When the lads at DMA Design started making the original Lemmings, they envisioned that it would allow you to bestow about twenty different “skills” upon your charges. But as they continued working on the game, they threw more and more of the skills out, both to make the programming task simpler and to make the final product more playable. They finally ended up with just eight skills, the perfect number to neatly line up as buttons along the bottom of the screen. In the process of this ruthless culling, Lemmings became a classic study in doing more with less in game design: those eight skills, combined in all sorts of unexpected ways, were enough to take the player through 120 ever-more-challenging levels in the first Lemmings, then 100 more in the admittedly less satisfying pseudo-sequel/expansion pack Oh No! More Lemmings.
Yet when the time came to make the first full-fledged sequel, DMA resurrected some of their discarded skills. And then they added many, many more of them: Lemmings 2: The Tribes wound up with no less than 52 skills in all. For this reason not least, it’s often given short shrift by critics, who compare its baggy maximalism unfavorably with the first game’s elegant minimalism. To my mind, though, Lemmings 2 is almost a Platonic ideal of a sequel, building upon the genius of the original game in a way that’s truly challenging and gratifying to veterans. Granted, it isn’t the place you should start; by all means, begin with the classic original. When you’ve made it through those 120 levels, however, you’ll find 120 more here that are just as perplexing, frustrating, and delightful — and with even more variety to boot, courtesy of all those new skills.
The DMA Design that made Lemmings 2 was a changed entity in some ways. The company had grown in the wake of the first game’s enormous worldwide success, such that they had been forced to move out of their cozy digs above a baby store in the modest downtown of Dundee, Scotland, and into a more anonymous office in a business park on the outskirts of town. The core group that had created the first Lemmings — designer, programmer, and DMA founder David Jones; artists and level designers Mike Dailly and Gary Timmons; programmer and level designer Russell Kay — all remained on the job, but they were now joined by an additional troupe of talented newcomers.
Lemmings 2 also reflects changing times inside the games industry in ways that go beyond the size of its development team. Instead of 120 unrelated levels, there’s now a modicum of story holding things together. A lengthy introductory movie — which, in another telling sign of the times, fills more disk space than the game itself and required almost as many people to make — tells how the lemmings were separated into twelve tribes, all isolated from one another, at some point in the distant past. Now, the island (continent?) on which they live is facing an encroaching Darkness which will end all life there. Your task is to reunite the tribes, by guiding each of them through ten levels to reach the center of the island. Once all of the tribes have gathered there, they can reassemble a magical talisman, of which each tribe conveniently has one piece, and use it to summon a flying ark that will whisk them all to safety.
It’s not exactly an air-tight plot, but no matter; you’ll forget about it anyway as soon as the actual game begins. What’s really important are the other advantages of having twelve discrete progressions of ten levels instead of a single linear progression of 120. You can, you see, jump around among all these tribes at will. As David Jones said at the time of the game’s release, “We want to get away from ‘you complete a level or you don’t.'” When you get frustrated banging your head against a single stubborn level — and, this being a Lemmings game, you will get frustrated — you can just go work on another one for a while.
Rather than relying largely on the same set of graphics over the course of its levels, as the original does, each tribe in Lemmings 2 has its own audiovisual theme: there are beach-bum lemmings, Medieval lemmings, spooky lemmings, circus lemmings, alpine lemmings, astronaut lemmings, etc. In a tribute to the place where the game was born, there are even Scottish Highland lemmings (although Dundee is actually found in the less culturally distinctive — or culturally clichéd — Lowlands). And there’s even a “classic” tribe that reuses the original graphics; pulling it up feels a bit like coming home from an around-the-world tour.
