It may seem strange now, but back in the 16-bit era, the consoles were largely ruled with Japanese games. There were numerous American and European-developed titles for the Genesis and Super Nintendo, but they were usually found trailing behind titles from companies like Sega, Capcom, and Konami. And yet, one of the few instances of a Western developed title that stands amongst the best was Shiny Entertainment’s Eartworm Jim, a series of comical sidescrolling platformers with a clever cast of characters, an amusing universe, excellent music, and innovative level designs.
The story of Earthworm Jim begins with the toy manufacturer Playmates, who, back in the late 80s and early 90s, was rolling in dough thanks to the success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures. Seeing the success of the franchise, they decided to start their own. But rather than creating a toy line and cartoon simultaneously, as most companies did, they took a different route. Upon seeing the success of Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog, they decided to produce their own video game, which would eventually lead into a blitz of licensed products. They got together with Dave Perry, a programmer at Virgin Interactive, and gave him the money to create Shiny Entertainment, the team that designed and created Earthworm Jim. This isn’t exactly the first time this happened – Tradewest and Rare attempted the same thing a few years before with Battletoads, and Accolade did the same with Bubsy. But Earthworm Jim succeeded where these others did not, for any number of reasons. Perhaps the most prominent was its bizarre sense of humor, loosely inspired by Chuck Jones and Tex Avery cartoons, combined with its own unique brand of madcap lunacy. Or possibly it was also the fact that the Earthworm Jim games were also quite good – Battletoads was ambitious but monstrously difficult, and Bubsy struggled to be defined as anything but mediocre.
It was David Perry’s work as a talented programmer that turned Earthworm Jim into an excellent game, but it was the artistic skills of Doug TenNapel that truly brought the world and characters to life.
Jim was just a regular earthworm, until a power suit came falling from the sky and landed on top of him. In addition to granting him superhero-like powers, it also grants him the ability to do standard human things, like running, jumping, and standing upright. Without his suit, though, he’s pretty much just a standard worm. In addition to a small gun, Jim also has a Pocket Rocket, allowing him to zoom through space.
An evil intergalatic villain (and a worm’s worst enemy), Psy-Crow wants the power suit for himself, and chases Jim from planet to planet in hopes to steal it.
The object of affection so great that no one can even properly remember her name. Fashion-wise, she also has a bit of a bee motif going on.
Peter is Jim’s faithful companion. While he looks like a regular cute little puppy, if he’s pissed off, he’ll turn into a monstrous brute, Hulk-style.
Evil the Cat
He’s Evil! He’s a cat! He’s Evil the Cat, a scheming creature who rules the planet Heck.
Bob and No. 4
Bob is a fiendish goldfish with all kinds of evil plans. Unfortunately, he’s stuck in a fish bowl, so all of his orders are carried out by No. 4, his muscular feline companion.
There are many more characters – mostly villains – like Pedro Pupa and Doc Duodenum – who really aren’t terribly interesting. Most of the above characters have multiple appearances throughout the series, and star in the TV show.
The original Earthworm Jim games were published by Playmates Interactive, although after they went under, the license was passed around to other companies, including Interplay, Crave, and Majesco. Only the first two games were developed by Shiny, and the rest – Earthworm Jim 3D and Earthworm Jim: Menace 2 the Galaxy – have largely been credited as killing off the series. Interestingly, Playmates had a deal with Japanese publisher Takara. Playmates would publish their later Battle Arena Toshinden titles in North America, while Takara would publish Earthworm Jim in Japan. Alas, while the series caught on in its home territory, it was pretty much lost over in the East, where perhaps the sense of humor went over their heads.
