Where most it promises; and oft it hits
Where hope is coldest, and despair most fits."
-- William Shakespeare, All's Well That Ends Well
It's 1991. I am the proud owner of an Atari ST. I bought it specifically to play Dungeon Master, the very first 3D RPG. But computing has moved on: now all the cool kids own Macs. My ST is sitting on a side desk at work, where its sole remaining function is to connect to CompuServe and run a few BASIC programs I wrote to do accounting. Gaming consists of my smokin' hot new SNES system.
But, along comes a title that completely kills my work productivity and brings that Atari back to life:
The story of Lemmings starts with Mike Dailly, employee number one of DMA, an up-and-coming game developer of the early '90s. Mike is credited with one other major inspiration during those early DMA days: Grand Theft Auto. Yes folks, the same mind that convinced us to beat up hookers for cash also decided that little arctic rodents were worth saving from their thousand forms of death--a genre that would actually become known as the "save 'em up" game. Rockstar's reputation as bizarre and unfathomable began at this precise moment in time--the shift from Lemmings to GTA making as much sense as the shift from GTA to Table Tennis. It was the "big hit" for Psygnosis before they finally met their end when Sony absorbed them for the PlayStation launch.
Since that first brush with greatness the franchise has gone through various good to less-than-superb retreads, eventually topping 20 million units across virtually every game platform from Sinclair on. Rockstar nee DMA continued with the GTA series and let Lemmings go through it's derivative marketing cycles (including the unbelievably bad Lemmings Paintball and Lemmings 3D) with a variety of other developers. Finally, the much-anticipated revival of the series was handed like mana from heaven to Team17, the folks behind Worms.
When I first heard Team17 was getting Lemmings, my heart soared. The stars had aligned. If any game was ever like Lemmings not just in looks, but in joie de vivre, it was the original Worms games. Team17 knows how to make games like this: cartoony, simple, fun, funny, irreverent, but kid-friendly. Heck, the 2D environments of both games even deform in the same way when things explode. But then I remembered.
A hideous game.
A festering sore of unplayable evil.
A franchise killing cesspool that alienated rabid fans across the world, poisoning a 9-million-sold well of goodwill. So it was with both longing and fear that I picked up Lemmings for the PSP.
Thankfully, my worst fears were unwarranted. While the game isn't brilliant, neither is it an affront.
Lemmings' premise has always been simple: little mindless guys drop from the ether, and, left to their own devices, walk to their doom. You, deus ex machina, give them momentary special powers to help them reach safety. How they die, and how you save them, is where the goofy fun begins. The ways of lemming death are many: crushing, drowning, defenestration, impalement, explosion, just to name a few. The tools of salvation frightfully few: climb, float, dig (sideways, down, diagonal), build stairs, block, or self-detonate. Everythign in the middle is classic puzzler: simple, methodical, often slow paced. The fun of the game (and it is fun) is that of "cracking the level."
The PSP version took me right back home to that Atari ST--in all the good ways. While I don't have the old ST anymore, my sense on playing the PSP version was that I was playing a pretty port. Indeed, all 120 of the very first original levels are included. The nostalgia was overwhelming at first, and Team17 is to be commended for completely capturing the feel and subtle, sick humor of the original game, at the same time making dozens of subtle tweaks to take advantage of the PSP's form factor, inputs, visual strength, wireless, and other capabilities.
The graphics seem completely natural, but are superior to every previous version fo the game. The animation is cell-shaded crisp, but smooth and luxurious at the same time. The color pallete feels 8-bit, but takes advantage of the depth and speed offered by the platform. The sound is new, but has the same high-pitched and light-hearted quality that made the original versions (and the Worms franchise) tingle with joy. The game is just plain fun to play, and will make any fan of the series shimmer with falsetto glee.
My nostalgia sent me hunting around the web, and here's the thing. You can already play the original online, in dozens of variations. At its core, Lemmings is no more complex a concept than Pac-Man. And like a first-person shooter, once an interface is designed, porting your favorite level over to a clone is straightforward. I found myself sitting at my desk, with my PSP dormant on my lap, playing the DHTML version on the web, simply because it was more truly "the original", bad graphics and all.
Is Lemmings for the PSP a great game? Yes, exactly to the extent the original was. That far, and no further. Taken in context with their other 2006 release--Worms: Open Warfare, a rehash of the original 2D Worms series--The implication isn't pretty for Team17. I'd hoped that the PSP version would herald a rebirth. But alas, I think they've simply shown themselves to be excellent at rewriting old games for new platforms.
Faint praise to be heaped on Mike Dailly's greatest work.