Friday 7 November 2014

Snes Review : Lemmings 2 The Tribes (Game 065)

His fists were bloodied but still he rhythmically pounded them against the rock face. He had no choice, he was quite literally in hell and the only to escape this damnation was to break through a huge rock using just his bare hands. Worse still the fate of the friends behind him also rested on his torturous ordeal. Finally his bare hands broke through, fresh air streamed into the tight tunnel he had painstakingly dug but his relief was short lived. To his horror the freshly dug escape tunnel that he had pinned all his hopes on didn't open onto a gradual incline, instead in front of him was a drop a dozen times greater than his own height. Momentum carried the brave soul forward and despite grabbing for anything that would prevent his fall, it was too late. Down he plummeted. If only he had an umbrella perhaps the rate of his decent could have been decreased. If only someone had blocked him from starting to dig that pointless tunnel, if only a builder had constructed a platform below him, perhaps then, this wouldn't be the end. 

At least death was quick for the plucky green haired hero. It was all over for him the moment he landed face first against merciless rock. The impact had caused him to disintegrate in a shower of blood coloured pixels, but the horror was far from over. The tunnel was still there, and entering it were all the friends who would have mourned the hero. They have no idea he has fallen, they have no idea that the tunnel they are blindly stumbling through leads to instant death. They just saw an opening and walked through it, it was a group decision and it wasn't a good one.  
Watching this horrendous scene was my pacifist Mother and she could predict how this would play out. She sighed, she knew what needed to be done and double clicked on the button marked with an atomic bomb mushroom cloud. 

As the hoard strolled along the tunnel a countdown appeared above their heads and their fate was sealed. Unlike the original tunnel basher they wouldn't fall to their death, their death would be far more graphic, far more horrifying.  In five seconds they would explode and there was nothing that could stop this massacre now. All too soon the counter reaches zero and the finality of the moment seemed to be dawn on everyone simultaneously. Placing their hands on their face there was just enough time to mutter final words before they all spontaneously combusted. "Oh no" they all cried, a chorus of misery. The screen fades to black as the shower of hundreds of body parts decorate the screen - everyone had died and a lesson had be learnt. 

My mum moved the pointer over to the retry button. "Well" she chucked to herself, " I know not to bash through there next time".

It's strange to imagine that a game that features genocide, torture and satanic imagery would find a place on a Nintendo console considering the importance the company places on maintaining a family friendly image. Of course any objectionable content is disguised by charm and whimsy but the reason it is on a Nintendo machine is because it has been phenomenally successful on other platforms first. 

Production costs according to Super Play Magazine.
Production of cartridge based games was expensive in the 16bit era. There's all sorts of reasons for this including more expensive raw materials being needed and additional licensed being required, but the simple truth was that producing the same game for a disc or cassette based system was undeniably cheaper. This is why when you're looking for avant-garde, experimental or controversial titles from the nineties you should really ignore the Snes and glance straight to the home computers; to the Amiga and to the Atari St. Though there are of course development costs, the fact that a publisher didn't have the upfront costs of producing expensive cartridges in bulk meant the fear of failure was reduced. On the Amiga if a crazy idea for a game didn't find an appreciative audience at least the distributor didn't have thousands of unsellable boxed cartridges sitting in a warehouse. Those that did sell in large enough numbers got ported to the consoles, so in many ways the home computers acted as a popularity barometer. If a more off-the-wall game proved itself on, a publisher could then port it to the consoles knowing it would probably find an appreciative audience there too. In this way many Snes game players should have been thankful for the existence of the Home computers as without them a lot of the more unusual games released on the Super Nintendo simply wouldn't have existed. 

