doesn’t make a difference anyway. I can’t tell you how many times I wasted tasks and restarted levels because I couldn’t make the assignment I wanted. Unless my solutions were sub-optimal, sometimes I was required to try making an assignment and hope for the best that it was what I wanted. It’s just a limitation of the game as it’s designed but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating to deal with. The pause feature of Lemmings occasionally will make this somewhat easier. You can move the cursor around and scroll the level when paused. A good technique is to frequently pause the game to try and isolate a lemming who is a bit separated from the pack. You can then take your time and put the cursor exactly where you want it so you can unpause and very quickly assign the skill. It’s far from perfect but with some patience it does increase the odds of making a successful move. You cannot assign a task while paused which is consistent among all ports of the games. However, the NES version does not allow switching the skill selection when paused which the original version of the game and many ports allow. This can lead to some frantic switching when the situation calls for giving distinct tasks at the same time, but for most purposes you just need to remember to switch which task you want to use before pausing.

Before this blog, most of my experience with Lemmings was with the SNES version which is said to correlate quite closely to the Amiga version. I have owned the game since the 90’s and I made it maybe three-quarters of the way through before I moved on to some other game. The NES port of Lemmings was among the first games I sought out when I set out to complete my NES licensed cart set just because of my fondness for the SNES version. I ended up buying it at a used game store for $13 in late 2013 which was a solid price. They had it listed for $18 but I had a $5 off coupon that I used. It was the last coupon I have ever seen from that particular chain of game stores but I made sure I put it to good use. I went out with a couple of my friends to make a special trip out to that particular store to get the game. I got a ribbing from one of my friends for buying it because he had no idea why I would want the NES port of Lemmings. I didn’t care because I knew I wanted the game for my collection! I ended up getting a double of the game in an eBay lot for a good price because the game had a ripped label. It turns out the label was fine and it was a sticker over the top of the label that was torn instead. The cart cleaned up really nice and it ended up being the copy I kept for my collection.

You can only bash through arrow walls in the direction of the arrow.

You can only bash through arrow walls in the direction of the arrow.

Even though I spent the most amount of time on Lemmings for any game covered thus far, I don’t have a whole lot to say about my playthrough. I mowed through levels early on and I had to spend some time solving later levels just as one would expect. I didn’t get stuck on any one level for too long. In fact, nearly every time I sat down to play I would complete at least one level and some of those play sessions were only 20-30 minutes long. I’m really thankful for password saves after every level so I could inch my way through to the end. My prior experience with Lemmings helped me remember many of the tricks needed to solve the puzzles. I decided to drop the difficulty down a notch for me because of this. I was very tempted to put this game as the first 10 on the difficulty scale, but for now I will leave it at 9. It is quite challenging but I think it will probably fall just a bit short of the hardest games the NES has to offer.

I found a video solution guide for the NES version of Lemmings for all difficulty levels: Fun, Tricky, Taxing, and Mayhem. I solved all the levels on my own without any outside help but I liked having a solution from someone else to watch. I looked at quite a few of these after I finished the game and most of the solutions differed slightly from how I solved the stage. It’s a testament to good game design here that despite some strict limits there is still more than one way to get to the same place in the end.

Lemmings on NES is an example of a well-done port on a limited platform in spite of some significant changes needed to make it work. If the developers would have tried to shoehorn in all the levels and allow more lemmings on-screen than the NES could handle, it would have bogged the game down into a much worse overall experience. Instead, they tweaked the game just right and made the NES port very playable, even if it is not the best way to experience Lemmings. If you really want to play this game, I would skip the NES version in favor of one that is more true to the original Amiga game. Maybe now I am well prepared to finish off the SNES version that I started long ago.

#17 - Lemmings

#17 – Lemmings

 
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