Teaching Old Lemmings New Tricks
Other pieces of plumbing help to make Lemmings 2 feel like a real, holistic game rather than a mere series of puzzles. The first game, as you may recall, gives you an arbitrary number of lemmings which begin each level and an arbitrary subset of them which must survive it; this latter number thus marks the difference between success and failure. In the sequel, though, each tribe starts its first level with 60 lemmings, who are carried over through all of the levels that follow. Any lemmings lost on one level, in other words, don’t come back in the succeeding ones. It’s possible to limp to the final finish line with just one solitary survivor remaining — and, indeed, you quite probably will do exactly this with a few of the tribes the first time through. But it’s also possible to finish all but a few of the levels without killing any lemmings at all. At the end of each level and then again at the end of each tribe’s collection of levels, you’re awarded a bronze, silver, or gold star based on your performance. To wind up with gold at the end, you usually need to have kept every single one of the little fellows alive through all ten levels. There’s a certain thematic advantage in this: people often note how the hyper-cute original Lemmings is really one of the most violent videogames ever, requiring you to kill thousands and thousands of the cuties over its course. This objection no longer applies to Lemmings 2. But more importantly, it sets up an obsessive-compulsive-perfectionist loop. First you’ll just want to get through the levels — but then all those bronze and silver performances lurking in your past will start to grate, and pretty soon you’ll be trying to figure out how to do each level just that little bit more efficiently. The ultimate Lemmings 2 achievement, needless to say, is to collect gold stars across the board.
This tiered approach to success and failure might be seen as evidence of a kinder design sensibility, but in most other respects just the opposite is true; Lemmings 2 has the definite feel of a game for the hardcore. The first Lemmings does a remarkably good job of teaching you how to play it interactively over the course of its first twenty levels or so, introducing you one by one to each of its skills along with its potential uses and limitations. There’s nothing remotely comparable in Lemmings 2; it just throws you in at the deep end. While there is a gradual progression in difficulty within each tribe’s levels, the game as a whole is a lumpier affair, especially in the beginning. Each level gives you access to between one and eight of the 52 available skills, whilst evincing no interest whatsoever in showing you how to use any of them. There is some degree of thematic grouping when it comes to the skills: the Highland lemmings like to toss cabers; the beach lemmings are fond of swimming, kayaking, and surfing; the alpine lemmings often need to ski or skate. Nevertheless, the sheer number of new skills you’re expected to learn on the fly is intimidating even for a veteran of the first game. The closest Lemmings 2 comes to its predecessor’s training levels are a few free-form sandbox environments where you can choose your own palette of skills and have at it. But even here, your education can be a challenging one, coming down as it still does to trial and error.
Your first hours with the game can be particularly intimidating; as soon as you’ve learned how one group of skills works well enough to finish one level, you’re confronted with a whole new palette of them on the next level. Even I, a huge fan of the first game, bounced off the second one quite a few times before I buckled down, started figuring out the skills, and, some time thereafter, started having fun.
Luckily, once you have put in the time to learn how the skills work, Lemmings 2 becomes very fun indeed, — every bit as rewarding as the first game, possibly even more so. Certainly its level design is every bit as good — better in fact, relying more on logic and less on dodgy edge cases in the game engine than do the infamously difficult final levels of the first Lemmings. Even the spiky difficulty curve isn’t all bad; it can be oddly soothing to start on a new tribe’s relatively straightforward early levels after being taxed to the upmost on another tribe’s last level. If the first Lemmings is mountain climbing as people imagine it to be — a single relentless, ever-steeper ascent to a dizzying peak — the second Lemmings has more in common with the reality of the sport: a set of more or less difficult stages separated by more or less comfortable base camps. While it’s at least as daunting in the end, it does offer more ebbs and flows along the way.
One might say, then, that Lemmings 2 is designed around a rather literal interpretation of the concept of a sequel. That is to say, it assumes that you’ve played its predecessor before you get to it, and are now ready for its added complexity. That’s bracing for anyone who fulfills that criterion. But in 1993, the year of Lemmings 2‘s release, its design philosophy had more negative than positive consequences for its own commercial arc and for that of the franchise to which it belonged.
The fact is that Lemmings 2‘s attitude toward its sequel status was out of joint with the way sequels had generally come to function by 1993. In a fast-changing industry that was fast attracting new players, the ideal sequel, at least in the eyes of most industry executives, was a game equally welcoming to both neophytes and veterans. Audiovisual standards were changing so rapidly that a game that was just a couple of years old could already look painfully dated. What new player with a shiny new computer wanted to play some ugly old thing just to earn a right to play the latest and greatest?