Earthworm Jim runs on the same basic engine as other David Perry games, such as Global Gladiators, and Cool Spot. It’s designed almost specifically for smoothly animated characters and greatly expansive levels, so Earthworm Jim feels like an expansion of those previous games. Just like Aladdin, another Dave Perry game, all of the sprite were created by drawing artwork on cels, much like animated cartoons, then scanning them into a computer. This technique, dubbed Animotion, lend a unique quality to the sprite compared to the traditional pixel art methods. Since the characters consist of only a handful of colors, it manages to produce high quality sprites that look fantastic even on low palette consoles like the Genesis. Nearly all of Jim’s action are exaggerated, but if you hit the Pause button during pretty much any action, you can appreciate the amount of detail put into practically every frame. The backgrounds have a unique three dimensional look to them – there’s almost no flat surfaces, but rather, the ground twists and winds and slopes in ways that are drastically different from the 2D platformer norm. Everything looks and feels fluid, though like Perry’s other games, the fast movement can make the camera feel like it’s jerking too quickly when you change directions.
However, despite its graphical prowess, the mechanics are far from perfect. Despite all of the work that went into creating a fully fleshed out main character, Jim’s actions can feel a bit over-animated. His whip attack, for example, is too slow to hit most enemies, who generally move around pretty quickly. Jim can also use his head whip to swing on certain hooks, but the timing of this also seems a bit unnatural. Most of the time, you have to resort to using your gun, but that too is a bit awkward to use. Other than the few enhancements, Jim’s gun doesn’t actually fire any visible projectiles, making it hard to see what you’re actually trying to attack. And your field of fire is so limited that even the simplest of the enemies – like the crows in the first stage – can prove to be a hassle.
While the controls aren’t exactly perfect, Earthworm Jim excels because there’s more than just running, jumping, and shooting. A good chunk of the states are fairly straightforward, but there’s enough variety – the tube races, for example, or the level where you protect Peter Puppy – that keeps the action refreshing. It does tend to go overboard with the Andy Asteroids racing segments – there are half a dozen spread throughout the game, and they quickly grow tiresome.
The sound also deserves special attention. The effects, like the visual style, are all based off of old Warner Bros. cartoons, and the goofy, Texan-twanged voice of Earthworm Jim – provided by designer Doug TenNapel – add an extra bit of important personality. He also developed Jim’s catchphrase – “GROOVY!” – delivered after each stage with a mile-wide grin. The music is mostly provided by Tommy Tallarico, another collaborator on many of Dave Perry’s works. Like the levels themselves, there’s a huge amount of variety amongst the tunes, ranging from silly banjo chase music to awesomely rocking songs like New Junk City.
Earthworm Jim was initially released on the Genesis and Super Nintendo. The Super Nintendo version has generally has better graphics, with more defined colors and lots of extra special effects, and nearly all of the stages have an extra level of background scrolling. However, due to the system’s lower resolution, the screen view is slightly smaller, and everything is slightly fatter when viewed on a CRT television screen. The Genesis version isn’t quite as nice, as the backgrounds have a dithered look to them, but it still looks pretty excellent, plus it has one extra stage, Intestinal Distress. The explanation behind this was that the Genesis version was more easily compressed and had the room for the bonus level. Both versions also have different sound synth, and while the SNES version has better (and in some cases, different) digitized samples, the difference in the soundtrack is more a matter of taste.
A Special Edition was also released for the Sega CD and Windows 95 platforms, the latter of which was ported and published by Activision. This version includes some slightly expanded and redone levels, including an extra “Nude Jim” segment where Jim hops around outside his suit, as well as a completely new stage, the “Big Bruty” level. There’s a fun little pencil animation of Jim on the title screen, as well as a new level introduction that shows a small portrait of the boss. There’s also a new homing rocket weapon, with ammo placed throughout all of the existing levels. The Sega CD version has a password system, while the Windows version 95 lets you skip around to different stages with a proper cheat code. Both versions include some extra cheats, including the ability to equip Jim with an afro or a Groucho Marx mask, or turn him into a fat little stick figure. All of the music is redbook CD audio, all of which is fantastic. There are also a few goofy bonus tracks played at the ending – one, where you beat the game on the easy difficulty level and are treated to all sorts of made up facts regarding worms, and the other is a funny congratulatory message. The Windows 95 version has slightly better graphics that have been recolored, although since they’re still based off the original Genesis version, it’s not quite as good looking as the SNES rendition.
