“If worms carried pistols, birds wouldn’t eat ’em.”
Imagine if Doc Brown hit his head against his sink and instead of inventing a DeLorean capable of crossing temporal boundaries, he comes up with this idea about an earthworm endowed with a super suit and a plasma blaster who must fight his way past junkyard dogs, evil cats, lab experiments, cows, a space-faring, bounty hunting crow and a bungee-jumping booger, all to rescue a princess with a name nobody can ever seem to remember. That’d be awesome, right? Well, too bad, Doc Brown. Shiny Entertainment beat you to the punch.
Earthworm Jim (EWJ) is a side-scrolling platformer originally released for Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo (which I played it on). It became so successful that it became the forebear of a handful of sequels, rip offs, merchandising, various ports and, fifteen years later, an HD remake for the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade. Besides for hyperbolic gameplay, trendy tunes, action-hero awesomeness, bizarre humor and vivid visuals, EWJ is noted for its distinct presentation. It’s weirdness, in other terms. It’s something that has been oft imitated with varying degrees of success.
Games like Boogerman: a Pick and Flick Adventure come to mind as failed emulations that end up just being flat out gross with crap like “Professor Stinkbaum” and “Dimension X-Crement”. Dookie jokes, they’re only funny to 8-year-olds.
But Earthworm Jim, more so than even its own sequels, finds the perfect balance between all of the seemingly unrelated components of its setting, narrative and characters. Like, how in the world can cow launching, lawyers, asteroids and termites come together in the same context? How? It’s because a few of its elements are gross. Not all of them. A few of its elements are humorous. Not all of them. EWJ comes off as adolescent but not juvenile. It somehow maintains this balancing act without seeming like its trying too hard. There’s nothing funny about that. The game never feels like a junior higher trying to fit in by doing their hair like everyone else does or trying to wear the same clothes as the older kids. EWJ just comes off as “cool” instead. It’s essentially a parody of typical platformers of the time, never really meant to be parodied itself. It has certainly influenced many things since its appearance. The Nickelodeon cartoon Invader Zim seems like the obvious example.
My SNES instruction manual for the game includes a version of the comic strip above to explain the storyline. Jim was an ordinary earthworm until his fateful encounter with the ultra-high-tech-indestructible-super-space-cyber-suit. The suit vastly amplifies his powers, granting him super-strength and the ability to walk on two legs. It also comes with a nifty red plasma gun. But the suit was stolen by a renegade alien, who dropped it on Earth. However, it belongs to the Queen, from whom it was stolen, prompting her to say:
The nefarious (nefarious!) bounty hunter Psy-Crow wants to get it back, under the orders of the adjective-greedy Queen Puslating, Bloated, Festering, Sweaty, Pus-filled, Malformed, Slug for a Butt. Yes, that’s her actual name. The Queen knows that the suit will make her even more beautiful than her imprisoned twin sister, Princess-What’s-Her-Name. Jim must save the princess before Psy-Crow finds him and takes back the super-suit.
The first stage is New Junk City, a sprawling trash heap littered with mountains of tires
and toilet bowl warp-zones guarded fiercely by angry crows and rabid dogs. Jim will need to take down Chuck, a junkyard master seriously in need of some Tums. Between each of these levels, Jim will need to race Psy-Crow while navigating through the Andy Asteroids on his pocket-rocket (uh huh).
After that, Jim enters the heated world of stage two: What The Heck?! It’s probably supposed to be Hell. It is, after all, presided over by Evil the Cat, who was born with no heart, who filled Heck with snowmen, elevator music, and corporate lawyers. Litigation!
Stage three, called Down the Tubes, occurs on some kind of water world (La Planeta de Agua, arriba!, if you watched the animated series). Here in this liquid lair, Bob the Goldfish, covets the super-suit and has sent forth an army of cat drones to stop Jim in his tracks. Jim must commandeer (borrow) several glass-domed submersibles to make his way through this oceanic maze.
Ah, level four: Snot a Problem. This will be one of the most unique levels you’ve ever seen in any side-scroller. Jim is inexplicably bungee-jumping down a vertical chasm above a pit of what appears to be phelgm with a monster swimming in it and he must stave off the assault of his assailant: Major Mucus, a buzz-cutted baddie who tries to bash you into the sides of the walls and sever your bungee cord.
Level five, known as Level 5, is the laboraty of the designer of Jim’s super-suit, the inscrutable Professor Monkey-for-a-Head. Besides for his musings on existentialism (is he sharing the monkey’s head or is the monkey sharing his?), the Professor has concocted elaborate deathtraps and mutant experiments, even a Cluck-o-matic, to get that super-suit back. Everybody wants that thing!
The exceptionally canny segmented worm can unlock the game’s secret level in Level 5: Who Turned Out The Lights? It’s dark in there. The Professor probably ran out of funds and couldn’t pay the electric bill, shunting all of his moneys into devices built to stop Earthworm Jim.
For Pete’s Sake! The sixth stage finds Jim in the dogstar system escorting his sidekick, Peter Puppy, home to his dog house. If you think this is just like walking the dog, forget it. Miniature UFOs, freak meteor showers, and the Unipus (a one-armed octopus, of course) are all out to get you and your little dog too. Careful, because if Peter is harmed in any way then he’ll transform into a hideous, vicious monster and tear Jim a new one, whatever that “one” might be for earthworms. Truly brave invertebrates can opt to skip over Peter’s doghouse and attempt an extremely difficult course that will land Peter in a posh dog-castle. Good luck.
