Though not quite on the level of universal popularity, Doug TenNapel is regarded as one of the most influential cartoonists of the modern age. While he has a wide range of creations, such as the Nickelodeon cartoon Catscratch and the computer adventure game The Neverhood as well as its’ side-scrolling platforming follow-up Skullmonkeys, his most recognizable one would most certainly have to be none other than Earthworm Jim.
Developed by Shiny Entertainment and published by Playmates Interactive in the US and Virgin Interactive in Europe and released in 1994 for the Genesis, the SNES, the Game Boy, the Game Gear, and the Master System, with ports for the GBA, Sega CD, and PC quickly following as well as a sequel, two spin-offs, and a television series, the game’s ridiculously surreal plot revolves around an earthworm named Jim, who embarks on an epic quest to save the aptly-named Princess-What’s-Her-Name, while also preventing the grotesque Queen Slug-For-A-Butt’s hostile takeover of the universe. Does the earthworm’s debut still hold up after all these years, or was his popularity nothing more than a spur-of-the-moment trend? Let’s find out, shall we?
THE LOOKS – If there’s one thing that everyone can pretty much agree on, it’s that this game just looks BEAUTIFUL. Starting off with the character sprites, they have a short of Tex Avery/Bob Clampett look to them (heck, Tex Avery himself is mentioned in the games’ credits), something that is most definitely clear-cut in their varied, interesting, wonderfully bizarre, and in some cases grotesque designs and their smooth and even impressive animations. On the other hand, you have the wonderfully varied and detailed backgrounds of the levels, from the green-skied New Junk City, the fiery pits of Heck, and a group of connected underwater tubes, all coming together to give the game a rather unique atmosphere to it that no other 16-bit game before it had – not even Sonic!
THE SOUND – Helping to add to the game’s unique atmosphere is the music. Composed by musician Tommy Tallarico, each track truly brings each stage to life, whether it be the ironically soothing elevator music for Heck, the fast-paced banjo music for the Andy Asteroids segments, or the bass-heavy New Junk City. The sound effects are also some of the most top-notch I’ve ever heard in ANY 16-bit game, as they truly give off the feeling as if you’re playing an actual cartoon. Though the Sega CD version (or as it’s officially referred to, the Special Edition) is technically better, I’d say that the Genesis version of the soundtrack is the second-best, with the SNES in third place.
THE GAMEPLAY – On paper, the gameplay doesn’t exactly bring anything new to the table, being your typical side-scrolling run and gun a la Mega Man/Contra. However, what really matters is how they pulled it off, and my lord did they do it spectacularly. Starting off with the level design, it’s what truly sets it apart from other run and gun games before it. Not only does it compensate the style, but it also adds in mechanics and set pieces appropriate to each stage. A great example of this would be in New Junk City, where you have to bounce on rubber tires in order to get to a higher place. As for the controls, they’re tight and responsive, making the stages and the wide variety of guns and blasters fun to navigate through and use. However, there’s one little elephant in the room that must be addressed, and that is the difficulty. A lot of people tend to criticize the game for it, but honestly, I don’t think that it’s as brutally impossible as some claim. Unlike games like Bubsy and The Lion King, the difficulty doesn’t really frustrate me as much as it motivates me to see where and what I did wrong so I can master each stage. In short, think of it as a “trial and error” short of thing.
THE BOTTOM LINE – Earthworm Jim is one of the greatest games of the entire 16-bit era, with a goofy and amusing sense of humor, addictive gameplay, and an incredible soundtrack. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s itching for something truly out of the box in almost every way imaginable.
THE RETR0PIA RATING – 9/10