One weird side effect of the Fustian Gaming Challenge has been revisiting classic videogames from a critical perspective and seeing a wildly different game from my memory. I often claim that, despite playing videogames for years upon years, it wasn’t until about Final Fantasy 13 that I started experiencing this medium with a more inquisitive eye. Yes, obviously, I always played videogames with a general sense of “is this good/bad?” But, more often than not, I didn’t really consider the component pieces, and simply made the snap judgment of “eh, I like it” on nothing more than a play through or two. Videogames are videogames, man, why overthink it?
Ah, how I envy the thinking of those bygone days.
I’m not sure I like Earthworm Jim. And, what’s more, I’m not certain I ever liked Earthworm Jim.
Alright, I suppose I should start with separating the game from the character. I unequivocally like Earthworm Jim the earthworm. Back in the day, EWJ the Animated Series was my favorite cartoon next to Freakazoid (and I think they aired next to each other, too). It was a series made for my Dadaist sense of humor that wasn’t being sated anywhere else in 90’s movies and television (alright, maybe Stunt DAWGS… anyone remember that show?). Earthworm Jim trying to save his beloved Princess Whatshername from Psy-Crow and then battling Evil the Cat over a snowglobe was somehow right up my alley, and I vaguely blame Monty Python for the whole experience. I owned all the action figures (this seems to come up in a lot of articles…), and, by the time I was in high school, I would stick a Bob the Malevolent Goldfish on my desk during midterms whenever I thought I was particularly in need of luck. To this day, the phrase “fur-bearing trout” is somehow still a part of my lexicon.
And I want to say that I enjoyed the Earthworm Jim videogame. Maybe? I know I didn’t own Earthworm Jim, because (infamously… in only my own memory) my mother did not buy me the game for Christmas. She got me a magnetic poetry set instead. I realize it is inherently childish and petty to hold such a choice against her twenty years later… but, Jesus, what kid wants a magnetic poetry set? Where are random words ever going to get me!? Argh! … Er-hem… uh, anyway, yeah, I didn’t own Earthworm Jim until my 20’s, so I know I only ever played the game as a rental back when it was relevant. But I also had subscriptions to Nintendo Power and Gamepro (and probably just bought EGM), and, for what I recall as approximately 12,000 years, there was a lot of magazine coverage of EWJ. I might not have played the game very much, but I knew all the key players well before they hit Saturday Morning, and, yeah, when compared to the likes of boring heroes like Aladdin or Batman, EWJ appeared to be a revelation… albeit a revelation I could only enjoy from afar. Did you see all those interviews with Dave Perry? That guy is speaking my language!
So when I decided to replay Earthworm Jim (well, technically the robot decided), I picked up the controller with a song in my heart (“Through the soil he did crawl…”) and a smile on my face. This ain’t no not-trying-at-all Zool or best-left-forgotten Rampage Through Time, this is Earthworm Jim, dammit! This is going to be exciting!
And… it wasn’t any fun.
Earthworm Jim has some good points. The animation? Superb. The hero? Just oozing personality from every pore (do worms have pores? I should look into that). And, as ever, I like an ambitious failure more than a repeated rote rehash (shhh Mega Man games, I don’t mean you), so I appreciate the sheer volume of interesting ideas flung into what could otherwise be a pretty basic 2-D action game. There’s a lot here to like!
But… then there’s everything else.
First, and most disappointingly of all, there isn’t much in EWJ to separate it from its 16-bit contemporaries on the “humor” front. Beyond the headlining character, if you divorce the game from the Play it Loud era of gaming mags and cartoon spin-offs, there isn’t a lot of inherent humor in the game itself. Psy-Crow is a great foil for EWJ in the auxiliary materials, but in the game world he’s practically as anonymous as the UFOs in that Heathcliff game. The Evil Queen Pulsating, Bloated, Festering, Sweaty, Pus-filled, Malformed, Slug-for-a-Butt is pretty much only funny based on her name, and I want to say that lengthy title does not actually appear during the game. Sure, this was the age of instruction manuals (remember those?), but without that additional bit of material, the whole experience comes off less genuinely funny and more “Nintendo lol random” like Claymates.
But, alright, humor is subjective, and we’ll always have a launching cow, so let’s move on to the actual gameplay. What do we have there? Well, we’ve got a lot of ideas that wind up smacking together the worst of old games design and new (new for ’94, at least).
