The early 90s was a strange time to be in or around the UK. Rave music dominated the increasingly popular club scene, recreational drugs flooded the mainstream, and life whizzed by in one relentless, whistle-blowing, glow stick toting, ecstasy-driven fluorescent blur. Or at least so I’m told; I was too young to really remember it and certainly too young to experience any of the above. Alas, I digress.
But i digress for a reason. Because as a youngster growing up in the 90s, I often admired the many great protagonists of which my esteemed 8 and 16-bit game collection comprised; but I also pondered where the inspiration for some of these nothing short of bizarre characters was drawn. For instance, take Sonic, the lightening paced blue hedgehog, committed animal savior and gold ring pervert. Where the hell does an idea like that come from? Or what about Kirby, the morbidly obese, pink cannibalistic ball of fluff with the dodgy red shoes? Need we discuss the duo of extra-terrestrial rappers which was Toejam and Earl? You get the picture. I tend to live in the happy assumption that the developing recreational drug culture of the early 90s lent at least some influence to these – let’s put it politely – ‘outlandish’ character choices, all of which leads me nicely to our hero of the day; enter everyone’s favorite earthworm trapped inside a human super-suit: Earthworm Jim (the plot thickens).
Back in 1994 2D platformers were the height of fashion and found regular success by satisfying a tried and tested formula; hero X embarked on an unlikely journey to location Y, in order to rescue the forlorn princess Z. It worked, but it was predictable. Earthworm Jim arrived almost solely to poke fun at it all; a satirical swipe at the generic side-scrollers of the day. With levels named ‘Snot a Problem’ (which sees Jim battle a ball of snot whilst bungee jumping over a river of the same) and ‘Intestinal Distress’, and antagonists such as Queen Slug-for-a-butt and Professor Monkey-for-a-head, the game made clear that its tongue was placed firmly in its cheek. The heroine-held-hostage of the story, who is the drive of Jim’s adventures, is aptly named Princess Whats-Her-Name, an obvious pop at the objective female characters of so many games gone before.
Earthworm Jim begins with little backstory. A super-human suit appears, Jim hops inside and then sets off on a quest to save his beloved Whats-her-name. The muscle-bound spacesuit is controlled by Jim, allowing him to run-and-gun and also use himself as whip against enemies or as a grappling hook whilst traversing each level. With the cool demeanor of a superhero and the dialect of a 70s pimp, Jim proves a force to be reckoned with, all the while pronouncing everything ‘groooovy!’
Due to the fact that Earthworm Jim was so obviously light hearted, it made the whole experience a lot more entertaining than some of the more mundane entries available at the time. As a result of such whimsicality, few questions where raised over the lack of continuity between levels; why the inclusion of giant hamsters was relevant in the bathysphere levels; where cousin Pete the pink dog came from, and why we had to escort him to the end of the level having received no mention of him prior to his introduction; *spoiler* why upon finally reaching the Princess, does the cow from level 1 (that’s right, the cow) fall from the sky in a Monty Python’s Flying Circus-esque gag, crushing her, but not killing her; and why does Jim not try to then save her, having spent the entire game supposedly attempting to do so, instead stealing her crown and watching her fall from a crumbling ledge to her demise?
Bizarre. But successful, as the well received Earthworm Jim collected accolades such as ‘Best Genesis Game of 1994’ from Electronic Gaming Monthly. Like I said earlier, games didn’t seem to make sense in this era, but Earthworm Jim strived to be far more eccentric than the rest of the pack. Jim’s humor is what keeps the game ticking with zany quips well able to entertain both parent and child, similar to that of shows such as The Simpsons or South Park. As subversive? Probably not, but a bloody good laugh none the less.
Of course, Jim’s adventures went on to become popular with toy stores, clothes shops, lunch boxes and more following his video game stardom. Back on the gaming side of things, Earthworm Jim was remade in HD in 2010 for Xbox Live and PSN and is also available on Nintendo’s Virtual Console and a variety of mobile devices.