Earthworm Jim's Mean-Spirited Satire Doesn't Hold Up

Earthworm Jim first released on the Sega Genesis today in 1994. The strange side scroller married offbeat humour and experimental level design. The result was a hodgepodge of a game that was frustrating but engaging.

Developed by Shiny Entertainment, Earthworm Jim positions itself largely as a work of satire seeking to upend various side scrolling tropes of the time. It follows the titular character on a quest to save Princess What's-Her-Name. This calls the tired damsel trope by explicitly positioning the princess as an afterthought. Earthworm Jim is by no means progressive, but it reshuffles genre conventions to point out their absurdity. This recontextualizing fails more often than it succeeds, particularly in the raw game design.

Earthworm Jim's level design is a hostile jumble of platforms, spongy bosses, and unintuitive progression paths. The game is extremely vertical, asking players to weave strange movements throughout levels that are often hard to visualise. If Super Mario Bros is about reliably moving to the right, Earthworm Jim is about chaotically moving everywhere. The game's first stage, "New Junk City," is a maze of ziplines and difficult ledge grabs.

"What the Heck?"'s landscape is full of high walls that create frustrating dead ends. In spite of various movement options such as high jumps and the ability to use Jim's head as a whip to swing over gaps, Earthworm Jim is not fun to navigate. But the game still dared to reimagine spatial navigation with some benefits. Earthworm Jim's aren't well honed obstacle courses but they're still intriguing jungle-gyms.

What Earthworm Jim lacks in core mechanics, it makes up for in willingness to experiment. There is bungee-jumping combat against snot monsters, interstellar chase sequences, labyrinthine underwater mazes, and long descents down spike caverns using Jim's head as a propeller. The wild chase sequence "Andy Asteroids?" recalls the difficult speeder bike sequence from Battletoads' third level, while the laborious underwater travel in "Down the Tubes" calls to mind Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' notorious water dam. The variety is admirable and fits with the game's irreverent tone.

These levels are also frustrating, exaggerating the failures of prior games at the expense of the player. "Down the Tubes" might highlight how frustrating water levels are but it does this by forcing to player to endure a terrible water level. "Andy Asteroids?" punishes the player with a boss fight should they fail. In seeking to satirize bad platformer design, Earthworm Jim creates a game far worse than the source material.

Earthworm Jim is a game with a vision: be cruel. The game's irreverence backfires in the end, with Princess What's-Her-Name suddenly being crushed by a cow. It's a punchline that never quite lands. Earthworm Jim attempts to mock the conventions of the time, but what it attempts to satirise ultimately proves more resilient. Mario's still kicking, but, as the years pass, it even more clear that Earthworm Jim's dazzling experiment failed for good reason.


Comments

    I think this article misses a critical point about the ending. The princess wasn't just crushed by a cow, she was crushed by the cow you cruelly launched into space in the first game.

    Your direct actions causes the death of the character you strived to save.

    I loved this game, but I do recall getting weirdly stumped a few times due to the level design. As a young kid though I mostly had no idea what it was satirising; I just loved how bizarre and extremely varied the game was.

    I actually agree that the game had unfairly difficult design, yet I still find myself wanting to say 'git-gud' here because this article's stupid premise appears to rest on, "it's failed satire because it's too hard"?

    it even more clear that Earthworm Jim's dazzling experiment failed for good reason

    Wow... well I hope I too can one day have a series of successful, cult classic games Kotaku seems to deem "failures"! I hope...

    Last edited 03/08/17 1:44 pm

    Something made over 20 years ago doesn't hold up to your modern expectations? What a shock!

    Stop trollin Heather, you had a Genesis in your childhood, you know EWJ was fantastic in every respect!

    I really liked the game, though always dreaded the underwater section as a kid. Time limit + fragile vehicle + annoying controls = annoying section(s).

    Hey Kotaku, I've also written an article about an old retro game where I basically waffle on about how I don't understand it/its too hard and present my opinion not only as fact, but facts that seemingly other people agree with - can you publish it and pay me too?

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