That said, Lemmings 2 actually didn’t look all that much better than its predecessor either, flashy opening movie aside. Part of this was down to DMA Design still using the 1985-vintage Commodore Amiga, which was still very popular as a gaming computer in Britain and other European countries, as their primary development platform, then porting the game to MS-DOS and various other more modern platforms. Staying loyal to the Amiga meant working within some fairly harsh restrictions, such as that of having no more than 32 colors on the screen at once, not to mention making the whole game compact enough to run entirely off floppy disk; hard drives, much less CD-ROM drives, were still not common among European Amiga owners. Shortly before the release of Lemmings 2, David Jones confessed to being “a little worried” about whether people would be willing to look beyond the unimpressive graphics and appreciate the innovations of the game itself. As it happened, he was right to be worried.
Lemmings and Oh No! More Lemmings sold in the millions across a bewildering range of platforms, from modern mainstream computers like the Apple Macintosh and Wintel machines to antique 8-bit computers like the Commodore 64 and Sinclair Spectrum, from handheld systems like the Nintendo Game Boy and Atari Lynx to living-room game consoles like the Sega Master System and the Nintendo Entertainment System. Lemmings 2, being a much more complex game under the hood as well as on the surface, wasn’t quite so amenable to being ported to just about any gadget with a CPU, even as its more off-putting initial character and its lack of new audiovisual flash did it no favors either. It was still widely ported and still became a solid success by any reasonable standard, mind you, but likely sold in the hundreds of thousands rather than the millions. All indications are that the first game and its semi-expansion pack continued to sell more copies than the second even after the latter’s release.
In the aftermath of this muted reception, the bloom slowly fell off the Lemmings rose, not only for the general public but also for DMA Design themselves. The franchise’s true jump-the-shark moment ironically came as part of an attempt to re-jigger the creatures to become media superstars beyond the realm of games. The Children’s Television Workshop, the creator of Sesame Street among other properties, was interested in moving the franchise onto television screens. In the course of these negotiations, they asked DMA to give the lemmings more differentiated personalities in the next game, to turn them from anonymous marchers, each just a few pixels across, into something more akin to individualized cartoon characters. Soon the next game was being envisioned as the first of a linked series of no less than four of them, each one detailing the further adventures of three of the tribes after their escape from the island at the end of Lemmings 2, each one ripe for trans-media adaptation by the Children’s Television Workshop. But the first game of this new generation, called The Lemmings Chronicles, just didn’t work. The attempt to cartoonify the franchise was cloying and clumsy, and the gameplay fell to pieces; unlike Lemmings 2, Lemmings Chronicles eminently deserves its underwhelming critical reputation. DMA insiders like Mike Dailly have since admitted that its was developed more out of obligation than enthusiasm: “We were all ready to move on.” When it performed even worse than its predecessor, the Children’s Television Workshop dropped out; all of its compromises had been for nothing.
Released just a year after Lemmings 2, Lemmings Chronicles marked the last game in the six-game contract that DMA Design had signed with their publisher Psygnosis what seemed like an eternity ago — in late 1987 to be more specific, when David Jones had first come to Psygnosis with his rather generic outer-space shoot-em-up Menace, giving no sign that he was capable of something as ingenious as Lemmings. Now, having well and truly demonstrated their ingenuity, DMA had little interest in re-upping; they were even willing to leave behind all of their intellectual property, which the contract Jones had signed gave to Psygnosis in perpetuity. In fact, they were more than ready to leave behind the cute-and-cuddly cartoon aesthetic of Lemmings and return to more laddish forms of gaming. The eventual result of that desire would be a second, more long-lasting worldwide phenomenon, known as Grand Theft Auto.
Meanwhile Sony, who had acquired Psygnosis in 1993, continued off and on to test the waters with new iterations of the franchise, but all of those attempts evinced the same vague sense of ennui that had doomed Lemmings Chronicles; none became hits. The last Lemmings game that wasn’t a remake appeared in 2000.
