Being eleven years old and consuming media in 1994 was awesome. Transformers and Ninja Turtles were fine for my formative years, but I couldn’t say I was disappointed when they gave way to a cornucopia of weird cartoons masquerading as children’s entertainment. Ren and Stimpy and, to a lesser extent, Rocko’s Modern Life retired standard kid’s show archetypes and replaced them with insane surrealism and a sublime, often revolting presentation. Shiny’s Earthworm Jim operated under a similar school of thought. Infatuated with its presentation ever since I saw it debut in GamePro, I assumed Earthworm Jim would render Christmas 1994 as the best ever.
And it did…sort of. I thought Earthworm Jim was really cool, but I every time I played it I usually folded before the Peter Puppy level. The game was unreasonably hard, which was pretty much the norm for platformers until difficulty became selectable, but still a significant barrier for a novice to overcome. I got more mileage out of the sequel, but both games managed to offer a sense of humor absent from its more routine peers.
So the story goes, an earthworm named Jim stumbled upon an ultra-high-tech-indestructible-super-space cyber suit, which renders him a super hero. The suit was intended for the Queen Pulsating, Bloated, Festering, Sweaty, Pus-filled, Malformed, Slug-for-a-Butt, which wouldn’t bother Jim if Slug-For-Butt didn’t have a hot princess sister. You wouldn’t know this if you hadn’t read the instruction book (then) or the wall of text before the game (now), and I don’t think Princess What’s-Her-Name is even in the game, but Earthworm’s Jim’s motivation makes about as much sense as anything else in his world, which hovers near a perpetual state of “what the hell is going on?”. Earthworm Jim is a product of an era when cool level ideas and whatever bizarre art could go along with them were conceived before any semblance of a narrative or continuity, and it definitely shows in Jim’s whimsical planet hopping incoherence.
Jim’s move set is fairly basic, although quite good for his day. Jim’s blaster is easy but underpowered, while his whip is a bit trickier but yields more force. His head can also act as a helicopter, which allows Jim to hover for a few seconds after a jump. Jim can also climb cliffs, grab ledges, shimmy across wires, and use his whip to swing off hooks like Tarzan. The hook swing, in particular, has a very small hitbox and proved quite frustrating back in the day. It’s still considerably challenging in the HD update, but rendered a little more forgiving thanks to the litany of selectable difficulties. Less damage is taken on Easy and Normal, whereas Hard and Original exist to remind you of skills gained by playing the same game every day for a month.
While not nearly as diverse as its sequel, the original Earthworm Jim is a little more than a simple platformer. Andy Asteroids, the planet-hopping minigame between every level, operates like Sonic 2’s special stage, only in space and in the form of a race. The timed, underwater dome/submarine sequence in Down the Tubes calls to mind the hellish water level from Ninja Turtles on NES, but I didn’t find it nearly as punishing this time around. An idea that doesn’t work so well is an escort mission in the form of For Pete’s Sake, where Peter Puppy must be whipped to jump and shot to pause as he nonchalantly skips across a level. If Peter gets harmed he goes Incredible Hulk and throws Jim back a fair amount space, which wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the random meteor storms and overly difficult, trial-and-error level design. Some parts tend to grate, but at least Jim packs decent variety in between platform hopping and whip swinging.
Jim’s mechanics were fine for their time, but they’re definitely showing their age sixteen years later. While the art is great (and reproduced beautifully in HD), it doesn’t exactly lend itself to intuitive level design. Where you can or can’t go, or what you can jump on isn’t immediately clear, even with the new addition of directional arrows. Shiny had great, often innovative ideas for levels, but they couldn’t seem to properly wrap gameplay around their concepts. Another sign of Jim’s age lies with his inability to jump and fire his gun or use his whip at the same time. Shooting-when-standing-only meshes with the gameplay, but feels positively archaic by today’s standards.
Still, there are a ton of great moments to relive. While Jim’s movement is heavily flawed, the boss encounters hold up very well. Shooting Evil the Cat’s nine lives out of the darkness still had me on the edge of my seat, avoiding Chuck’s vomited musical instruments remained hilariously gross, and bungee jump-battling Major Mucus felt weirdly rewarding. Other bizarre instances included battling snowmen and lawyers in hell, the encounter with Professor Monkey-For-A-Head, egg spewing chicken robots, proceeding through an intestinal tract, and riding a giant hamster with a penchant for eating invincible cats. I’ve never actually done drugs, but I’d have to imagine they’d be something like life in Earthworm Jim’s world.
While much of Earthworm Jim has remained faithful to the original design, a bit of tweaking is had been done. The largest of which was a second act to New Junk City, which was probably constructed to create more of a distance between its two oddly close boss encounters. Essentially throwing a suit-less Jim around a series of conveyor belts, slides, and other random devices, it’s a relatively unobtrusive addition to the game. Other stages have also, almost randomly, been separated into different acts. A few omissions are also present, like the secret stage as well as the Sega CD-only stage, Big Bruty. It’s no big deal, but one would have hoped for Earthworm Jim HD to be feature complete.
And, obviously, the game looks a lot better. The visuals have been completely redrawn, though completely accurate in their rendition of the original environments. While they occasionally give a Flash vibe, they do make Jim’s presentation a bit easier to revisit. Some of the animation is a bit jerky and Jim’s larger presence doesn’t feel quite as nimble as it used to, but it’s largely the same experience. The music has been reprocessed as well, and, while Jim’s voice sounds different, I think it may actually be just a higher quality version of Doug TenNapel’s original samples.
Other additions suggest Gameloft genuinely understood the weird sense of humor broadcast through Jim’s nuance. The trademark congratulation screen where Jim screams “groovy!” now allows you to button mash and make Jim yell his trademark phrase indefinitely (much to the dissatisfaction of whomever else is in the room). The credits also featured a significant amount of text dedicated to explaining the daily activities of normal earthworms. Odd, but right on cue.
There’s some new content too. Three new levels (really all different acts of the same level) plop Jim inside of a game console. It has kind of a fan-made feel too it, but floppy disks and bursts of electricity are good for a few laughs. New opposition includes swinging spiders, mecha-bees, and a fairly upset grandmother, each trounced by the end boss; keyboard cat (seriously). In terms of gameplay the only new wrinkle comes in the form of electromagnetic propulsion devices that fling Jim all over the place. They’re a bit touchy, but do well to introduce a new mechanic into Jim’s universe.
Multiplayer has also received a surprising amount of attention. Fifteen levels repurpose assets from the original adventure and filter two to four multicolored Jims through its challenges. A generous amount of health transforms the challenge from merely surviving to a hectic point race, though certain stop gates require players cooperate a bit to proceed. I had more fun playing with a friend next to me on the couch, but online is an option if you don’t mind random strangers.