Lemmings – The Official Companion

To go along with my recent playthrough of Lemmings, I’ve broken out the book scanner for the first time in some months and had a quick look at the Official Lemmings Companion.

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This was published by Prima back in 1993 quite some time after the game was first released. It’s one of the largest books I’ve scanned in clocking in around 350 pages but doesn’t offer a whole lot more than solutions to all the levels. The main point of interest for me was the disk tucked into the back cover with 16 bonus levels. The disk was missing from my copy but included with my copy of Lemmings as a bonus disk. This despite the use of the phrases “exclusive game disk” and “not available anywhere else” in big letters on the guide’s cover.

There are 4 new levels for each difficulty and it has to be said that they aren’t of the highest quality. You can expect to play through this lot in about 30 minutes if you’ve made it through the main game.

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The early levels are painfully simple. E.g.. the one above in which you merely have to dig down then mine across.

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They do get harder but nothing like as much as the original game. Perhaps the most memorable involved making it safely across the Prima logo but it was more for the novelty than it being a well designed puzzle. The final level requires making your way across the letters of congrats. It’s just a case of sending a lemming ahead to dig and build with masses of room for error. The book solution mentions there being a hidden exit above the entrance but it’s easy enough to do it properly.

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The levels do include additional graphics from Oh No More Lemmings with some curious new traps but I’m sure they were made better use of in the official expansion. The reward for beating them all is a bit of text advertising a game you would already have bought. The overall impression is that these levels were dashed off as quickly as possible to provide an extra for the book.

As such, I won’t recommend bothering playing it but I’ll put the disk image in the downloads section shortly if anyone wants it. It didn’t appear to require the original game to play. The book itself is already scanned and can be downloaded from here

Lemmings

After beating Contraption Zack in an afternoon, I was still in the mood for another puzzle game and decided to revisit Lemmings for the first time since its original release in 1991. I just about remember buying a shared copy at the time for which I kept the 3 1/2 inch disks. The box and 5 1/4 floppies went to the other guy who paid the lions share of the asking price. Not sure if that counts as piracy or not but it was an obvious downside for publishers of games published on dual format back at the time when the only copy protection was on the disks themselves.

Back in 1991, I beat the game in 5 or 6 days presumably doing little else for that week. I can’t invest that sort of time these days hence the long gap between posts.

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I’ve bought a full copy at some point since the 90’s so there is no question of piracy this time around. The box is certainly nice and colourful as you would expect from Psygnosis.

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This particular copy is a slightly later release than the one I first bought coming with an extra bonus disk of levels that was also included with the official guide book (more on than in the next post). Lemmings is actually available for free these days in the Microsoft store in an updated version. I briefly tried this and it appeared to be fundamentally broken as I was unable to change the status of any Lemmings that I’d already given a task to. As such I certainly can’t recommend it but I presume it must work better on tablets or some other PC setup.

Lemmings was originally created by DMA design who would go on to become Rockstar and create the Grand Theft Auto series. The idea for Lemmings famously came whilst working on the game Walker which was an Amiga side scroller in which you would drive a giant Mech around blowing things up. The mech in question was supposed to be huge and in order to give it this sense of scale tiny people sprites were needed. It was questioned whether this would be possible in 8×8 pixels but programmer/artist Mike Dailly managed it in short order even managing to give some character to his miniscule sprites. This concept later morphed into a game in its own right, spawning one of the most ported and successful franchises in gaming.

Rather than sticking to one version of Lemmings, I’ve been swapping around between systems as I’ve played this. Instead of saving progress, a series of level codes are used meaning that it’s possible to swap around at will picking up where you left off. I must confess I’d prefer being able to save and not having to type lengthy codes in each time I returned to the game but it does have it’s advantages. I started out with the original platform of the Amiga.

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The Amiga version has a nice little intro with Lemmings climbing around on the games title. This is entirely missing on the DOS version as is the two player mode which would utilise the Amiga’s ability to use two mice at once.

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There are 4 difficulty levels in the game each of which has 30 levels. To beat Lemmings, you technically only need to beat the 30 “mayhem” levels but I decided to work my way through the lot starting at fun. These early levels gradually introduce each type of Lemming of which there are 8.

I’m sure everyone is familiar with Lemmings gameplay by now but just in case the concept is that all your Lemmings will fall out of a trapdoor and start mindlessly walking forwards. The goal is to get a target number of them safely into the exit inside the time limit and to do this you can individually transform any given lemming into either a climber, floater, bomber, blocker, builder, basher, miner or digger. You only have set amounts of each skill although these early levels are usually very generous on this front.

