It's been roughly four years since we last saw an Earthworm Jim game (remember Earthworm Jim 2 for the Game Boy Advance?), and while some of the games in the EWJ series have been less than stellar, it's refreshing to see the game returning to its roots in Earthworm Jim for the PlayStation Portable. We got a chance to see and play the game for ourselves at a recent Atari press event, and it seems that the side-scrolling action and wacky humor that have defined the series are well intact for this game.
Earthworm Jim for the PSP is a side-scrolling platform adventure game that features the titular Jim winding his way through eight levels, battling enemies along the way and generally just trying to keep his segmented self in more or less working order. The plot for the game is a bit on the secretive side at the moment, but we do know that Jim will have a number of different specialized powers, thanks to a handy spacesuit he wears that lets him get around on two legs, climb rope bridges, hang onto perilous ledges, and of course, wield his trusty weapons. In addition, you can expect to see appearances by EWJ characters such as Princess What's-Her-Name and Peter Puppy.
The level we played during the demo featured Jim navigating through a junkyard replete with tires, metal-bending compacters, and treadmills. You move Jim through the level using the D pad, and each face button has a different function; the square button wields and fires the machine gun, the X button is used for jumping, and pressing either the circle or triangle button will let Jim use his head as a whip. At certain points in the level, you could jump in the air and lash out with Jim's head/whip to latch on to hooks suspended in midair. Jim could then swing through the air Indiana Jones-style to reach a ledge that might be otherwise unavailable to him.
Of course, that isn't the only way to reach new areas in a level. The tire piles found in this level were ideal for bouncing on; at certain points, we were able to bounce from one pile to the next to move continually up a huge tower of tires and access a secret item. And of course, like most earthworms, Jim is an expert mountain climber, and we were able to scurry up the sheer side of a cliff and onto a ledge. All of these different techniques mean that Jim (and thus you) will have multiple ways for attacking each of the eight levels in the game. One player might choose to simply jump and swing his way through a tricky passage, while another player on the same level might be looking for ways he can make Jim climb or bounce his way past obstacles. It's that kind of variety that the developers at Shiny are looking to bring to each level in the game.
Another level we heard about, but didn't get a chance to play, was referred to as "the birds and the bees level." Here, Jim is caught in the middle of a war between the birds and the bees and will have to progress through an increasingly complex level that's design is inspired by the old mousetrap board games. In other words, something Jim does that affects something in one part of a level will fan out and be felt by the complex machinery somewhere else in the level. It sounds like an interesting concept for a platform level; we just wish we could have seen it in action for ourselves.
Of course, it's not just the levels themselves that will pose a challenge for Jim--you can expect to see him go up against plenty of enemies, too. In the junkyard level we played, for example, there were crows aplenty looking to pluck him right out of his suit and gobble him down, as well as burly doglike creatures that had the ability to turn into miniature tornados. Presumably, there're plenty more enemies to face in the game, as well as end-level bosses that will pose a real challenge. We understand that at some points in the game, Jim will be out of his specialized suit, as well, making him especially vulnerable to enemy attacks.
Finally, one of the strangest additions to the game is the ability to dance. At any point in the game, you can take a break from the action and make Jim dance to the multiple tunes found on the game's soundtrack. We didn't get to see it in action, unfortunately, though we're pretty sure that a guy as flexible as Jim has some pretty slick moves.
With attractive cartoon graphics, two-player competitive modes, and a wry, winking sense of humor, Earthworm Jim looks like it could be a nice addition to the PSP platformer lineup. The game, currently 80 percent complete, is due to hit stores in early 2007, and we'll have a full review when the game is released.