Retro Scope: Earthworm Jim

An examination of everyone’s favorite video game decomposer!

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 08/29/2014 12:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

Earthworm Jim was the end result of 45-minutes worth of work listening to Fleetwood Mac. That’s according to series creator Doug TenNapel, who created Jim in 1993 after a rough patch with Virgin Games. TenNapel was looking to get a job with Shiny Entertainment as an animator, and came up with Jim to use as a stand-in for a mockup demonstration piece. Little did he know that the company would take to his creation with such enthusiasm, as Shiny loved Earthworm Jim and wanted to use him as-is. Thus was born the world’s toughest anthropomorphic earthworm and one of the more unusual series in video games!

Part of Shiny’s reason for being so keen on Jim was that Playmates Interactive Entertainment was looking to find a compelling video game mascot to turn into a multimedia empire. Playmates had been engaged in a lucrative arrangement to produce Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys, but wanted to have its own franchise to utilize. It had singled out Shiny as the studio best equipped to come up with such a character, and when TenNapel showed up with Earthworm Jim, Shiny in turn knew it had found its man. From there, developing the actual game was the next step, which was made easier by TenNapel’s great enemy designs. Characters like Psy-Crow, Major Mucus, and Peter Puppy were also brainstormed in those fabled 45-minutes when Jim came to life, so the team’s primary goal was to focus on story and gameplay.

The premise for Earthworm Jim was fittingly bizarre; Jim was an ordinary worm who stumbled across an alien space suit that grants superpowers to its wearer. Donning the suit, he unwittingly drew the ire of the villainous Psy-Crow, who had wanted the suit for himself and would stop at nothing to get it back. In order to lure Jim, Psy-Crow took hostage the love of the worm’s life, Princess What’s-Her-Name. The zany story and colorful cast were a perfect match, and frankly a true product of the times. The 90s was an era of excess, and Jim was as over the top and boisterous as it got.

For those who played Earthworm Jim on SNES (and Sega Genesis), one of the most memorable things about the game was its incredible animation and graphics. Earthworm Jim was a visual feast, which was in no small part due to the incredible effort put into its creation. Much of what appeared on screen was actually hand drawn and scanned into the computer, resulting in finer visuals than simple digital rendering would have yielded. Earthworm Jim was a truly psychedelic video game experience, as the environments were colorful, twisting, and in many cases organic looking, abandoning any rhyme or reason for pure spectacle. Shiny took a leap making a deliberately abstract game like Earthworm Jim, and it paid off for everyone. If nothing else, anyone who played it never looked at cows the same way again.

In terms of gameplay, Earthworm Jim was primarily a 2D run-and-gun platformer, though there were also different play mechanics wedged in throughout to keep things interesting. The action was primarily Jim running, jumping, shooting, and using his worm body as a whip/swing. The game controlled solidly, and combat was fun and responsive. The interspersed gameplay deviations were also well done, like the times Jim had to escort the character Peter Puppy across a stage; if Peter got hurt, he transformed into an enormous, purple rage beast and wreaked havoc! Lots of games try to spice things up with arbitrary races/puzzles/etc., but Earthworm Jim was one of the few that excelled at it. This harmony was a big part of what made Earthworm Jim so compelling to gamers.

Before we go, it’s also worth noting that Earthworm Jim was made into a cartoon series that lasted from 1995 to 1996. It was an interesting adaptation of the source material and also yielded some cool action figures (that might make their way to a Nintendojo Toy Box, one day!), manufactured by Playmates, naturally. The mascot character has been experiencing something of a renaissance with games like Shovel Knight hitting the scene (and Mighty No.9 on the horizon), so maybe Jim can make his way back to gamers again, someday. As it stands, his first foray remains a fun and creative platformer.

Special thanks to Retro Gamer for their insightful article on Earthworm Jim!

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