Earthworm Jim is still plenty weird. The Xbox Live Arcade HD remake of the 1994 hit for the Sega Genesis is every bit as bizarre as its aged inspiration, although that isn't a good thing. Like the original platformer, this reimagining takes its offbeat premise so far that the game often tips over the edge from quirky and fun to annoying and frustrating. Limited, awkward controls and creepy levels where you don't know up from down are the main irritants that make an already difficult game maddeningly hard in spots.
But if you liked the old Earthworm Jim, this fresh take will be plenty enjoyable. It's essentially the same game that landed on the Genesis 16 years ago, during the bizarre-animals era when everybody was trying to come up with an answer to Sonic the Hedgehog, with the addition of a few inconsequential bonus levels and four-player co-op multiplayer locally and online over Live. The protagonist is still the same old anthropomorphized worm with superpowers granted by an alien suit and a ray gun. Not much attention is paid to the story save a couple of comic-book clips at the start of the game. An alien spaceship crashes into a worm. The worm somehow winds up not dead, with a cool suit he can use to strut around like a human being. The worm decides to go off and rescue a princess. The end.
Gameplay is standard jumping-and-shooting 2D platform fare. Jim can jump normally, use his flappy worm head to hover briefly in the air and grab on to objects like hooks and moose heads, snap said flappy worm head like a whip to attack enemies, blast baddies with his sci-fi plasma blaster, and collect power-ups and health. It's kooky and fast-moving, with an emphasis on jumping challenges over running and gunning. The speed and the sheer strangeness of everything are enough to make the game appealing, at least at first. Controls are handled exactly the same way they were in 1994, however, which causes some problems. Nothing is as accurate as you would expect in a modern platformer, so you frequently find yourself slip-sliding around and falling off ledges. Jim also isn't an adroit platform hero, even though he's called upon to perform Cirque du Soleil contortions. You can't jump up when hanging from a chain, for instance, or shoot when running. Trying to lash your head out to grab a hook on a 45-degree angle is spectacularly aggravating, too, because of a lack of controller sensitivity. So expect a lot of frustration, especially after you get through the first couple of levels and things get hard.
Updated visuals are both a blessing and a curse. While the game has a strong Saturday-morning cartoon feel, with Jim sporting a range of goofy facial expressions, animations including funny quirks like monster canines exploding into doggy bones, and the levels featuring terrain from a Salvador Dali nightmare, it's all kind of busy and confusing. Levels add a lot to the personality, but at the cost of coming with absolutely no rhyme or reason. One moment Jim is tromping through a junkyard, the next he's in hell, complete with farting lava sounds and "Danse Macabre" playing in the background (the remastered soundtrack is absolutely superb), and the next he's in some kind of computer land where floppy disks hover like flying carpets. It's so head-spinning that you can never get your bearings or totally warm up to the game.
Figuring out where you are is an even bigger problem in the levels themselves. Backdrops have been loaded with lots of little touches that bleed into the foreground, making it impossible to tell what is an obstacle and what is way back in the distance. As a result, you have to rely on trial and error to determine where you're supposed to jump without, say, causing Jim to yell "Ow!" when he hits his head on something long and sharp (as in the hell levels). A few areas are so confusing that you can get stuck for ages trying to suss out what you're supposed to be doing and where you need to go. The only way to deal with this is to play co-op multiplayer online, because at least there you have some hope that one of your partners knows what to do.
While it's impressive that Earthworm Jim HD is still crazy after all these years, the game would be a lot more playable today with some concessions to modernity. It is really hard to get accustomed to the limited range of movement, and the confusing level design can make you want to throw your gamepad across the room. Purists who fondly remember playing the original game on the Genesis might just love this trip back in time; everybody else will wonder what the fuss was about.