It’s interesting to ask whether DMA Design and Psygnosis could have managed the franchise better, thereby turning it into a permanent rather than a momentary icon of gaming, perhaps even one on a par with the likes of Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog; they certainly had the sales to compete head-to-head with those other videogame icons for a few years there in the early 1990s. The obvious objection is that Mario and Sonic were individualized characters, while DMA’s lemmings were little more than a handful of tropes moving in literal lockstep. Still, more has been done with less in the annals of media history. If everyone had approached Lemmings Chronicles with more enthusiasm and a modicum more writing and branding talent, maybe the story would have turned out differently.
Many speculate today that the franchise must inevitably see another revival at some point, what with 21st-century pop culture’s tendency to mine not just the A-list properties of the past, but increasingly its B- and C-listers as well, in the name of one generation’s nostalgia and another’s insatiable appetite for kitsch. Something tells me as well that we haven’t seen the last of Lemmings, but, as of this writing anyway, the revival still hasn’t arrived.
As matters currently stand, then, the brief-lived but frenzied craze for Lemmings has gone down in history, alongside contemporaries like Tetris and The Incredible Machine, as one more precursor of the casual revolution in gaming that was still to come, with its very different demographics and aesthetics. But in addition to that, it gave us two games that are brilliant in their own right, that remain as vexing but oh-so-rewarding as they were in their heyday. Long may they march on.
(Sources: the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders by Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene; Compute! of January 1992; Amiga Format of May 1993 and the special 1992 annual; Retro Gamer 39; The One of November 1993; Computer Gaming World of July 1993.
Lemmings 2 has never gotten a digital re-release. I therefore make it available for download here, packaged to be as easy as possible to get running under DOSBox on your modern computer.)
March 20, 2020 at 6:49 pm
Lemmings 2 is the game with probably the most mismatched ratio between how much I loved it and how good I was at it. After downloading it from one of the boards in the 713 BBS scene and falling completely in love with it, I begged my parents to buy it for me at the local Babbage’s—a true rarity! My recollection is that I never managed to bring a single tribe to the center of the map, and indeed I think there was at least one tribe (space, perhaps?) where I couldn’t even complete the first level.
I eventually fell out of love with the game and moved on, but not before spending countless hours murdering those cute little guys. Even if I never made much progress on it, I’ll remember this damn game forever.
March 21, 2020 at 7:44 am
And now comes the point where I tell you that my wife and I finished it without a single hint. ;) I do think having experience with the first Lemmings is almost a prerequisite to get anywhere with this one…
October 13, 2021 at 9:25 am
I have “all 60 saved” -videos for the hardest levels:
March 20, 2020 at 9:56 pm
This is in my absolute top 3 of puzzle games (the other two, for the record, are Deadly Rooms of Death and Lost Vikings 2).
Any thoughts on 3D Lemmings? (I haven’t played it but it got a decent critical reception at the time, if not sales.)
March 21, 2020 at 7:47 am
I looked at it briefly, but didn’t get on with it at all. I found it so different that it might as well have belonged to a different series.
March 21, 2020 at 10:46 am
I mostly remember 3D Lemmings for in-game advertising for Jelly Belly. To this day, whenever I see the Jelly Belly logo, I think of Lemmings 3D, which is presumably the reverse of what they were aiming for.
However, if I recall correctly, 3D Lemmings did at least introduce one good thing that I wished more real-time puzzle games would do: a replay mechanic. That is, in making a second attempt at a level, you could start it off doing a repeat of whatever you did previously, and then yank it out of that mode whenever you felt like taking control again.
I guess today you’d be more likely to get the same effect with a Prince-of-Persia-style rewind mechanism. I’ve seen a puzzle game or two with that.
March 21, 2020 at 12:01 pm
Lemmings Chronicles (All New World of Lemmings in the UK – not sure which is the original title!) also had the replay feature, but it missed the point by not counting any level completed with the use as replay as actually beaten, meaning you still had to go back to the start! 3D Lemmings at least fixed that.
