Author: John Legendoffzelda
Shiny Entertainment’s Earthworm Jim is the sort of game where environmental hazards will mix so well with the backgrounds that they can take players almost entirely by surprise. And a level’s twisty, bizarre design can confuse them further. Other times a smirking crow or a rabid, frantic dog can ambush the protagonist, taking away his health chunk by chunk. The most common reason these enemies can keep pestering him is because his aim can’t keep up with their pattern of movement. But more importantly, it’s a game where the player controls a worm inside a space-age mechanical suit, cavorting like an animal-kingdom Buck Rogers. One of the very first requirements for moving on is to knock down a refrigerator so that a cow gets launched into the sky. You can’t say this game doesn’t know exactly what its tone is.
In the “Ren and Stimpy”-informed early 1990s, comedic cartoons more or less got back in touch with their old selves. No more stilted animation techniques, glaring creative bankruptcy or compromises, and a lot more anarchy and general sense of fun. The most popular meeting point between the world of video games and this surprising resuscitation of animation values was this title, Playmates’ and Shiny Entertainment’s contribution to the mascot-driven popularity contest that was the current video game scene. Series creator Doug TenNapel was unhappy with the existence of the Earthworm Jim TV cartoon, a forced tie-in that starred Dan Castellaneta and company, and he had a good reason: the game is so full of material that it already works as its own cartoon adaptation. From the unapologetic slapstick and the various adult-minded nuggets of humor, to the rich color spectrum that paints each level, this game doesn’t miss a single Saturday-morning beat. But with this much focus given to it as an animated product, its nature as a video game isn’t given enough attention.
Jim is a lowly worm who by pure chance finds the suit, and with it becomes a macho space explorer. With his enhanced mobility, Jim uses it to rescue the Princess What’s-Her-Name from a barrage of rogues, led by an evil ruler whose name can be adequately shortened to Queen Slug-For-A-Butt. Jim can jump around and operate a pistol, two abilities of his suit that he often uses when he lands on a planet and journeys through its harsh terrain. The pistol can regenerate its ammunition, or the player can collect matching icons to increase ammo and even the weapon’s own power. His stretchy worm body is also turned into a prehensile appendage, offering several extra functions the suit can’t do by itself. His original frame can become a whip to strike enemies or a rope to swing across hooks, and even a tiny propeller to slow his descent when falling. The game showcases its inventiveness by utilizing Jim’s character design in ways that are clever and logical; if only as much creative thought went into them. They would feel fun if these actions were more manageable. As they are, the propeller requires too much button mashing and most of the time the whip makes you time the swing exactly right for it to work. Whipping makes all of the swinging segments a pain, but at least with combat you can just take out your pistol and fire instead; usually, the enemies go down so easily that it doesn’t matter that Jim is stuck in place like a turret.
In all fairness, the gameplay is more eclectic than I indicate. There’s a healthy amount of levels that skip Jim’s menial jumping and shooting and in its place present special challenges, such as fighting a glob of mucus in a bungee-jumping battle or guiding a seemingly harmless puppy to safety. Extra stages between levels have Jim racing the nefarious Psy-Crow to the next planet, through hyperspace tunnels à la Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and they’re fun – unless you lose the race and have to fight the deranged bird. The planets themselves, meanwhile, are really cool to look at; big mazes of winding paths and ledges set to eerie topographical backgrounds, they make this game’s level design one of the most unique of its time. Playing through them is a different experience. In certain cases, these ledges and paths are so detailed they look like backgrounds themselves, and their chameleonic nature makes navigating the levels hard to figure out. When that isn’t the instance, then these paths are just too ordinary. They aren’t helped by Jim’s physics, the way he slides around on all of the slopes and has little weight when moving through the air. Not that it makes hopping from ledge to ledge impossible, but he has too much of an internal quickness about him. Jim, and the world he occupies, is so animated that the players who interact with him will have an abundance of trouble in keeping up with the pace.
On the other hand, the animated pace is indicative of the game’s biggest strength. Earthworm Jim is a cartoon above all else, and in that regard it’s one of the most notable of the 1990s. It bears a lot of hallmarks of that period; the beautifully fluid character animations, the antagonist names like Professor Monkey-For-a-Head and Evil the Cat that are so dumb they’re kind of smart, and even a cheerful willingness to date itself. The liberal use of the catchphrase “Groovy!” and allusions to works like “New Jack City” only contribute to the charm. The kids get a special E/I list of worm facts and a good amount of gross-out humor (how about a boss that belches fish?). The parents get edgy sights like a Hades level spotted with observational jokes, where lawyers and chomping demon ghosts are common enemies and the music alternates between “Night on Bald Mountain” and intentionally boring Muzak. Unfortunately, the music here actually is boring; if it’s not one of those two pieces, then it’s either some simple bluegrass or this partially melodic synth burble that’s likely meant as Jim’s motif. That last piece of music is too cold to suit the wild spirit of this game, and if it’s instead meant as a humorous contrast, I’m afraid the joke doesn’t work.
The platforming is mediocre, the combat isn’t very engaging and the overall end product is mild, but Earthworm Jim is still deserving of some recognition. By way of the timely yet endearing animation values that it upholds, it certainly makes a case for itself as one of the most amusing video games of the fourth generation. Trying to swing across a hook or jump over an oncoming obstacle can make a player wish it was thought of more consistently as a game. Still, where other TV cartoons of the decade tried and failed to cross over into the world of video games, sacrificing all of their ideals in the process, this title created original characters and ideas to show those works how the spirit that was prevalent in their medium could be sustained in its own. That’s groovy.
Three out of five stars.
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