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That’s the entire game in a nutshell. It’s an extremely simple concept and alters little throughout all 120 levels. There are techniques to be learned and mastered however. For instance a builder lemming will build a short staircase but stop building and turn around if he hits a wall while laying down tiles. You can use this to turn around a lemming by digging a small pit and then turning him into a builder to hit the wall of this pit. Provided the pit is shallow enough he’ll turn around, climb back out, and have changed direction. Figuring this particular technique out when it was first needed halfway through the game was where I was stuck the longest.

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It’s possible to pause the game and look around the map to plan ahead but there is still a degree of arcade action mixed in with the puzzle solving elements. You are required to be quite quick with the mouse at times and pixel perfect in some later levels. I wouldn’t say it gets too frustrating but there are times where you rely on dumb luck and have to keep replaying levels when things don’t work out. This is mainly when dozens of Lemmings get tightly packed together and selecting one pointing in the right direction to bash through a wall or build a staircase is a 50/50 shot. Often it’s possible to plan around this in advance but not always.

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Around halfway through those 120 levels, the novelty was starting to wear a little in all honesty. The early levels don’t always provide enough challenge and each level can start to look much like the last. There were some variations such as having multiple entry points or mountains that can only be dug through in one direction. The level on the left was curious having a hidden exit that had to be found by digging all over the map.

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Once I got into the 3rd tier of difficulty (Taxing), the game started to get my attention again and become a lot more fun. The options here tend to be a lot more limited and it’s about figuring out the solution that’s possible with the supplied lemming types. Most levels involve finding a way to send a solitary lemming or two ahead of the pack to prepare the way but the solution is rarely immediately apparent. I also enjoyed the occasional level with just one or two Lemmings which needed to be guided around one their own.

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Hidden among all the regular levels are 4 that are based on other Psygnosis games (Shadow of the Beast 1 + 2, Menace and Awesome). These use the graphic style of each of those games + the music but aren’t the most interesting levels in terms of gameplay. It’s pretty clear the art came first on those four but they did impress me back in ’91. The free advertising was a lost cause for us PC gamers since none of those games ever made it onto our platform.

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I ended up playing the majority of the game in DOS as it’s more convenient at the moment. Pretty much all of the electric sockets in my house still don’t work since the boxing day floods and moving an extension just to plug the Amiga in is more grief than it’s strictly worth.

Having said that, the Amiga version is clearly superior in just about every way. The audio is vastly superior to the adlib only PC soundtrack. The game is also faster and supports more lemmings. The PC version has a maximum of 80 whereas the Amiga levels tend to have 100 of them running around. Most oddly of all, the gameplay is slightly different. E.g. the bashers on the Amiga will decide to stop bashing their way through the scenery at much smaller gaps than on the PC. This can make life difficult at times given that all these levels were designed for the Amiga and copied straight across.

The one place the DOS version wins out is that the function keys are mapped out to select the options at the bottom of the screen. This proves highly useful and is a lot quicker than having to use left/right arrows to scroll around on the Amiga.

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I found that DOSBox didn’t especially like running Lemmings and after an attempt at a level would often throw me back to the title screen which would then immediately lock up unless I went in and out of full screen. As such I swapped over to my Pentium 2 after a while. It has to be said the game looks better on a CRT due to the dithered artwork so it’s a better way to play the game but I still prefer the Amiga.

It took me about 3 weeks but I eventually made it through all 120 levels. The last few levels were tough in just about every aspect but I’d say the difficulty was exceptionally well judged throughout and I would never call it unfair. What I would call unfair is the reward for all my efforts which was nothing but a paragraph of text. This brings back memory of numerous earlier ZX Spectrum games and I’d expect a bit more in the 16-bit era.

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I swapped over to the Amiga and replayed that last level to see if Amiga owners fared any better. There is a little screenshot with some unconvincingly enthusiastic cheers and applause from the developers. It’s an improvement at least.

Lemmings certainly holds up better than most games from 1991 and I ended up enjoying it more than I expected after a slightly dull middle section. It wasn’t as difficult as I’d remembered but still holds a mammoth amount of game for a single floppy disk. It could do with some more variety along the way for me. It’s the same skills types, same music and similar graphics near enough the whole way through. While I wouldn’t say it ever got boring, I do like to know there is something new coming to give me incentive to progress.

The music is a mixed bag with some of it sounding awful on the adlib. I don’t ever want to hear that out of tune version of “She’ll be coming round the mountain” again if I can help it. I’d have liked to see SoundBlaster support really with some samples for the lemmings.

