Now I Know Why Lemmings Died

Now I Know Why Lemmings Died

Remember Lemmings? Of course you do. It was that cute puzzle game from the nineties about shepherding herds of the titular critters to safety. Many of my earliest memories of being enthralled by a computer screen come from solving these puzzles. Or trying to, at least.

Man, I loved that game. The lemmings were all just so cute and helpless! And hey, the puzzles weren’t so bad either. So why did it have to go away?

It’s hard to pinpoint when or why this happened, but Lemmings lost pace with the modern video game industry. The same could be said for Myst, Pac-Man, even Tetris. People never stopped loving any of the games, however, which made their sudden absence all the more mysterious.

I got an unpleasant answer this week in the form of a new indie game called MouseCraft. I was intrigued by the concept; developer Crunching Koalas billed it as a combination of Tetris and Lemmings. The thought of playing something that revived not one, but two nostalgia-riddled games was too good to pass up. Plus, you play as a cat scientist named Schrödinger. What’s not to like?

A lot, sadly. And not because MouseCraft does anything wrong. It’s a perfectly good game that hits the right notes — at least when it comes to paying homage to its predecessors. But playing through its puzzles over the past few days has forced me to come to terms with a hard truth: maybe Lemmings went away because it wasn’t actually as good as I thought it was in the first place.

The core objective of MouseCraft, like the Lemmings games of yore, is steering a group of cute little animals (mice, in this case) through a level. What makes it challenging is that you don’t exercise direct control over the mice. No matter what you do, they pace back and forth across the level, heedless of any imminent danger they might be walking into. If they walk towards a ledge, they will fall off the ledge — even if it means falling to their death. The only way to stop them is to put a wall in front of the ledge. Then they will bump into the wall and start walking in the opposite direction.

It’s your job to usher the mice to safety. And you can only do this by manipulating the terrain of the level — erecting barriers and bridges, or detonating little bombs to remove those same structures, until the mice have made their way to the cheese. The fun comes from the exhilarating feeling of constructing a Rube Goldberg machine on the fly, trying to keep all the moving parts together in a delicate balance just long enough for at least one of the rodents to make it across the finish line.

MouseCraft captures a lot of that charm I remember being struck by when playing Lemmings. But it also captures something else, something that I think I chose to forget. Waiting for all those moving parts to come together into a single, unified whole is…sort of boring.

See, I first got excited about MouseCraft after seeing a trailer for the game:

Like any good trailer, it made the gameplay look fast-paced and intense in the stressful sort of way that any good puzzle game is. So I thought I’d be spending most of my time doing stuff like this:

Notice how it conveniently cuts out when the mice start heading in the right direction. That’s because in order to get to the meat of the actual puzzle-solving here, you have to sit through many, many moments just watching mice slink along in succession like this:

To alleviate this, the game lets you fast-forward to expedite the whole mice-walking process. But it’s already a bad sign if a game needs to have a fast-forward button in the first place. There’s a big, empty space in the middle of the central gameplay loop here. In-between experimenting and seeing the results of whatever testy manoeuvre you tried to pull off, you have to just…sit there and see what happens.

That’s not a satisfying feeling. It gets better over time as the levels in MouseCraft become larger and more complex. But the waiting never really goes away.

When I compare it to another new puzzle game like Pushmo World, MouseCraft comes up short. And that’s for a very simple reason: when your character Mallo pulls out the Tetris-like blocks in that new Nintendo game, he can push them back in immediately. There’s an endless cycle of trying and retrying combinations of different shapes and maneuvers until you find the one that actually fits. Being able to try these all out so easily and quickly is what makes it work so well. I fell in love with Pushmo World after playing through one of the tutorial levels. I had to sit through the entire first chunk of MouseCraft, in comparison, before the levels started getting tricky enough to pique my interest.

Pushmo World and MouseCraft are very different games, so comparing the two can only go so far. But still: the problem that MouseCraft highlights is one at the heart of the Lemmings paradigm. It’s very hard to make the sensation of juggling so many moving parts, trying to control a handful of disinterested and autonomous bodies, fun as opposed to frustrating. The only games I’ve played recently that manage to pull this off expertly enough to make the quirky brand of virtual cat-herding seem worthy of gamers’ attention were From Dust and Pikmin. Everything else that toyed with similar ideas felt like herding actual cats.

