Game: Lemmings 2: The Tribes (1993)

developers: DMA Design
length: 120 levels
box art Roughly, this is my way of saying “I do more than just books and films”. Sadly, the rest of it tends to be Lemmings. I really wear my obsessions on my sleeve, don’t I? Well, anyway, I’m honestly surprised that I’ve gone this far without playing Lemmings’ sequel, The Tribes. I’m not even sure why – I’ve had a capable DOS emulator for the past few years, so I’ve definitely been able to play it. I reckon it’s because I could never get the sound to work before; having never had a PC, I never learnt the standard way of installing things on DOS, which involve a separate setup program and a choice of soundcards. And if you don’t pick the right one, no sound for you. DOSBox can emulate them all, but you still have to pick it.

Anyway, having already played through about 5 of the titular tribes (almost half the game, since there are 12 tribes of ten levels each) before finding this out, I found it a bit annoying that I hadn’t found out before. Anyway, Lemmings 2 is a big departure from the style and feel of the original Lemmings (unlike the previous “Mission Pack” sequels of Oh No! More Lemmings and Xmas Lemmings), although it still captivated my attention, because they’re still, well, Lemmings that I’m guiding round the screen. But it was in such a different way that it was almost unrecognisable.

You see, in Lemmings, there were 8 skills. Same 8 skills in every level, don’t change, always the same. In Lemmings 2, there are about 60. It’s quite a jump. Each level has a different set of up to 8. And as you can imagine, this can get quite confusing.
skillset
There are a lot. It reeks of the developers getting excited after the success of the original and piling in as much as they can (one might note that Lemmings 3, which is even less-played than this game, dispenses with the idea of skills almost altogether, suggesting that they thought they went too far, perhaps). Sure, some are interesting skills. The pouring skills are fun to work out, for instance, and there are a few interesting new ways of making explosions or digging. And some are, admittedly, welcome, such as horizontal building, always frustrating to try and reconcile in the original game. At the same time, there are a few that seem very pointless. Why have a Stomper when we already have Diggers, for instance? What’s the point in Attractors – is it just so that people don’t have to use Blockers anymore? Because they’re quite annoying, really.

But that frustration was part of what made Lemmings special. The fact that you had limitations on what skills you have made sure that you had to work out certain strategies for when you play the game. The fact that there were so few skills meant that you could experiment at length with their interactions. Lemmings 2 doesn’t truly have either of these factors to it. You can experiment with the interactions between skills, but only when the levels cough them up together. The game does provide practice levels, but I’m hardly about to waste my time playing through those.

And then there’s the wind skills: the ones like magic carpets, hang gliders and goddamn twisters that are affected by your subsequent use of the Fan tool. Essentially, you have to guide them as well as simply giving them the skill. One of Lemmings’ strengths is that you give the lemming the skill by clicking on it once and leaving it to do its business. They’re not the only controllable skills, either: how about a superman, archer or roper (aka Lazy Man’s Builder)? You have to either guide these with your mouse or tell them where to shoot. And that can be annoying when other lemmings are approaching fast.

Anyway, all these skills kept getting too much for me, and there were plenty of times when I frustratedly had to turn to a guide for help, not knowing what the hell X or Y skill does, or unable put two and two together because of the unfamiliarity of the system. And in the worst cases, finding a solution that seemed too difficult to be true and then finding out that it was indeed the intended solution. But those truly difficult levels were rare, unfortunately. Much of the game didn’t pose me an enjoyable enough challenge. A lot of it was what seemed to me to be fake difficulty, too, especially where you have to rely on controlling the wind and whatnot.

Even then, when I went to the Classic levels, which would presumably be more like the original (all the levels use only the original skillset – including skills like Blockers and Diggers that I don’t think were really used anywhere else, and Builders, that were unfortunately rare in lieu of Stackers, Platformers and Ropers, all of which are easier to use), it turns out the game’s programmed in slightly different ways, so that there are enough differences in how one assigns skills and how far lemmings can fall that it becomes infuriating. Why on earth can the lemmings fall more than half a screen height now, for instance, and what is the point of them getting knocked out when they get close to the splatting distance? And aargh, why can’t you assign a builder to someone when he’s near another builder? It may sound like I’m nitpicking, but this makes all the difference in some levels, particularly in a certain Classic level where you have to use builders to slow the crowd down – easily done in the original but here you have to carefully place your mouse so that you don’t accidentally try to select a builder, which would be impossible in the original.

OK, that probably made no sense. Whatever. There are good points about this game, anyway, like the fact that you can now have levels that are taller than they are wide (which I suppose gives the higher splatting distance context), and the fact that it’s divided into themed levels by “tribe” of lemmings (there’s a really tenuous storyline, something like you have to get the gold medal in all the levels in order to collect the gold medallion and lead them to safety… yeah…). Some are kinda funny, like the Space tribe (easily the best graphically, and with at least one of the most challenging levels), whose music is the theme from 2001, or the Highland tribe, with ginger lemmings.

The tribes are a bit too short, however and the music can be repetitive for some of them (do we really have to listen to Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer over and over during the Polar tribe??), although this has both good and bad points – the levels build up in difficulty quite fast, so there’s a very sharp learning curve, especially if you’ve never played Lemmings before. Some of the final levels don’t really feel like final levels, as well, although some quite definitely do.

The graphics are quite annoying, too. Instead of Lemmings’ organic feel, this game is divided into blocks, and the walls and surfaces are, more often than not, flat and straight (although this varies a bit by tribe). This makes levels feel repetitive. I can tell why this is; presumably it’s easier to code, and it helps with all the skills that require a flat surface. But the original coped with this fine. It’s also a lot more difficult to tell what’s a block and what isn’t, as there are often harmless objects in the field, which the original avoided almost completely. So sometimes the lemmings walk straight past things that you were expecting to have to bash through.

Finally, before I whine myself to death, one more thing: the game has abandoned the original’s targets, taking 60 lemmings into the first level of each tribe and taking forward the lemmings from one level to the next. Instead of a target of 50%, say, you pass the level if you get even a single lemming to the exit. You’ll only get a bronze medal for your efforts, but there the damage is done: you’re also not told how much you need to get for a gold medal on each level; on most levels it’s 100%, but on a select few you’re allowed a small number of losses, usually when exploders are involved. The whole system of getting medals for your efforts is reflective of what my cynical self will now complain is the norm in the modern gaming industry – achievements and achievement seeking. You’re meant to get gold on every level in order to get the Good Ending, the game chastising you if you haven’t yet got gold on any one level. And to date, I have only one level left without a gold medal: the last level in the Sports tribe, named “Take Up Archery”. And “Take Up Archery” can go fuck itself with an arrow.

So yeah, didn’t like the game, but it has a small number of excellent levels and kept me engrossed. I’ll stick to the original. And the original sequels: ONML is a fantastic game as well.

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