First published in 1991 on the Commodore Amiga, Lemmings was an instant hit with puzzle fans and went on to massive mainstream success with numerous sequels. The game puts the player in control of a herd of up to 100 lemmings that bear no physical resemblance to the real-life rodents but do have the same wanton disregard for their lives. It's your job to get these critters from start to finish by equipping certain members of the pack with skills such as digging, bridge-building, and blocking to avoid the obstacles placed in their path. Apparently born out of an animation created by designer Mike Dailly over a lunch break, Lemmings is a game-design classic that is as compelling now in its newest iteration on the PlayStation Portable as it was 15 years ago.
In this newest version of Lemmings, there are 120 levels taken from the original game, as well as 36 levels that have been specially designed by developer Team 17. Extra levels can be designed using the editor and swapped wirelessly online via the infrastructure mode or locally via ad hoc. Sony also promises more levels through the Lemmings Web site, and as of right now, two levels are available for free (the indication is that more will be available for a fee in the future). It will also be possible to link the PSP and PlayStation 2 versions to share custom-built levels both ways.
The original Amiga version of Lemmings relied on the subtle control of a mouse, so the control system on the PSP has been heavily adapted. The D pad moves a cursor around the screen, and if this cursor is close to an individual lemming, a square reticule will be drawn around it. If you then press X, that particular lemming will perform the task that's currently highlighted along the bottom of the screen. The shoulder buttons cycle through eight skills that often have a limit in their usage. The triangle button zooms into the map, whilst the circle button speeds up time. The analog stick is used to pan the camera left and right across the map, but it's a shame there is no option to use it to control the cursor. In practice this system works just about perfectly, and surprisingly, it never feels like a poor substitute for a mouse.
In certain levels, lemmings can be cramped in a small space, and it can be difficult to assign individual tasks. While you could end up burrowing in the wrong direction, this is an intentional design of the gameplay rather than a fault of the control system, and this has been the same since the original on the Amiga. The one problem with the interface is that you have to cycle through all of the eight skills to get to the one you want, even if they're not available. This is particularly annoying at the start of the game when you only have access to a couple of skills, but you still have to scroll through the other six.
The biggest change in gameplay terms, and potentially the most controversial, is the ability to assign skills to lemmings while the game is paused. Once you restart the game they'll perform their tasks immediately, taking something away from the challenge of the game. If you use this technique liberally you run the risk of losing the frantic and unforgiving feel of Lemmings completely. The choice is yours.
The player is introduced to new skills gradually through the 120 classic levels and the 36 new additions, with the original levels being split into packs of 30, named "fun," "tricky," "taxing," and "mayhem." However, once the game has taught you the basic skills, it becomes steadily more difficult, reducing your allocation of skills and requiring you to cross a greater number of obstacles. Completing each level is usually a process of trial and error, but at least there's a cute animation of your lemmings exploding to alleviate the frustration. Once you work out a way of completing a level (and usually there are several), you'll often want to try again to save as many lemmings as possible. Custom-designed levels and those downloaded from the internet are found in separate sections on the main menu.
On the features side, the game has a brand-new level editor that lets budding designers create levels and share them with other players. Designing a simple level takes about 20 minutes, but it takes longer to think of compelling puzzles and play-test them to perfection. The PSP interface does feel clunky here, but it's great that you can try and go one better than the game's designers. You can choose between five different background themes, and there are 320 different pieces of furniture that you can place in each level.
Anyone who has played Worms: Open Warfare on the PSP will recognize the visual design of Lemmings, as Team 17 is the developer behind both games. Despite consisting mainly of levels that were designed 15 years ago, the game manages to avoid feeling like a cash-in. There's no storyline and very little flashy video used, but the graphics have a rounded, cartoonlike quality that respects the original design while bringing the game up-to-date. The backgrounds in particular boast more detail than before--this is highlighted at the beginning of each level as the camera picks out a small part of the backdrop before zooming out to reveal the foreground details. The PSP's widescreen suits the landscapes perfectly, and you can usually see what's happening onscreen without having to pan back and forth. The sound is well-suited to the game, with gentle background music that is fitting to each of the themed levels, plus there are sound effects that make you care for your little lemmings even more. The "yippee" sound that they make as they reach the ending should bring back fond memories for those who have played previous versions of the game.
The short, frantic gameplay housed in each level of Lemmings has always been an enticing prospect for portable gamers, and Team 17 has produced an extremely respectable update. It would have been nice to see additional new levels and a wireless multiplayer mode, but the promise of more official levels and the ease of uploading your own means that the game does have longevity, even for those who have played it previously. PSP Lemmings also features an attractive visual update, while the control system has been adapted well to cope with the frantic pace of the game. Players versed with previous Lemmings will know exactly what to expect, but the game feels right at home on the PSP.