I’m sorry, Lemmings. I guess this is goodbye. Hopefully, that’s just for now.

Picture: Jim Cooke


  • Lemmings 2: The Tribes was awesome tho! Just flying Superlemming around with my mouse seemed to keep me amused for hours on end.

    Haven’t played it since then…but im optimistic that today it would at least keep me entertained for at least an hour or two before I get bored…

      • Omg, yes that was great too. though like, I only had the demo I downloaded from lol

    • Lemmings 2: Tribes is still the ultimate Lemmings game! That reminds me – I was very close to completing all 12 Tribes back in 1994, on the Mega Drive, I’ll have to start from scratch to get back up to where I was 😉

  • Lemmings died because the developer decided to change their name from DMA Designs to Rockstar and develop Grand Theft Auto games instead.

    Also I wouldn’t be surprised if Sony owns the Lemmings IP now, since it was published by Psygnosis back in the day, and Sony acquired them in the 90s and renamed them to SCE Liverpool. And closed them down in 2012.

    • The IP was always owned by Psygnosis, so went to Sony when they bought that company.

      Team 17 (of Worms fame) produced versions of the game for the PSP and PS3 that I enjoyed. The bulk of the PSP version was just ports of the levels from the first game though, with only a few new ones. The PS3 version had all new levels, but was fairly short. The new content in both games was fun, and seemed better designed than many of the classic levels (which often felt like cut+paste jobs).

      There is a new game being developed for the Vita too, and it looks like it introduces some new mechanics. It’ll be interesting to see how it turns out.

    • Oh wow, I didn’t know DMA were behind Lemmings at all too.

      Man I miss those guys.

  • coming to a mobile device near you lemmings mobile, with microtransactions up the wazoo.

    • I wish! A Lemmings game on mobile with the original music and style would be fantastic. I’ve got a DOS emulator but it’s too much effort

  • Sony released a new Lemmings game earlier in the year on the Vita. Best I can tell it looked to be a premium game with microtransactions, but couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger.

    Also figured that since there’s been almost zero chatter on it the game can’t have been great. Right?

    • It was a port of the PSP game to Sony’s “PlayStation Mobile” platform. The “Fun” level set was free (which was just a port of those levels from the original game), with the rest of the levels as paid downloads. There wasn’t any ongoing microtransactions, AFAICT.

        • I only played the free levels, and realised that it was identical to the PSP version that I’d already bought, but with half arsed touch controls. For instance, you could use the pinch gesture to zoom, but it seemed to be converting that gesture into the zoom button press from the PSP version — there was only two zoom levels, so the amount of zoom had nothing to do with how you did the gesture.

          It looks like the native Lemmings game for Vita (not PS Mobile) is now out though:

          I hadn’t been paying attention, so hadn’t realised it had been released. It’s a $15 download game, so probably no microtransactions.

  • The Lemmings always died because of us, we were the ones who pushed the button that made them go “Uh Ooooh” *BOOM*

  • I think this game looks quite cool! And the waiting doesn’t bother me, you had to do it all the time with Defence Grid and that was ok (it also had a fast forward button).

  • Lemmings died for the greater good.
    Those brave selfless souls will never be forgotten.

  • The Lemmings died because the name was taken from actual Lemmings, which were rats from England which ran in to the sea and killed themselves.

    • The only case where this happened is when a heap were chased off a cliff for a Disney documentary. They don’t actually kill themselves.

    • The legend that lemmings deliberately join in a death march to the sea, where they drown, is untrue. Lemmings migrate periodically from their home area when their population begins to exceed the food supply. They swim across streams and rivers in order to find land with food; sometimes, however, lemmings try to swim bodies of water that are too wide and may drown in great numbers.

  • There’s nothin wrong with lemmings, just execs who think kids can’t handle the wait. It was the anticipation and yeah frustrating but payoff worthwhile. You know, actually working for something not dutifully logging hours. We need more lemmings

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