It is from this crucible of creativity that 'Lemmings' emerged. Developed by DMA Design (who amazingly would become Rockstar North of 'Grand Theft Auto' fame) the game is an odd fusion of the puzzle and strategy genres. The basic objective of the game is to guide a group of green haired blue suited fellows through a number of obstacles to a designated exit. In order to pass a level and progress to the next, a set number must be saved and to achieve this a player must assign eight different skills to specific lemmings. Once given a designated task a lemming will alter the landscape, or affect the behaviour of other lemmings. By doing this the player will hopefully create a safe route to the exit. Some of the mindless fools will have to be sacrificed but hopefully if the right skills are given to the right lemmings at the right time, most of the herd will survive. It wasn’t a game that was easily grasped by everyone. In a review of the original game Total! Magazine said “there’s a lot of forward thinking required, [it] is a bit like learning to juggle – it’s infuriating, it takes ages to learn and requires lot of co-ordination.”

It has been said the original idea for the game resulted from an argument about how many pixels needed to be used to create an animated character. DMA Design were at the time making an Amiga game called 'Walker' that featured lots of small men running in fear from a bipedal tank. 16 pixels was proving too big but designer Mike Dailly was convinced he could halve their height. To prove it he created an animation of smaller characters walking and dying in a range of shocking disturbing ways and that became the inspiration for 'Lemmings'. 

The 'Lemmings' games were some of the best-received home computer games of the early 1990s and amongst my favourite Amiga games as a child. They were games that transcended any gaming barriers that existed in my house, appealing to my parents as much as my brother and I. We weren't alone in our love of these little 8 pixel high guys with their distinctive green hair, charming manner and penchant for jumping off cliffs and exploding. Amiga Format believed that 'Lemmings' was an "incredibly original concept and a great game", while sister magazine Amiga Power believed the game to be "one of the most original games on the Amiga, one of the best puzzle games of all time, and almost undoubtedly one of the biggest selling Amiga titles " at that time.  In fact the popularity of the original game and its sequel was so big that they were ported to any systems that could handle them. It may have been an unusual weird series of games but public demand meant that the original and its sequel found their way onto the Super Nintendo. Though the port was handled by an external team, the original designer Mike Dailly at DMA design approved. "It was very well done [and] did impress us" he recalled. However his former colleague Gary Timmonds suggested that the strength of the port depended on one thing - using the Snes mouse to play the game.  "The game was designed to be played with a mouse, it wasn't as easy to quickly select a lemming using the joypad" he once said to Retro Gamer magazine. 

For me the original 'Lemmings' game was great in theory but several flaws made it a bit or a chore to play. A level could be sometimes solved in minutes but you would then have to wait twice as long for the lemming flock to walk along the safe route you have prepared for them. Also, if a level proved too hard enough to finish, the game essentially ground to a halt as each level was only opened once you had passed the previous one.  It was something designer Mike Dailly was very much aware of. “The problem with ‘Lemmings’” he recalls, “was that if you got stuck on one level you pretty much got stuck on the entire game”.

There was the also fundamental problem of monotony. Yes the levels may have been cleverly designed but you quickly could predict which of the eight skills you had to use where just by looking at the map at the bottom of the screen. Once you had played a dozen or so levels it feels like you simply go through the motions, with little variation between what you need to do. The stages may have looked different and got harder as the game progressed but there was only so many times you could construct a bridge with a builder, or destroy a bolder with a basher before it all felt a bit repetitive. At the time Puzzle games didn't have story lines, the motivation to complete a level was the thrill of feeling clever. The problem is when your only reward for completing a really torturous stage is another, slightly harder stage it’s hard to stay enthusiastic about playing through the hundred or so levels.

Every one of these flaws though is addressed in the sequel 'Lemmings 2: The Tribes' and this rather than the original is the game to go back to should you want to experience the series at its best. Simple things like the implementation of a fast forward button mean the game is less tedious and more action packed. But the biggest change is an increase in the number of abilities the player can give a lemming. Where is in the original game you just had eight abilities to choose from, in the sequel you have 51. On paper this sounds daunting but in practice it is much more varied and exciting with a lot more to discover. There's a lot of fun to be had just seeing what each skill does and how it affects the other lemmings or the environment. Admittedly some of these new skills are really just minor tweaks on the original abilities, but others such as The Super Lem or The Attractor are additions that make the game so much more amusing, varied and enjoyable. 