Players who preferred inferior graphics and music were treated to an exclusive level on the Sega systems: Intestinal Distress. Apparently, it was omitted from the SNES version because of Nintendo’s “prudish” policy against blood and gore. I’ve never played through Intestinal Distress, but it really can’t be that bad, considering the cartoonish lightheartedness and bloodlessness of the rest of the game’s stages. Sega Jim must overcome Doc Duodenum in order to bypass this gastric disaster.
Finally, Buttville. The last level.
Lightning illuminates miles of deadly spikes. Spikes, everywhere. The first section of the stage, Use Your Head, demands you do just that. Jim can spin the top of his wormy head around like a little, fleshy helicopter in order to slow his descent down the gullet of spikes. Traverse this dangerous land and Jim will ultimately face off against the dam of derriere’s herself, Queen Slug for a Butt, taking aim at her with his trusty plasma gun from the vantage point of an orbiting satellite of snot.
Defeat her and Princess What’s-Her-Name is all yours, you dog! Well, until a certain… bovine altercation occurs. But congratulations, irregardless. You still got to play one of the funnest and funniest platformers of the 16-bit era.
The 8-Bit Review
Earthworm Jim has some of the smoothest animated sprites of the 16-bit systems. They’re extremely cartoony and exaggerated, and they capture a Disney-esque sense of stretchy-ness. There are tons of little quirky behaviors in many of the game’s character animations, especially in Jim himself. He’s got a bunch of idle animations. Watching him dangle from a ledge and then randomly scratch his behind is pretty hilarious. Whipping out his plasma gun or using his own head as a whip are all very fluid sequences as well. Beyond just the characters, the never tiled backgrounds are all intricate, colorful and luminous. The SNES version added multiple graphical improvements, such as the lens flaring off the sun in New Junk City. It’s easily one of the best looking platformers from its time.
Side by side comparison: Genesis on the left, SNES on the right.
The SNES version had the better music, with multiple layers playing simultaneously during a track as opposed to the less stereo sound on the Sega Genesis, but the SNES lacked some sound effects present on the Sega release. EWJ’s soundtrack is diverse. There are the rock tracks typical of action games with their catchy rhythms, but these are interspersed with some funk, blue grass, rag time, elevator jazz, and marching band jangles (no disco, that’s groovy). The slap-bass is especially heavy here and it’s just lovely. The rock tracks are so purposefully over the top they highlight the ridiculous action on screen. I challenge you to find a better platformer OST. Oh yeah, and extremely energetic voices from Jim yelling “Ow”, “Yippee” and “Groovy”. Great sound effects.
Below is the track for Level 5, first the SNES and then the Sega version.
Earthworm Jim is indeed a platformer but it is so much more than just jumping from place to place. This ain’t your grandaddy’s Super Mario Bros. Jim has plenty of tricks up his super-suited, cybernetic sleeve. He, of course, has his trusty red gun which has two different rates of fire. Blasting away your enemies with autofire is incredibly satisfying. He can also use his head as a whip, lashing onto hooks to swing across gaps or to hurt his foes. He’s got the ability to slow his descent by spinning his head, too. He can use his pocket-rocket (yup) to traverse through space, mixing up the level design and breaking up the pace of the game. None of these elements are tough to learn. EWJ’s gameplay was praised as “innovative” in its time. Though it may seem hard to see just how innovative it was over two decades later, just playing the game for yourself will really make you see how so many components come together to make something that’s just so endearing to sit down and enjoy.
Hey, look! It’s a platformer with a story! Ok, sure, it’s not an incredibly involved Shakespearean sonnet or anything, but at least it’s there to place all of its characters. Most of them, at least. Because EWJ is a parody of similar games with their throwaway damsels in distress and their macho heroes with gritted teeth, the narrative isn’t particularly important in its details. However, what puts EWJ a head above the rest is that those details happen to be hysterical. I remember walking out of the game store where I purchased this game as a boy and falling in love with it just by reading about its characters in the manual, before I’d ever even played the actual game. Like, Professor Monkey-for-a-Head? That was worldview shattering.
Secret areas, multiple difficulty modes and stages that will put your timing to the test, Earthworm Jim has enough brutality to earn the title “Challenging”. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever beaten it on Hard mode. Heck, I don’t think I’ve even gotten past the first level on Hard mode!
I rated gave EWJ an above average score for replay value because it is such an exceptional platformer. I’ve found myself returning to it every few years to relive its bizarre stages and survive its weirdness. Why do people come back to Super Mario or Sonic platformers after so many years have gone by? Probably for very much the same reasons why I return to Earthworm Jim. It’s the genre at its peak.
Is there really anything quite like it? Not even Earthworm Jim 2 is anything like Earthworm Jim, the real OG. And let’s not even mention Earthworm Jim 3D. These games are just a soup of every recycled joke ripped from the original. Sure, they’re weird but it’s a weirdness that misses its mark, like it’s bizarre just for bizarreness’ sake. It’s like the sequels were trying so hard to establish new catchphrases for pop culture but they never caught on. The original EWJ harnesses its originality for interesting level design and innovative gameplay. It’s as if the developers felt like they were finally free to cut loose and get as creative as humanly possible. Actually, that’s exactly what happened. So, again, can you find a platformer quite like it?
My Personal Grade: 9/10
You can probably tell that this is one of my favorite games. Indeed it is one of my favorite platformers on the SNES next to Super Mario World. I remember that it was a game that teenagers were playing and that pre-teens were playing. It’s stylish. It’s humorous. It’s cool. It’s hyperbolic. It’s never dull. I’m looking forward to someday finally getting my hands on Earthworm Jim HD and running about with our invertebrate hero once again. But for now, I’m glad I still have my trusty SNES cartridge. Yipee!
Aggregated Score: 7.9