Earthworm Jim also received another PC port, this time running in DOS, as part of The Whole Can’o Worms package. This version has improved graphics over the Genesis version – it’s roughly on par with the Windows 95 port, but with smoother backgrounds – but it’s missing all of the content from the Special Edition, as well as the Intestinal Distress level, and the Chicken Plummets boss fight. It does, however, feature the same redbook audio soundtrack. If you put the CD in a CD player, you’ll notice how the same song repeats several times in the same track. Older CD-ROMs had problems where the action would pause momentarily once a track looped, which would disrupt the action. By looping the music several times within a track, it reduces this drastically. Modern CD-ROMs and operating systems don’t have problems with this though. This disc also includes a video clip of the opening to the cartoon show, as well as some pictures of various Earthworm Jim ction figures.
There was also a port to the Game Boy courtesy of Eurocom. Naturally, all of the visuals are completely lost, since everything is so tiny, and the control is a bit choppy. The biggest pain is due to the lack of buttons – if you hold the B button, you’ll fire your gun, but if you tap it, you’ll do a head whip. Naturally, this causes a lot of issues. It’s missing a bunch of levels too, including all of the Andy Asteroid stages. Earthworm Jim was also ported to the Game Gear by by Eurocom, and is essentially just a colorized port of their Game Boy game. However, it’s actually substantially worse, with dreadfully choppy gameplay that makes it completely impossible to play. There’s no background detail, at all. It was also published for the Sega Master System in Brazil by Tectoy, with a huge status bar taking up a chunk of the screen.
Earthworm Jim was also ported to the Game Boy Advance around the time of its launch. The tiny screen makes it difficult to navigate the expansive environments, the graphics look kinda bad, and the animation has taken a major hit. The entire game plays way choppier than it should. The graphics are based on the SNES port, tuned a bit brighter to be made visible on the GBA screen, but are missing a lot of its extra details, although it does feature the Intestinal Distress stage from the other versions. It also lacks a save or password system – annoying for a portable game – although there is a level skip function. It’s only barely playable, and should probably be avoided.
A PSP version was conceptualized but never came to fruition. However, in 2009, Gameloft released an HD remake for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. This was completely remade from the ground-up, included higher resolution sprites and backgrounds, and widescreen screen display. It looks fairly decent, though not without its problems – the number of animation frames is the same, and the improved quality of the sprites just highlights their jerkiness.
However, despite looking okay and playing pretty well, there are a number of other issues. For starters, all of the sound effects needed to be re-recorded, and none of them sound great. Jim’s new voice, in particular, is kinda off. More unfortunate is that all of the music was redone too, and it’s much worse than the CD audio version of the original game
For the most part, the levels are based on the Genesis version, with the Nude Jim sublevel from the Special Edition added, plus three new bonus levels. These feature Keyboard Cat, the popular meme video from the time, which fits along with the silliness of the game but definitely dates it. The “Who Turned Out the Lights” secret level is gone though, and none of the extra features from the Special Edition are present either. The speed of the Andy Asteroids level is off, too.
New Junk City
Earthworm Jim begins his adventure on a planet full of junk. After climbing over a rapid, frothing bulldog (the first of many), Jim is posed with a conundrum – there is a cow on the side of a seesaw, with a refrigerator hanging over it. Will Jim drop the fridge on the cow and send it hurtling into the stratosphere, or will spare the safety of the (frankly, rather paranoid-looking) bovine? Alas, it’s one of those “Will you save the princess? No? But thou must!” sort of dilemmas, and you aren’t allowed to continue until you do. You’ll get a jubilant “COW LAUNCHED” when you do it, and said cow can be seen flying through the background in several stages. The SNES version has a neat lens flare effect coming from the sun. The Special Editions include an expanded section near the end of the level where Jim has lost his suit, and needs to navigate a series of slides. There’s also an additional hidden area near the beginning of the stage.
