Lemmings’ Energy System Fits Like a Fist to the Eye

One of my favorite Finnish phrases is sopii kuin nyrkki silmään: “fits like a fist to the eye”. It’s a pungent way to say that something “fits well”, and it’s an apt description for how the recent mobile version of Lemmings handles energy.

Originally published in 1991 by Psygnosis, the original Lemmings holds up as one of the best puzzle games ever made. In each level, your job is to guide a horde of green-haired moptops from entrance to exit. The levels are full of traps and deadly falls, and the Lemmings are colossally stupid. You help the Lemmings overcome obstacles by telling them to build stairs, float downwards with umbrellas, or blow themselves up for the greater good.

This simple formula was good for hundreds of levels ranging from charming to fiendish. Lemmings sold 20 million copies over many platforms, so the only surprise about seeing a mobile version is that it took this long to show up.

New Day, Same Lemmings

Not much has changed in 27 years. The tools, traps, and behaviors of the Lemmings will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played the game before. There’s a smart new touch-based interface, and the levels are designed around a portrait view rather than a landscape view. But those are minor details.

The biggest change is the energy system. In the original Lemmings, you had a limited number of each tool. Mobile Lemmings lets you use each tool as many times as you like… but each use costs 1 energy point. You have 60 energy points, which replenish over time and can be refilled with ad views or cash. It’s a standard energy any many ways — but tying the energy to each move rather than the overall level has a huge impact on the Lemmings metagame.

The reaction to this innovation has been mixed, which is no surprise to anyone who has spent more than an hour around classic PC gamers. The game’s app store page is split between five-star and one-star ratings, with a 3.7 average. The one-star reviews are — well, the word “pungent” comes to mind again.

That said, I love this little system. You can brute force any level, if you want to spend the energy and cover the screen with stairs and umbrellas for your lemmings. You can also finesse the level, looking for the most efficient route to give yourself the most progress in any given session. There’s an unusual amount of flexibility here, and I appreciated the room it gave me to be creative while solving each puzzle.

The new Lemmings energy system clearly isn’t for everyone, but it’s a rare example of an energy system that gives the player the freedom to set her own difficulty level. That’s an example that more games could benefit from emulating.