Much needed variety is achieved in this sequel owing to the division of the levels into twelve different tribes; from Spy to Egyptian , Highland to Medieval and Polar to Beach. Each tribe will typically have its own style of traps (for example, Space lemmings can be killed by an open airlock, while Outdoor lemmings must avoid being eaten by a frog), and levels are designed in a way that complements the tribe.  Each has their own skin and clothing colours, even their own style of dancing. 

All 10 levels of each tribe must be finished to complete the game but the player doesn’t have to do them in sequence. At any time,  it is possible to switch between the tribes and have a go at getting a different one a little bit further on if you’re having trouble with your first choice. This means you have to be completely stumped in 12 separate levels before you’re completely stuck and unable to progress in the game.

With the tribes comes a plot, which Stuart Campbell calls “the biggest single factor making ‘Lemmings 2’ such a better game that its parent.” It’s an epic story of survival against the odds, and this goal means you’ve always got something to aim for. As a result ‘Lemmings 2’ is a much more coherent game thanit’s prequel, yet is also amazingly a more varied one.  

Visually 'Lemmings 2' is comparable to 'Lemmings' in that it's cute but functional. Super Play’s reviewing pointed out that owing to the nature of the game there simply isn’t the possibility within the framework of the game to push the Super Nintendo. “There’s no opportunity for all those Snes-only touches which [give] so much pleasure. No Screen wide bosses, no twirly Mode 7”.  After all, minimal detail is needed considering the number of lemmings on screen at once and even striped to a basic aesthetic the Super Nintendo struggles slowing down on most stages.  Obviously tiny sprites and a screen crowded with characters are keys to the game play but both of these design choices can be irritating to a player that is trying to select specific individual lemmings. Anyone who has played a 'Lemmings' game will know the frustrations of a mining lemming borrowing down in the wrong direction simply because you couldn't tell which direction he was facing when you clicked on him. A nearly completed level sometimes has to be abandoned because one click was one pixel off and this is never fun. It was such a significant failing in the early ‘Lemmings’ game that Amiga Power magazine even had a term for it; “the old huge-mass-of-lemmings-making-it-impossible-to-select – the-right-one problem”. In later games they solved this fundamental fault by giving the player the ability to zoom in to better pinpoint specific lemming but in 'Lemmings 2' this isn't possible and the game is damaged as a result.  

Essentially, the same faults that exist on the Amiga are unfixed on the Super Nintendo. But likewise the reverse is true. As Tony Mott once said, “A great Amiga game makes a great SNES game too”.  I think he could have gone a stage further and said “without the great Amiga game there never would have been this great Snes game”. The home consoles were the proving ground for so many games and Super Nintendo gamers the world over benefited as a result.  Many of the genre traits and game-play styles we see in games today have their routes in the Snes, but it is thanks to the Amiga that publishers knew that mass slaughtering of an entire tribe of lemmings can be enjoyable. Some games on Snes were trend setters, some evolved genres and some were masterpieces. However, others were simply (like the lemmings themselves) following where the brave Amiga led.

Why did I choose this game?
This week marks the end of a very successful Kick Starter campaign by Sam and the team at Bitmap Books. Sam wanted a modest £25,000 to make his dream of an Amiga Compendium a reality, and at the time of writing (with a few days to go on the campaign) he has passed £111,000. It shows that there is a lot of love for that off white home computer and the quirky games it spawned.

When I asked him what Snes conversion of an Amiga game I should write about he picked ‘Lemmings 2: The Tribes’ and I’m glad he did. As Tony Mott said in his review, it is “not exactly a Snes title” and he is right of course. If you want to play the game, you really should dig out the Amiga original, but often it’s easier to play older games on consoles. The Snes version with a mouse is excellent, and when I wanted to rebuild the games from my youth a ‘Lemmings’ game had to be included. In my youth they were the games my whole family played, which is why my mother and brother both wanted to get ‘Lemmings 2’ for me for my birthday. When I eventually get to see Sam’s book I know which pages I will get teary over and they will be covered with little blue guys with green hair being tortured.  

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