When looking back through the history of computer games, it’s interesting to note exactly what weird creatures programmers thought would be suitable as lead characters for their games. A short-arse plumber with a magic mushroom problem, a monkey called Donkey by confused parents, and a hedgehog tinted blue due to possible amphetamine abuse. How about a microdot-eating yellow blob, or a scantily clad woman with pneumatic breasts that defy the laws of real-world gravity? There’s a long list of oddballs floating in the river of gaming history, and to fish out another one, I’m using the finest bait: worms.
First produced for the Sega Megadrive, Earthworm Jim was a common or garden worm, transformed by a suit of immense power that somehow MacGuffined it’s way onto his body. This set in motion the events of the game, in which you as the eponymous hero must defeat evil Queen Slug-For-A-Butt and rescue Princess Whats-Her-Name. Shiny Entertainment’s Dave Perry had previously worked on various quality titles including Disney’s Aladdin, and 7-UP’s Cool Spot title.
He used all his experience to summon up a ‘run-and-gun’ adventure unlike any other. I remember the box proudly proclaiming it was a ‘24 megabyte’ cartridge; they crammed everything in and many current developers should feel ashamed at their waste of disc space when this measly cart contained such compressed genius.
The initial ‘rescue-the-damsel-in-distress’ premise was much like any other platformer, but the execution was sublime. Bizarre humour reigned supreme as our masochistic Jim used his own head to whip enemies (crows, rabid dogs, maggots, crawling brains, electric toads etc), to spin down helicopter-style from heady heights, or to swing from various hooks and crannies. Fridges act as a weight with which to launch cows. Don’t ask.
If this wasn’t enough, the powered suit also came with an 8-directional, fully upgradeable high-voltage ray gun. Stocked with well-loved supporting characters, the game introduced the likes of Psy-Crow, Professor Monkey-for-a-Head, Major Mucus (subject of an epic battle with bungee cords and buckets of snot) and Bob the Goldfish, who despite his powerful feline minions is possibly the least capable end-of-level boss ever created – Jim simply knocks his bowl on the floor and leaves his gills flapping in the air. Not to mention your faithful sidekick Peter Puppy, who while appearing adorable 90% of the time, gets very dangerous when angry and turns into an uncontrollable purple-veined monster whose only aim in life is to viciously maul his accordion-playing invertebrate friend.
Earthworm Jim negotiated his varied cartoon environment with real invention, with nicely spaced distractions from the bread and butter platform levels – asteroid chases with Psy-Crow, the aforementioned bungee/snot encounter, a submarine trip and many diverse boss encounters. That’s not to say the platform levels lack anything – the likes of ‘New Junk City’, with rubber-tyre mounds and cable swings, the boss of whom attacks you with a giant magnet and a never-ending supply of tubas, all the while vomiting fish at you – or the Robot Chicken-like ‘Level 5’ are well thought out and pitched just right in difficulty – challenging without ever becoming overtly frustrating.
The final two levels are ‘Intestinal Distress’ and ‘Buttville’, the former seeing you traverse the intestines accompanied by a beating heart soundtrack and the latter largely a freefall through a giant colonic passage, wracked with lightning and infested by various spiky energy-sapping things that probably had a name I would know if I had paid attention in biology class.
The use of depth in the graphics so that paths appear to curve in and out of the foreground, with Jim often able to walk behind scenery, combines with a visual art style that is unified and characterful throughout to produce a high watermark in the oft over-filled bath of two dimensional platform games. It’s also worth giving a shout out to the game’s audio team – Tommy Tallarico and Mark Miller, who make the game as entertaining to listen to as it is to play.
The music is as catchy as mumps on Fresher’s Week, and in places excellently incongruous – the ‘Andy Asteroids?’ bonus levels are set to a knees-up 16-bit bluegrass belter as Jim shouts ‘Woah Nellie!’ every time he takes a warp speed bonus. ‘What the Heck’ features vinyl sound effects, with the record being changed mid-level, and the bosses of this fiery feast of a level include a snowman! The voice acting, superior on the Megadrive to the later SNES port, is superb throughout – ‘Groovy’!
The game was so successful it spawned a cracking sequel that may even be said to surpass the original, featuring ever more diverse tasks and enemies. The level design was once again exemplary – the level ‘Jim’s Now A Blind Cave Salamander!’ which featured a transformed Jim in the guise of, you guessed it, a blind salamander, and sees you weakly flapping your way around, avoiding pinball bumpers and exploding sheep, the latter possibly escaped from the armoury of many a Worms player.
‘Lorenzo’s Soil’ has you using your gun to dig your way around. In the aptly titled ‘Level Ate’, you must brave a frighteningly hot barbecue grill full of assorted cooking meats, dodging flying forks, frying eggs, the deadly salt shaker and other culinary killers, reaching culmination in a fight inside a takeaway pizza box.
Psy-Crow stepped up from his ‘Best Supporting Villain in a Platform Game 1994′ award and took the leading bad guy role in the sequel, and in the game’s finale once more races you, though this time on foot. Launching pigs replaced fridges and cows – although the cows do appear to wish you ‘Well Done’ from time to time. Elsewhere, electric chairs, Stannah stairlifts, game shows and aggressive filing cabinets keep you well entertained. The music and sound effects are as excellent as ever, with bonuses met with a triumphant ‘Way Cool’. Of course, next came the inevitable TV series, which was actually pretty cool and funny, and the inevitable conversion to 3D for the third game in the series, which was neither cool nor funny.
Hope lives on among fans that the franchise will be revived but perhaps it’s better not to go back – even today the first two Earthworm Jim games are jewels of the genre, always there to pick you up when you need a little rampant absurdity in your life.