Earthworm Jim 20th Anniversary Retrospective
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When Shiny Entertainment opened its doors in 1993, it struck a deal to develop games for Playmates Interactive Entertainment, which was the media division of a prominent toy manufacturer. Its first project was none other than Earthworm Jim, a game that parodied popular character action games of the day using an original character designed by artist Doug TenNepal. Parody suited the team nicely, since a lot of the crew at Shiny had experience working with licensed characters, such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, 7 Up's Cool Spot, Disney's Aladdin, and the Terminator, for the better part of their careers, and they were probably ready for a bit of development therapy. Without the borders of a preexisting franchise to limit their creativity, Shiny Entertainment's designers concocted a surreal game that was unlike any other platformer that had come before it, and Earthworm Jim grew into a full-blown entertainment property that produced action figures and an animated TV series.
Sadly, Jim's time in the spotlight was brief, ending roughly six years after his arrival. There was talk of a new Sony PSP game back in 2006, which GameSpot editor Brian Ekberg had the chance to play, but it was mysteriously shuttered a few years later. The last time we saw Jim was in the Earthworm Jim HD remake on the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, but for some of us, it has been far too long since we've had a proper new Earthworm Jim game. Still, we'll always have our memories of the original to look back on. With Earthworm Jim's 20th anniversary coming up later this year, here's what a few of us remember about our favorite super-suit-wearing invertebrate.
Earthworm Jim and I were close friends growing up. I can remember my younger self, sitting on the lap of a jolly old mall Santa, asking for an Earthworm Jim toy for Christmas. Jolly old mall Santa stared back at me like I had earthworms hanging out of my ears. Clearly, he had no idea what I was talking about, but Santa was able to save face by reassuring me that one of his elves surely knew what I was talking about. Apparently he did, because on Christmas morning, I got that Earthworm Jim toy--and I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact that my mother was with me during my chat with Santa.
The '90s were full of outrageous characters--from Sonic the Hedgehog to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles--all vying to pollute kids' minds with their totally bodacious attitudes, man. Few, however, could compete with the sheer absurdity of Earthworm Jim. He was a talking earthworm wearing a special muscle suit. His catchphrase was "Groovy!" His nemesis was Queen Slug-for-a-Butt. Every part of his character and his world oozed with excess and sheer ridiculousness--and I ate it up.
While I loved Earthworm Jim the character, I was horrible at his games. To this day, I still have not finished either Earthworm Jim or Earthworm Jim 2, but I vividly remember my time with both. The stage Jim's Now a Blind Cave Salamander! stands out in my mind as being especially bizarre. True to its name, the stage finds Jim dressed as a blind salamander swimming his way through the intestinal tract of some unknown creature. Pinball bounce pads and tiny sheep bar your path, as does the lining of the intestinal wall, which damages Jim on contact. And did I forget to mention that a low-fi version of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" is playing in the background? Once you finish your gastrointestinal journey, you're unceremoniously dropped into a game show and forced to answer questions you couldn't possibly know the answers to. Do you know Jim's favorite fighting game? PROTIP: It's Samurai Slowdown.
It was the junkyard dog that scared me the most. It was loud and erratic, and its presence in the first level of Earthworm Jim struck a fear into me. Much like the rest of the game, the beast possessed a unique look and sound that would not be easily forgotten.
My first encounter with Earthworm Jim was in the form of a demo. As I child, I did not understand that a full game existed outside of the level New Junk City. Regardless, the garbage-themed design entranced me with its unusual enemies and quirky humor, and it quickly became the playground I conquered again and again.
When my father gifted me with the full version of Earthworm Jim, I was blown away. An entire universe of varied worlds suddenly became available, each whackier than the last. As the levels progressed, so did the difficulty I faced in finishing them. Visiting friends would take turns with me to attempt to clear levels.
...I was blown away. An entire universe of varied worlds suddenly became available, each whackier than the last.
Of these attempts, one in particular remains vivid in my mind. It involved a particular cousin who always butted heads with me. As children, we often fought about trivial matters or wrestled over toys. Then Earthworm Jim appeared, and suddenly our differences were no longer relevant. He and I worked together in peace to clear the game.
It was on the level What The Heck that it happened. The level had stumped me for days, as I became stuck at a seemingly dead end marked with a large, slowly spinning gem. Back then, such dead ends were a source of endless frustration to me. After all, it was the time before GameFAQs, before the Internet provided the solution to all the mysteries of the gaming world.
My cousin, whether by a stroke of brilliance or sheer luck, suddenly solved the puzzle by running on the gem and turning it into a floating platform that would carry Earthworm Jim to the next part of the level. I was so ecstatic, I cheered loudly and almost hugged him (I did not).
That victory brought an ongoing truce between the two of us, and I'll never forget Earthworm Jim for that. Thanks, Jim, for forging peace between a duo of fighting children.
I first set eyes on Earthworm Jim when I was in the fourth grade, and it couldn't have come at a better time. By that point, I had spent the better part of a year playing Road Rash II and ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron on the Sega Genesis, both of which I loved, but I was ready for something different. Now, no reasonable person would argue that Panic on Funkotron wasn't an unusual game, but its strangeness paled in comparison to Earthworm Jim's surreal sci-fi tale.
After all, you play as an everyday worm who happens upon a super suit that grants him vertebrate-like posture and movement, and during your journey, you fight unreal enemies like Professor Monkey-for-a-Head and Queen Slug-for-a-Butt. There's even a boss enemy that rides a zip-line while projectile-vomiting rotten fish. Need I say more? At the time, I was also in the throes of a crippling Nickelodeon cartoon addiction, particularly The Ren & Stimpy Show. John Kricfalusi's twisted world view was both confusing and amazing to 9-year-old me, and Earthworm Jim bore those same qualities, which made it an easy sell.
Of course, it was more than just Earthworm Jim's odd art direction that drew me in. The character animations were exceptionally smooth, and while most levels stuck to the side-scrolling, run-and-gun design, there were a few that deviated in new and interesting directions. Bonus levels put Jim on a rocket flying into Z-space, and another hooked him and a boss up to bungee cords where they battled while bouncing up and down. Earthworm Jim is a series that I will always remember for its concentrated, unbridled creativity, and it's a shame that the series has been dormant for the better part of 15 years.