When ’80s and ’90s publishers folded and began consuming one another, it wasn’t always immediately obvious who owned the rights to what. In an industry fixated on the future, nobody gave it much thought, but nowadays – with retro gaming being huge – it’s up to IP holders such as PIKO and Nightdive to try and untangle the web of intellectual property rights.
PIKO has amassed an extensive catalogue of retro classics (and some not-so classics) over years, and rather than simply sit on them like some Tolkienesque dragon, they’re more than happy to license their catalogue to other publishers. This led to the creation of the QUByte Classics line, with this mini retro collection following on from 2020’s re-releases of The Immortal and Head Over Heels.
Originally released in 1992 by GameTek, The Humans was one of the more successful character-based puzzle games to ride the coattails of Lemmings’ popularity. Not only did it tie into the current fad of prehistoric platformers, but it was also released on almost every format going at the time, making it relatively well known. According to Wikipedia, Atari was rather smitten by it, personally requesting bespoke versions for the Jaguar and Lynx.
This collection contains neither, instead bundling the SNES and Game Boy versions together – the differences between which go far beyond greyscale graphics. Now also seems a good time to mention that the PC originals are available in an inexpensive collection on Steam. A lack of keyboard/mouse support presumably meant that bringing these, arguably superior, versions to consoles was a no-go.
Calling The Humans a clone of Lemmings is a little off the mark. The goal of guiding a tribe through an obstacle-filled level remains the same, only here, you have direct control over the dim-witted ‘dino dudes’ with a list of actions appearing at the bottom of the screen. These actions change according on items held, such as spears and torches. It isn’t always clear what these actions are exactly, which makes for a steep learning curve on top of the unintuitive controls.
Part of Lemmings’ success was that it eased players in gently. The Humans ditches that idea to deliver something that lets players figure out things for themselves. The spear, for instance, can also be used as a pogo stick to cross gaps. Together with a lack of both a tutorial and a digital manual, it makes for a rather user-friendly experience. Ideally, QUByte should have added a beginner’s guide on the main menu, or perhaps a screen full of pointers.
It’s clear that The Humans came from a time when gamers expected a lot of bang for their buck – it’s a slow experience with trial and error and some punishing instances. The time limit is equally bothersome â€“ rather than give a generous ten minutes to solve a stage, often that figure is closer to just five minutes, adding an unwanted sense of urgency and unease.
Platform jumping and spear throwing utilise a power gauge – time either action poorly, and you risk losing a tribesman or throwing away the tribe’s only spear. If there is a way to restart stages after screwing up, we never found it. It is at least possible to use save states â€“ something that renders the password system obsolete (aside from looking up passwords online to jump to later stages.)
Rewards for perseverance do thankfully exist, taking the form of comical cut-scenes and spinning stone newspapers with daft by-lines. New items are drip-fed and battles with dinosaurs and rival tribes are gradually introduced, so there are a few things here to induce variety once the control scheme finally clicks. The music is quite jaunty too.
The Game Boy version is slightly easier going than its 16-bit counterpart, with a simpler control scheme to thank. It sports more cartoon-like visuals; the cavemen are more cheery and less feral looking. Levels are completely redesigned, with some being surprisingly large, but the ability to shuffle through characters using LB/RB has been replaced with a finicky cursor system. This does, however, mean it’s possible to scope what’s ahead. Ultimate, this ended up being our preferred version – it’s more forgiving, and while there is still a learning curve, it isn’t as steep.
QUbyte’s menu system and extras are noteworthy, bolstering the general presentation – the game itself isn’t exactly a 16-bit showcase. The screen can be kept pixel perfect, made to fit, or stretched, and there’s a range of filters including smooth, sharp and CRT. The Game Boy version has the additional option of toggleable colour schemes, akin to playing on a Game Boy Color. Controls can be remapped but there’s no rewind feature or the ability to play at X2 speed, which may have helped elevate problems with difficulty.
If you’re up for a challenge, this package delivers – between the two versions, there are over 100 stages to beat – which makes it relatively decent value for money. The brevity of each stage makes it a good fit for the Switch, in particular, making it possible to beat a stage or two while on the move.
I do wonder just how many fans of The Humans are out there, though, because it’s players of the original that will get the most out of this. With a taxing difficulty and awkward controls, it’s hard to recommend to newcomers. It hasn’t aged like a fine wine, or ripened like cheese – it’s still the same finicky experience it was in 1992, only with the added novelty of playing a Game Boy game on a modern HD TV.
QUByte Classics – The Humans by PIKO is out now on PS4, Xbox One and Switch.