Earthworm Jim: A Groovy History

With the arrival of Earthworm Jim 2 for the Nintendo Switch Online, I thought it would be fun to take a look back on the wacky game franchise, in all its beloved, flash-in-the-pan, ’90s glory!

Earthworm Jim was created in 1994 by Doug TenNapel during his tenure at Shiny Entertainment. Doug was an animator who had worked on things like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes: TAS, and video games like Jurassic Park and The Jungle Book. It was intended to start another toy & media empire, much like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Sonic the Hedgehog, and the influences are pretty evident.

The game was released for the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, before being ported to other consoles, and was met with critical and financial success. The player controls Jim, a regular earthworm who was granted intelligence by a super-suit that fell upon him. He then controls the suit and is able to run, jump, and traverse the galaxy to battle the forces of evil, including iconic villains like Bob the Killer Goldfish, Psy-Crow, and Queen Slug for a Butt. Jim could shoot with his plasma blaster, whip enemies and swing around using his own head, and blast through the universe on his pocket rocket. Yes, his pocket rocket. A literal rocket he pulled from his pocket and rode upon. Audiences appreciated the off-the-wall characters, fluid animation, irreverent humor, and the unique & enjoyable gameplay.

The game found success, and the Earthworm Jim empire was off to the races!

Soon came, not the second game, but instead the cartoon! It premiered on Kids’ WB! in September of 1995, featuring many of the characters from the game. It expanded some side characters like Peter Puppy (a small anthropomorphic dog who turns into a hulking monster when it gets scared) and Princess What’s-Her-Name (who only briefly appeared at the end of Earthworm Jim, only to get crushed by a cow, much to Jim’s dismay) into larger roles in their battle against Queen Slug for a Butt.

Much like the game, the show had its own style, a subversive sense of humor, and wasn’t afraid to get weird. Though it was well-received (including by a 9-year-old Aaron), the show lasted only two seasons before ending.

But before it ended, though – in fact not long after it premiered – the second game arrived on the scene!

Earthworm Jim 2 (which you can now enjoy through Nintendo Switch Online) continued the pattern set by the first game. Kooky levels, hilarious enemies, slapstick, gross-out, stylized violence, and just generally, off-the-wall. The gameplay varied between your traditional run-and-gun platforming, isometric escort missions, puppy bouncing (it makes sense in-game…sort), and more! They added new weapons and abilities, and though I prefer the first game, personally, the second was generally more well-received by critics and was a worthy successor to the first.

This game does have one of my all-time favorite levels: “Villi People” aka Jim’s Now a Blind Cave Salamander!

Classic. Real Ninja Turtles water level vibes going on.

And then…it all came crashing down.

It’s difficult to say why, but Earthworm Jim lost its mass appeal almost as quickly as it exploded onto the scene. The show was canceled, a third game was moved away from the original development team and delayed, and all momentum seemed to dissipate.

Free pager, baby!

It wasn’t for another four years that Earthworm Jim 3D was released exclusively for the Nintendo 64, and the reception was lukewarm, at best. The game was developed by a new group, VIS Entertainment, and the original creators were no longer involved.

The plot revolved around Jim falling into a coma and having to fight his way through his own head into order to revive himself so he doesn’t fall into an even deeper coma, forever. It seems unnecessary for them to have him in a coma, because the world of Earthworm Jim is so wild in the first place, any opportunities for the game to get crazy by Jim being in his own head are redundant. Want to make Jim into a dishwasher who has to tickle a slug’s sentient barnacle? You could just do that, you don’t have to make Jim be in his own head. What is the point? But I digress.

Like so many 2D platformers moving into the third dimension, the game suffered from camera problems, which was most reviewers’ main complaint with the game. A second joystick to control the camera was still several years off, and the N64 never got one.

But in my humble opinion, the biggest hurdle the game faced was that the translation into 3D lost Earthworm Jim a lot of that smooth style and slick animation that the games had in the 2D iterations. Instead of crisp lines and fluid movements, there were hard polygons and dropped frames. When you look at Earthworm Jim 3D, it just doesn’t feel like the previous games. They were unable to keep the same tone, and besides the animation being hindered, a big part of that is, undoubtedly, because they didn’t retain the same team that did the first two. But that’s just my own opinion.

Quickly after Earthworm Jim 3D was released, a Game Boy Color Earthworm Jim came out: Earthworm Jim – Menace 2 the Galaxy. It made no lasting impact, having little of the charm and humor that made the first two games memorable. And with the Game Boy’s limitations, the game simply was a dud.

And, surprisingly, for a long time that was all she wrote for Earthworm Jim. The character exploded onto the scene in 1994, was huge for two years, then went out with a wet fart worthy of Queen Slug For a Butt.

Since Menace 2 the Galaxy came out, a fourth game was announced in 2008, the first game was re-released in HD, Doug TenNapel crowdfunded a comic and is working on a second, and a fourth game was announced again for the upcoming Intellivision Amico gaming system with a lot of the original crew involved. But, for more than two decades, Earthworm Jim has been all but dead and buried.

I, personally, hope that they do make a new game with the original crew. The first two games were unique, funny, and had enjoyable gameplay. I’m not sure what they could do to make it stand out in this day and age, but I’m hopeful that Earthworm Jim could enjoy a true revival. While he was never the biggest star, Earthworm Jim certainly left his mark. And that, my friends, is pretty groovy.

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