Lemmings is one of those games that feels perfect in and of itself. One of many beauties to come from Dundee's outstanding DMA Design, the 1992 Amiga game (which would soon be ported to every platform under the sun) is a fiendish and funny puzzler that works quite unlike anything else. You don't need me to tell you how to save a lemming: the game is a touchstone.
PlayStation is the modern rights holder to the series, and has now published a new Lemmings game, developed by the studio Sad Puppy. It is a free-to-play game with an energy meter, but also has a smart interface that translates traditional Lemmings play for touch controls nicely, and so far contains some enjoyable puzzles.
It's important to say that this gets a lot right. The new controls see you placing the particular activity you want - build a bridge, dig this wall, block other lemmings - and then the first lemming that comes along will perform that action. Certain tools, like the umbrella, will give every lemming passing through it an umbrella. It's a simple but elegant translation of the Lemmings core activity, and retains the tension of timing: you always have to factor-in how long a bridge will take to build, and where the lemmings not building it will go. I admired the umbrella with a slight melancholy: one of the original game's greatest challenges was executing on a clutch of mid-air catches. I'm glad I don't have to try that with touch controls, but still.
The rooms, which are now vertically-oriented puzzles to account for mobile screens, have clear elements and there are some nice twists, such as portal doors transporting lemmings across floors. I enjoyed not only figuring out how to solve levels but, in classic series fashion, how efficiently I could do that.
Sadly you have more reason than ever before to do so, because what comes to ruin Lemmings is the energy meter, which doesn't initially seem too overbearing but ultimately proves ruinous. Each action you perform in a level requires energy: building a bridge takes one energy, for example. You have 60 by default. Entering levels takes energy, of course. And every couple of hours your energy recharges. So far so usual for the mobile world.
What left me open-mouthed with it, however, was a combination of circumstances that ended up in the equivalent of the game staring me down. Essentially I screwed up a level. This is Lemmings, after all. When I went to quit, the game warned that all the energy I'd used in that level was forfeit. Fine. I went back into the level, intending to use my last energy to finish it then I'd get on with this writeup.
What happened is a kick in the teeth even for mobile games. I came up with my solution, and set the lemmings to digging and falling and clambering towards the exit. Almost all of them made it. Two didn't. I had one energy left, and set to building the bridge that could at least save one of them. That lemming built the bridge, got to the exit, and during the building the other lemming fell off and into an inescapable situation. Here it is:
This kind of outcome is, from one angle, part of the magic of Lemmings. You might be good at this game, but there are times when you just can't save them all. You can see that DMA's designers delighted in the gadgets and contraptions that dotted the original game's weird landscapes, all ready to eviscerate or pound or pop lemmings in best Acme fashion. There's even a certain catharsis to giving up on a level, and sending the little troopers marching off into some uncaring mincer.
On a very small scale, that's what this should have been. I got mostly everyone out. This lemming didn't make it. Sorry son, but I gotta blow you up and get on with things.
You can't. This mobile version of Lemmings now has me trapped. I can't blow up this little dude. I can't use energy to build anything to get him out. He just walks back-and-forth endlessly. I put my phone down and he's been doing it for the hour or so I've been writing this. I check him every so often and yep, the game really is doing this. Your only option here as a player, despite hitting the level's pass requirements, is to either quit the level and lose all progress or buy more energy, either from the store or through using premium currency.
Developer Sad Puppy may well turn around and say 'well it's your fault for not finishing the level properly', to which the only sane response is 'no.' I don't like energy meters, but if they stay out of the way then fine. I also understand that games need to make money, and I spend money on the games I like. Here we have an energy system constricting the game beneath it, twisting and flexing its way into every corner and coiling around any part that can be squeezed. Restricting completion of a level because of an energy meter is one of the most bullshit things I've seen in a mobile game, and it's heartbreaking to see it happen to a series like Lemmings.
This game makes me sad, because it's obvious how much love has gone into certain areas of it. The animations do a really nice job re-creating the feel of the originals, and add their own characterful quirks. I enjoyed the puzzles. It brightened up my whole day to hear a lemming say 'let's go' again. But how could any publisher, let alone PlayStation, think that this kind of monetisation is a good idea? Did the developers never come across this situation?
Here he is, still walking. Has been since sometime after 11am. I'm in a staredown contest with my phone. I just wanted to see if the game would have any contingency for this but, beyond letting me buy more energy, it doesn't.
I'm going to close this app now, after hours of wandering. I would happily send legions of lemmings marching to their slaughter but this, the thought of a three-block wide march in perpetual limbo, is a cruel and unusual punishment for such a venerable series and species. Such is the fate of old classics, reborn and re-imagined and sometimes bastardised for the sake of an energy unit. I never felt bad killing a lemming. But it certainly feels bad to watch one loop around in a trap, unable to help, and simply shut it down because there's nothing else to be done.
UPDATED at 14:30 on 20/12/18
I left my phone running after finishing this piece, and the in-game clock ticked around and granted me 20 energy. So I was, belatedly, able to save the lemming. Ironically enough the level gave me a perfect rating.
I ran out of energy after two more levels. This game really seems mean.
The energy thing... the implementations of this system that I can stomach are those where you can pay a fair price to essentially remove it from the game. The superb Dandy Dungeon offers an IAP along these lines for around £7 (which is winningly realised in the form of a choir of singing ducks). For the same price Lemmings will also remove the energy meter... for two hours. Your mileage may differ but, for me, that doesn't represent value.