Celebrating Earthworm Jim: The Best Hero Underfoot
When we talk about strange games, they’re often duds to say the least. There have certainly been projects throughout video game history where the bizarre and grotesque imagery found in games didn’t actually equate to how fun (or not) the game was. That said, there have been quite a few games of this nature that blended the bizarre with a splendid balance of gameplay mechanics and entertainment. Perhaps one of the most iconic of these times of games and certainly representative of their place in the early ‘90s during the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo era was Earthworm Jim. It was today in 1994 that we were first introduced to the mighty escapades of the space-faring invertebrate.
Earthworm Jim’s conception is actually directly related to the success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise around the same time. Playmates Toys had owned the license to produce toys for the franchise and seeing how well it did, Playmates sought a way to capitalize on a franchise of their own making. Debating on which medium to roll their new product out on first, it was eventually the popularity of Sonic the Hedgehog that would convince Playmates to try their hand at video games. At the time, video game studio Shiny Entertainment was in a distribution deal with Playmates and when original Earthworm Jim creator Douglas TenNapel presented an early sketch of the character to Shiny creative head David Perry, they had the start of their new franchise.
TenNapel is credited with the conception of Jim as well as the voice work of the character and the game and level designs. Meanwhile, Perry and the rest of the Shiny team created characters and mechanics around TenNapel’s framework. The bizarre look and play of the game comes from the freedom the team had during creation. Shiny Entertainment had previously only been involved in licensed projects from the likes of 7-Up and McDonald's, who had strict guidelines about what could appear in their products. With no creative restraint, Perry’s team stretched their legs, explored the space and flipped a cow or two. Earthworm Jim wasn’t just meant to be grotesque. It was meant to be a parody of many standards in video games perceived by the folks at Shiny. It’s why you get characters like “Princess What’s-Her-Name”, who was a shot at the overused damsels in distress that littered other games.
Of course Jim is hardly a hero of legend either. The story goes that Jim was just a regular earthworm minding his own business when a super suit falls out of the sky. Jim finds he can control it and uses his body as the neck and head of the suit, which supply his arms and legs. Jim then goes off on a journey, mostly to keep the suit and defeat the jerks who want to take it from him. He also wants to use the suit to save and gain the affections of Princess What’s-Her-Name. Along the way, he runs into a rogues' gallery of bizarre villains, not the least of which are Psy-Crow, Evil the Cat, and Bob the Killer Goldfish.
Earthworm Jim’s gameplay hosted a bevy of content. There normal platforming and shooting levels in which Jim’s head was used as a whip to swing across rough terrain, but tons of missions featured extra content or bonus levels in between, such as racing against Psy-Crow from planet to planet and using a glass bathysphere to traverse an underwater maze. One of the most iconic mechanics came from escorting Jim’s friend, Peter Puppy, safely across levels by defeating enemies and whipping Peter to get him to jump gaps. Letting him take damage or fall resulted in him turning into a rabid monster and beating the tar out of Jim.
Earthworm Jim was unique enough to do exactly what Playmates wanted it to do. It became one of the more iconic games of the Sega Genesis and would be ported onto multiple platforms. Furthermore, the game spawned several sequels, toys, and a comic book and TV series. Fifteen years after its original release, it got a high-definition remake on PS3 and Xbox 360. It’s easy to write off a lot of bizarre and grotesque games that have littered the bargain bins of video game stores across decades, but there’s no writing off the illustrious adventures of Earthworm Jim.