March 21, 2020 at 12:13 am
It’s interesting that you bring up the Amiga graphics, because I remember it having actually pretty good use of VGA. I guess the fog of youth etc…
March 21, 2020 at 12:03 pm
There are a few VGA enhancements on the PC version – look at the flamethrower for example, or the shields in the Medieval levels. But it’s still mostly a 16 colour Amiga/ST game.
March 21, 2020 at 12:19 am
It’s also interesting that these are the same people who did GTA! I never put two and two together! Not sure if you will get there but GTA is a sort of guilty pleasure of a lot of people I know; I remember listening to an interview with the guy who did the fake radio stations who had worked for NPR for years, about especially how they did the fake NPR station. True story: The biggest GTA fan I know is a woman who grew up in an extremely conservative culture in ever other respect and has a very hight powered job, and I think it really was her outlet :-)
March 21, 2020 at 7:49 am
For all that I love Terry Gross, NPR satire practically writes itself. That Fresh Air-alike on Parks and Recreation used to have me rolling.
March 21, 2020 at 3:10 am
It looks like the 2006 Lemmings was indeed a remake? Or at least mostly a remake, possibly with some additional levels? So that would make Lemmings Revolution, in 2000, the last truly new one.
March 21, 2020 at 7:52 am
Good catch. Thanks!
March 21, 2020 at 4:16 am
” What’s really important important are the other advantages of having twelve discrete progressions of ten levels instead of a single linear progression of 120.”
Looks like you have a redundant “important” here.
I must confess that I never really “got” Lemmings, so this article is mostly interesting to me for the comments on the nature of sequels. Which is probably a subject that could handle an entire article by itself.
March 21, 2020 at 6:20 am
Looks like you have a redundant “important” here.
It’s just REALLY important! :)
March 21, 2020 at 7:53 am
March 21, 2020 at 11:43 am
Sony (the current owners) appear uninterested and out of touch with Lemmings’ cultural imprint in the UK. As much as it should make a comeback, I don’t see it happening. The PSP port (2006) is accessible, but the rendered graphics are an acquired taste compared to the original pixel work.
March 22, 2020 at 2:42 am
I never play games like Lemmings 2, never been a fan of puzzle games. But, you certainly made the game interesting to read about.
March 22, 2020 at 2:46 am
Also wanted to say I think it’s hilarious that the same folks who made Lemmings went on to make GTA. Haha!
Can’t think of a game that’s more unlike Lemmings than that franchise.
July 13, 2020 at 4:12 pm
If you read Jimmy’s account of the how they made the original game, it won’t surprise you at all. It started out as a silly project to see how many creative ways they could find to kill the little fellows.
When I came to the part in this article where GTA was mentioned as a follow up title by the same group, I immediately thought, “well, that makes sense!”
March 22, 2020 at 12:50 pm
Great overview of the Lemmings franchise! I never managed to get much far in Lemmings 2 because it somehow lacked, I would say, “intimacy” with all the skills that you have to acquire in the first game. In Lemmings after passing 40 or 50 levels you are very proficient with all specific skills, you know exactly how many pixels a bomber would destroy and how to combine two different skills to achieve a specific goal. In L2 there are too many skills and you are usually exposed to a specific skill only with one or two tribes. I definitely prefer the minimalist “less is more” design of the first game.
March 23, 2020 at 1:58 am
I didn’t expect the final word on Lemmings 2 to be so positive! I could never crack it, as it just didn’t give me a steady enough learning curve to master the new skills, despite having played a lot of the first game. Kinda glad to hear it actually pays off. Either way, the core mechanic of Lemmings has such a gem-like purity and the presentation so much charm, it is definitely worthy of some kind of spiritual sequel.
(Since I’ve been recently replaying Zeus, I can’t help but selfishly ask, now that you’re a couple years into the 90s, if you expect to hit the Impressions City Builders. For me, it’s a seminal series that hasn’t really been bettered, even with the (as I see it) recent PC renaissance in city-builders.)