The level design is where Lemmings shines and for the most part this does a great job of gradually increasing the difficulty and offering original challenges. Looking at this 20 years later, there were a few copycat games at the time (e.g. Humans) but Lemmings is almost it’s own sub-genre. As such it’s certainly a classic but I can’t help but think that Lemmings 2 fixed most of my complaints and is the better game. It’s been so long since I played it, I’d need to give it another go to be sure though. Lemmings’ first incarnation is still worth playing in any of its versions and I’ll definitely be having a go at the first expansion “Oh No! More Lemmings” some time down the line.

Contraption Zack Reviews

I found a handful of Contraption Zack articles among the magazines. This first from the April 1993 PC Review is the cover disc I must have originally played the demo from.

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As for reviews, here is a tiny write-up from the February 1993 PC Format.

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And this is a full review from the March 1993 PC Review. Both of these reviews broadly match my own opinion. I don’t reckon the repetition is as big a deal as stated here given how short the game is though.

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Contraption Zack

Contraption Zack is an isometric puzzle game published by Mindscape in 1992. I can’t say it’s a game I know much about but I saw it for sale fairly cheap and remembered playing a demo version many years back which was enough to reason to pick it up and several months later I thought it was time to play it.

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The version I have was published by Slash who typically repackaged games more cheaply after they were slightly past their prime. I gather they are often avoided by collectors for this reason. The box exterior is nice enough at any rate although the materials are a little cheap.

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The contents are where the real money has been saved with the manual looking like a cheap handmade photocopy. The entire game fits onto a single floppy with an equally cheap label.

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As for the game itself, there is a nice cartoon intro on starting up. It’s Zack’s first day on the job working as an engineer in a plant of some description for Gadget Corp. His new colleagues take an instant dislike to him and decide to “borrow” all his tools only to not return them when duty calls. The graphic style is goofy but colourful. I particularly liked the panicked boss with the waving arms for some reason. Probably because he reminded me of a particular ex boss of my own. At any rate, he sends Zack off to fix a piece of machinery in the plant.That’s where the player comes in. You have to guide Zack around 6 levels retrieving his tools and fixing the parts of the factory at the end of each level.

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The mechanics of gameplay are straightforward and introduced gradually starting with this room where each coloured switch will open or close the same colour of spikes. The trick is simply to head right instead of left here. If you go the wrong way, you will get stuck and have to start the level again. The designers had no qualms about dead ends so expect to do plenty of restarts when playing this. They do show an element of sympathy with a couple of save points per level.

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The next room is a more complex timing puzzle. The grey gates open slowly one at a time trapping Zack behind them for a time if he goes in. All the coloured buttons only stay down for a short while when pressed meaning the key is not to step on the back buttons until the gate is about to reopen so there is time to get over the spikes before they spring back up again. Once more, it is easy to get trapped between spikes and have to restart.

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Soon after this I get the chance to reclaim all my lost tools. Each tool can be used at specific points throughout the level to affect gates or machines. In this case, I need a screwdriver to turn the screw on the screen in the top right and reverse the direction of the conveyor belt and allow me to pass.

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That clears my route through to the feeder. I step on the floor switch to get it working and that’s the first level.done. I’ve missed a good few rooms out here but the 6 levels in this game really aren’t very big. They do involve a lot of back and forth to make up for it.

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Level 2 is much the same except with a couple of rooms more, lots more dead ends and a whole heap of extra switches to complicate matters.

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And each level after that progresses in much the same way. The difficulty ramps up but the gameplay elements are all introduced early on. I’ll give particular mention to the room above on level 5 which was especially evil. The basic goal is to get to the wire on the red wall and back out to the bottom left. Each button at the edge of the grid will lower most of the spikes on that row one at a time with just enough of a gap to walk across before they raise again. It will also start the same sequence off on another row so it is possible to swap between the two if you are quick. Miss the gap and you are stuck and have to restart the room.

Completing the room involves going through everything in the right order, setting two buttons off at once at a couple of points, along with having all the coloured switches in the right position at the right times. It took numerous efforts to complete but the save point at the start of the room stops it becoming too frustrating.

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Level 6 proves to be a bit simpler than the previous one if anything. There are plenty of switches but once I realise that most of them do the same thing, I’ve soon fixed the last machine and the plant springs into life.

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After all these efforts, the plant erupts out of the ground creating a giant metallic skyscraper. Despite the size of this thing all it does is print and stamp letters.

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Those letters turn out to be the end credits before a final epilogue in which Zack gets his revenge.