A bonus stage of sorts, Jim whips out his Pocket Rocket and flies 3D style through a warp tunnel, collecting power orbs and dodging rocks. In the meantime, he’s also caught in a race with his nemesis Psy-Crow. If you beat him, you get to go to the next stage unharmed. If he wins, Jim begrudgingly engages in mano-a-mano combat. These are amusing at first, but there are several of these throughout the whole game, so they get old. Psy-Crow also gets more difficult to beat as you progress, which is also annoying. The SNES version alternates the colors of this stage between blue and red, but all of the other versions are just blue. The level is named after Andy Astor, one of the programmers.
What the Heck?
Earthworm Jim‘s version of Hell… err… Heck is not only a land of brimstone and flames, but elevator music and evil lawyers too. It’s amusing the way the soundtrack is split between “Night on Bald Mountain” by Modest Mussorgsky, before the record skips and turns into numbing banality, peppered with agonizing screams. At the end, you need to face off against Evil the Cat by whipping him nine times, each time sending one of his nine lives off to heaven (his angels are even numbered.) Most of the versions have a red hue applied to all of the sprites, although this is missing from the Windows 95 versions. The SNES version also has as a visible background when fighting Evil the Cat. The Special Edition has an expanded area before you fight the demonic snowman miniboss.
This level’s big gimmick is the titular Big Bruty (named after one of the artists, Nick Bruty), a gigantic lizard that will instantly chomp, chew, and swallow Jim if he gets close, killing him instantly. Most of the level revolves around luring him away from his post or causing him to trigger different traps. It’s actually a bit of a tedious level, especially considering how annoying it is to get Bruty to pick up your scent without getting munched. Also, the bugs in this level are pretty irritating, and the pea green background is a bit too reminiscent of New Junk City. This stage is only found in the Special Edition, but you’re not missing much if you skip it.
Down the Tubes
There are two segments in this stage. In the first, you run through tubes, and need to avoid the gigantic muscular cats that roam the hallways, who are invincibile and will pummel you if you get too close. There are also tiny little cats that pack a surprisingly wallop – to beat these, you need to locate the nearest gigantic hamster (??), free it from its cage, and use it to chomp through these miniature bullies. In the other segment, you climb into a bathosphere and need to navigate it through some narrow corridors. Not only are you running low on air, requiring that you position the globe at refill points, but if you hit too many walls, you’ll crack the glass and die. These parts are infuriating. The SNES version has an extra background layer that shimmers slightly. The Special Edition has an extra hidden Andy Asteroids level here.
Snot a Problem
In this level, you’re caught in a bungie jumping battle against Major Mucus. In three rounds, you need to keep bashing him into the wall, while avoid both his attacks and the slime monster located at the bottom of the stage.
In particularly Douglas Adams-esque twist, Level 5 is not actually the fifth level. It is, however, a gigantic lab run by the evil Professor-Monkey-for-a-Head. This stage includes a segment where Jim is seperated from his suit and needs to reclaim it, and another segment that takes place almost entirely in the dark.
For Pete’s Sake!
This stage introduces us to Peter Puppy, who skips along happily, unaware of the trouble that ensues around him. You need to protect him from meteors and other bad guys, and whip him across pits. If he takes damage, he flips out, morphs into a monster, and drags Jim back to an earlier segment, causing him to lose a bit of life in the process. Pretty rough! The SNES and Game Boy Advance versions have a darker version of this background that takes place at night.
A slightly gross stage that takes place in the intestines of some hugely grotesque creature. The boss is Doc Duodenum, a living incarnation of the slightly obscure human organ. The stage itself is constructed fine, but the theme isn’t really that interesting. The Special Edition version of this stage is tuned up a bit. This stage is missing completely from the SNES and PS DOS versions. It is present in the Game Boy Advance, although the layout has been changed, and the background tiles are so mangled that it’s incredibly confusing to navigate.
At least, you’ve saved the princess! And yet, just before Jim is about to finally reach her…the cow from way back on the first stage drops on her, causing her to fall in a pit of lava. Jim, a bit befuddled, looks at the screen and makes a quick exit. How hilariously bittersweet!