Earthworm Jim (1994): Greatest Superhero Game Ever Made?
Earthworm Jim is a 1994 2D side-scrolling action game about a worm in a super-suit that proved to be one of the more surprising video game heroes of the 90’s with this fiercely original debut.
One of the more unusual superheroes even for the 90’s which featured its share of weird and unusual cartoons as the likes of Rocco’s Modern Life, Beavis and Butthead and Ren and Stimpy made cartoons more than just for kids. Even Hanna Barbara where putting out darker fare such as Swat Katz. Earthworm Jim though came out of more unusual origins as Playmates toys who’d had unquestionable success with their line of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toys (which no doubt we all remember bugging our parents for) decided that they wanted their own franchise. Seeing the success of the first two Sonic the Hedgehog games they decided that they would start their franchise as a video game in a move which was unheard of at the time when most toy lines where launched with an accompanying cartoon to serve as a store front for the toys. While Earthworm Jim would also get an underrated cartoon series as well it would really be his video game form which he really made his mark.
For those not familiar with Earthworm Jim, he is as the name suggests, an earthworm until by chance he gained his super suit after it fell out of the sky and gave him a human-like superhero body. The game follows his attempts to rescue Princess What’s-Her-Name from the numerous antagonists which he has to battle over the course of the game including Psy-Crow, Evil the Cat, Professor Monkey-For-A-Head and the wonderfully named “Queen Pulsating, Bloated, Festering, Sweaty, Pus-filled, Malformed, Slug-For-A-Butt”. In case you didn’t guess already, its certainly a unique world in which the game exists, and no doubt further fueled by David Perry and his team at Shiny Entertainment who’d largely been restricted by the limitation of making licensed games such as Aladdin for Disney and Cool Spot for 7up. Now without such restrictions in place they really go to town here ensuring that the characters are as colourful and memorable as the various environments that Jim has to battle through, while at the same time satirising platformers of the time with Princess What’s-Her-Name being a key example of how nearly every game featured some throwaway princess character to be rescued.
Foregoing the usual pixel art methods, Perry and his team instead used a technique dubbed “Animotion” in which the sprites in the game are created by drawing on animation cells which are then scanned into the computer which creates the effect of essentially playing a cartoon while also meaning that the game now looks as good as it did when it was released, while the exaggerated movements and madcap humour gives it a unique and highly entertaining style throughout. The HD remake meanwhile rebuilds the game from scratch ignoring the original coding to produce a stunning looking update for the game which thankfully isn’t at the cost of any of the charms of the original.
Gameplay wise the game doesn’t strive for the most part to give us anything different than other platformers of the time, instead using the unique character and level design to stand out. Jim meanwhile has the use of both his zapp gun as well as more randomly using his own body as a whip which while largely useless due to its speed can also be used to swing across large gaps via the conveniently placed hooks scattered throughout the levels or be used as a helicopter to hover briefly. For the most part you will just rely on using the gun to eliminate your enemies, though the lack of any kind of projectile means your going to for the most part being aiming in their general direction and hoping for the best.
Thankfully, unlike a lot of platformers of the period this game sees the sense in breaking up the platforming with several vehicle sections such as a long maze like section which Jim has to guide his mini-sub through before the timer runs out and the glass on the sub cracks. We also get a number of space races against Psy-crow in which Jim has to essentially drive his rocket bike down a tube all the while avoiding on-coming asteroids to make it to the end before Psy-crow does. The real standout of these levels is the wonderfully titled “Snot a Problem” in which Jim engages in a bungee jump fight with the humanoid bogey “Major Mucus” who seemingly (like so much of the game) for no other reason than the developers thought it was funny.
Unquestionably, this is an original game to say the least from its colourful levels through to its memorable villains. It never seems to rest on its laurels or try and give us any kind of recycling as every level with the exception of the space races are stand alone and unique which can seem kind of disjointed if your the kind of gamer who likes some sort of connection between levels. However by avoiding this kind of template, it means that we can go from a junk-yard to an underwater level through to a science level without worrying about any of it making any sense. Something clearly not a concern of the developers seeing how the boss fight against the evil goldfish Bob consists mainly of knocking his fish bowl over and leaving him to just flop around on the floor.
While the game would be followed up a year later by a popular sequel it would soon be a downward spiral for Earthworm Jim as the dire Earthworm Jim 3D for the Nintendo 64 and Earthworm Jim: Menace 2 The Galaxy for the Game Boy Color served to only kill off the franchise through horrible gameplay and misguided humour with Jim randomly showing up as a guest fighter in the awful Clayfighter 64, a game so bad that N64 Magazine used to offer tips on how to abuse the cartridge in the section they would usually use for game hints and tips.
A game brimming with personality and creativity its actually kind of refreshing to see that this game still holds up, even if it does suffer from the usual retro gaming issues such as the occasional moments of awkward controls or jump recognition. Surprisingly these issues remain in the HD remake despite the game being rebuilt from scratch but while occasionally annoying ultimately don’t take away from the game. As such the series feels like its currently in some kind of limbo as fans hold out for another game which as of the time of writing doesn’t look likely but in the meantime the original is still worth picking up.
Earthworm Jin (1994)
Developer: Shiny Entertainment
Publisher: Playmates Interactive Entertainment / Virgin Interactive
Platform(s): Sega Genesis, SNES, Sega CD, Game Boy, Sega Game Gear, PC, Game Boy Advance