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Contraption Zack proved to be a short, simple game that I finished in one sitting. It certainly wasn’t anything brilliant but I enjoyed it enough. The bright graphics offer plenty of character and the puzzle gameplay hasn’t dated at all. What has dated is the amount of replaying required which you wouldn’t normally see in a game these days. I wouldn’t say it was a game breaker though given the size of the levels. Provided you like logic puzzles, Contraption Zack offers a pleasant if unspectacular way to spend an afternoon. The MT32 soundtrack wasn’t the best so I’d be tempted to try the Amiga version if I was to play it again in hopes that it was an improvement.

Mean Streets – Part 3

As ever in this game, I’m following leads around various locations in San Francisco starting out with Ron Morgans lab. I find some piranha food in here (by moving the fish tank if I recall correctly) which allows me to feed the fish and grab his passcard out of the tank. All the passwords are anagrams of chess terms which can be guessed if needed as I found a list of all of them early in the game. These two in combination can then be used to access the computer of whoever’s card it was. This isn’t strictly needed but does flesh out the story and confirm you have the password correct.

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To track down the next names on the list, I enlist Steve Clements help. Greg Call is yet another scientist who has supposedly committed suicide although it should be clear to any player by now that they have all been coerced by project Overlord, or outright murdered

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Searching Greg Call’s lab yields a 10 foot pole which I can then use in Ron Morgan’s lab to get the box out of the cage with a gorilla in it and get another passcard.

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Chasing up yet another scientist called Clark yields another lab complete with body this time. The most useful thing I find here is a pair of work gloves which I can use in Call’s lab to move some vines and get another passcard. There can’t be many of them left at this point.

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 Another lead sends me to meet Lola Lovetoy who was employed by the head of MTC to keep Schimming busy. She gives me the location of the room they used. Searching this room yields a bus locker key and flying out to that gets the black passcard.

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I break into the Law and Order offices next. I find a contract employing Big Jim Slade to bump off all these ex-scientists as well as yet another passcard and a clue to ask the security chief for the nav code to the computer facility.

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I do just that and with a bit of coercion he coughs up the info. At this point, I realise that I’m still missing one card and going through all the screenshots I’ve made spot a name supplied by Arnold Dweeb that I forgot to add to my list.

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All keycards in hand it’s off the secret facility on Alcatraz island. The moment I arrive I’m captured and thrown in a locked room after Mr Big spells out the whole scheme.

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I have one last room to search. There is a neat touch here in that I can try all sorts of things that won’t work using items I’ve picked up throughout the game. e.g. unscrewing the grate on the floor. What I actually need to do is find the gas mask which was hidden somewhere in here, then open the monumentally large furnace using the console at the bottom right. This sets off the sprinklers and a robot comes in to close the furnace again. I have just enough time to leg it out of the open door ahead of the robot.

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One more shooting section and we are into the end game.

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To stop Overlord, I need to use all 8 passcards to activate the auto destruct on the satellite that controls it. To do this, I have to type all the correct passwords into the giant computer in the 60 seconds I’ve got. You’d better be a half decent typist if you plan on finishing this game.

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As I’m entering passwords, the villain of the piece reveal themselves to be none other than J. Saint Gideon, the ex head of Gideon Enterprises. I really don’t have time to listen/read what he’s saying at the time if I’m gong to get these 8 passwords typed in fast enough.

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The countdown begins, the satellite blows up and Tex is now a national hero even getting awarded a parade by president Michael. J. Fox. Tex flies off into the sunset with Sylvia whose hair apparently changes colour from one moment to another and the world is safe, at least until Martian Memorandum.

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Mean Streets is a peculiar game that could probably only ever have been made by Access. It has something of an identity crisis and doesn’t appear to know quite what it wants to be, yet the end result is an intriguing enough mystery to maintain interest up until the conclusion. That feat is made easier by the conclusion coming all too quickly despite the padding of the flight sim. This is a really short game that could probably be completed in an hour or two on the first attempt without all that tedious autopiloting.

The main selling point of Mean Streets was clearly the graphics and sound which look quaint these days but if you compare what this looks like to most other 1989 adventure games, it is way ahead. In 1989 I would have been impressed just with them scanning in photos in the first place. There was enough to the game itself that I still kind of like it actually. Much like the sequels, it doesn’t take itself seriously and there is a lot of fun to be had meeting all the unlikely characters. I also enjoyed the adventure segments which play as much like a search simulation and different to any other adventure game I can think of. To an extent it really does feel like being a PI playing this, a PI with a really, really slow car.

Mean Streets is no classic but is original, quirky and certainly worth looking into for anyone who wants to see how the series started. It’s curious seeing a much younger Chris Jones playing the same role all those years back even if he didn’t get to speak in this instalment. I wouldn’t recommend this for anyone who doesn’t already have an interest in the series but if you ever plan on playing through them all, this holds up well enough to be the place to start.