From the old column we have limited lives and continues, which, alright, fair enough, we have to curbstomp the rental industry, so let’s make the game as annoying to play as possible. But that combines really poorly with the deluge of new gameplay quirks that are seemingly randomly introduced along the way. Platforming, cool, nothing exciting here… and then you’re controlling a jet-powered fishbowl? And there’s a rapidly descending oxygen meter while you’re trying to figure out the controls? Oh, sorry, you died, try again… assuming you haven’t wasted your lives elsewhere, because then you’re restarting the entire game from scratch. See also: being stripped of the super suit at the start of a tense boss battle, bungee jumping, and (my personal favorite screw job) those damn race levels. Couple this all with some unexpected, “unfair” enemy hits and bottomless pits (and, oh yeah, a final level that may as well be one giant spike pit), and you’ve got 16-bit graphics on a Battletoads experience.
But don’t worry, EWJ has plenty of modern conveniences! First and most obviously, “graphics” was put far ahead of the “proper platforming” bullet point on the priority list, so expect to be confused by stages with erratic layouts and confusing “is that platform in the foreground or background” challenges. Oh, and seemingly at the behest of his awesome animations, EWJ kinda controls like a dump truck, with all the jumping finesse that implies. Level 3 introduces mechanics that seem very similar to modern “stealth” gameplay, and another stage is a straight up escort mission. Add one FMV-based quick time event level, and we’d have literally every convention I never want to see in a 2-D game ever again.
This… does not make for a happy Goggle Bob.
But, in a weird way, it’s impossible to separate the myth from the man (worm). We’ll never know what a Clinton Presidency would look like without the shadow of his infidelity, and we’ll never know what Roman Polanski’s filmography would look like without the knowledge of his insidious off-camera inclinations Technically, these events didn’t impact these men’s professional output one iota… except when the stories became so big as to overtake everything. We see the same pattern over and over again with stars of all mediums, and I rather loathe the fact that I literally cannot immediately name a female musician that isn’t, in some way, known for her physical body as well as or more than her musical body. It may be a personal failing, but I cannot listen to a Britney Spears song without then considering her rise and fall and re-rise to guest-star on Jane the Virgin, and that should have absolutely no impact on my ears being engaged by If U Seek Amy.
So, maybe being a star occasionally has its benefits. My memory isn’t that great, so I’ll probably forget about this article in time (I once imagined that writing a thousand or so words on a videogame would be enough to permanently lodge the experience in my brain, but I recently was reminded of at least one article that caused me to respond, “I wrote that?”), and my brain will drift back to its default state of believing in Earthworm Jim. No, the game isn’t that great, but thanks to an adoring gaming press and ancillary promotions, I’m always going to fondly remember the worm that rockets through the sky. Earthworm Jim might not be that great, but I’ll always have a soft spot for Earthworm Jim.
He is such a groovy guy.
FGC #152 Earthworm Jim
- System: Technically, I own and played the Sega Genesis version for this review. EWJ is also available for (take a breath) Super Nintendo, Sega CD, Gameboy, Game Gear, PC, Gameboy Advance, and the Wii.
- Number of players: Sorry, there’s only one super suit in the universe. Professor Monkey-for-a-Head didn’t build another.
- Port-o-Call: There are so many different versions of this game that I don’t even know where to begin. What’s really important is that many a playground fight was started over whether the Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo version was superior. I want to say that the SNES version is better, if only because that allows for the Sega CD version to then usurp that title. It’s like Pokémon.
- Big Damn Cheater: One other reason this game was widely regarded as good may have been how easy it was to key in the right code and skip a level or have permanent invincibility. I don’t think I know anyone that actually played Level 3 from start to finish…
- Just play the gig, man: If it wasn’t such an annoying level (that is to say, any level in EWJ) What the Heck would have possibly the best, most appropriate background music for its console generation. As it is, though, it’s hard to notice the clever “musical joke” while you’re fighting lawyers to survive.
- Favorite Level: As rough as it can be on your lives count, I rather enjoy snot bungee jumping, and I advocate for such an event to occur during the Olympics.
- An end: Oh, and another old school twist: you may be insulted for choosing the “wrong” difficulty level. Have I mentioned before how much I despise game developers chastising players for not playing on the most sadistic difficulty levels? Pet peeve if there ever was one.
- Did you know? There was a rather infamous commercial for EWJ featuring an old lady telling bedtime stories and eating earthworms. They weren’t real earthworms, but people freaked out all the same, and the commercial got pulled from select areas. This is your daily reminder that 90’s commercials for videogames were hella weird.
- Would I play again: It’s probably for the best that I don’t…
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Soulcalibur 3! A new tale of swords and souls is about to unfold! Or… did unfold… it was like a decade ago… No matter! Please look forward to it!