March 23, 2020 at 5:30 am
I do, but it’s probably not a thread I will pick up until Caesar III. Since the Caesar games are all takes on the same theme and concept, becoming steadily more content-rich and more refined, I don’t see a need to give each its own article. And there’s little reason to play Caesar I or II in a world that has Caesar III…
March 24, 2020 at 1:59 am
In my youth, one year I got this and Dune 2 as birthday presents… that sure was a great gaming birthday. At the time I actually found Lemmings 2 more accessible than the first game, probably mostly for the reasons you listed: 12 vectors for progression and less gimmicks with obscure properties of the skills. I remember the fan tool being quite fun. Thanks for such a quality write-up on Lemmings 2; it’s nice to see a great but forgotten game get some love.
March 24, 2020 at 9:15 am
You write “By the time Jones made that comment, Lemmings and Oh No! More Lemmings had already sold in the millions across a bewildering range of platforms, from modern mainstream computers like the Apple Macintosh and Wintel machines to antique 8-bit computers like the Commodore 64 and Sinclair Spectrum”
This is slightly wrong, though. A single level demo of Lemmings was long the only thing available for the Commodore 64. The release of the real game was only in December 1993/January 1994, so in fact after the release of Lemmings 2 on other platforms.
March 24, 2020 at 9:23 am
Slight adjustment made. Thanks!
March 28, 2020 at 5:48 pm
“Staying loyal to the Amiga meant working within some fairly harsh restrictions, such as that of having no more than 32 colors on the screen at once…” – Actually it’s even more limited than that. It uses no more than 16 colors due to making it easier to port to the Amiga’s less powerful competitor the Atari ST.
April 16, 2020 at 3:12 pm
Lemmings was built on minimalism. The sprites were a challenge on how much personality you could imbue in the least possible amount of pixels. In light of this, I’d say staying with the Amiga for the sequel was certainly not an hindrance whatsoever. These phenomena have a parable curve, and switching to full-fledged DOS support for, say, Populous II, has’t really earned the franchise any extra time on the limelight. As for the Mario or Sonic comparison, I’d rule that out quickly. There’s just too much quirky social commentary in Lemmings and too brains versus brawn involved to have them as “mascots”.
April 16, 2020 at 6:28 pm
[veering off topic, but…]
“Mascots”. Oh man. I have an 8 year old and sat through the Sonic movie; he’s loved it and is young enough to not notice that the plot has enough holes you could fit the Death Star through (thank goodness it was at an Alamo Drafthouse so at least I could have some beer while we watched). I actually think that for Lemmings at least you could justify a more coherent plot (why are they fleeing? From whom? To where?), but still, it would be absolutely part of the video game to movie curse. Then again we live in a timeline that made a movie out of Battleship, so…
Fuck David Cage
April 26, 2020 at 8:05 pm
I think the best way to go the opposite route: Make it an 80s style action movie in which the lemmings are alien invaders that have to be killed in increasingly bloody and explosive ways. Alternatively, make it like Death Wish 3 or Home Alone: A guy setting elaborate traps that brutally kill the lemmings.
Fuck David Cage
April 26, 2020 at 8:01 pm
I love Lemmings and am curious about this game, but I remember it getting very mixed reviews. I have some questions:
Does it fix the annoying problem in the original game that lemmings bunch up into cluttered groups and become very difficult to select individually?
Do you have to get all the gold stars to get to the end? I remember that being a common complaint in its time.
May 6, 2020 at 4:03 am
I remember some later version of Lemmings let you hold the left or right arrow key to only select a lemming going that way when you click, but I don’t remember if it started in Lemmings 2 or not.
May 6, 2020 at 4:01 am
Oh wow, this is a welcome surprise to find a Lemmings 2 review. I have to agree that this is a superb and often overlooked sequel.
I seem to recall that it had some difficulty loading on FAT32 systems, which I believe came out only a few years after the game was released. That might also have contributed to its lack of recognition. At least now DOSBox is a valid option. Thank you for writing this article.