With the positive reception the first Earthworm Jim had on its original release, a sequel was inevitable. But how do you follow something as chaotic and irreverent as Earthworm Jim?
The obvious answer, of course, is to make it even more chaotic and irreverent, so that’s exactly what Jim’s original creators Doug TenNapel, Dave Perry and Shiny Entertainment did with the follow-up. The result is very much a game that feels like it’s throwing absolutely everything at the wall in order to see what sticks… for better or worse.
Earthworm Jim 2 is often described as a “run and gun platformer”, but this isn’t really accurate. While the game does indeed start in a similar side-scrolling fashion to the previous game, Earthworm Jim 2’s primarily defining characteristic is the fact that it shakes things up completely with every passing level.
The run and gun of the first level is followed by a stage in which you have to “dig” through the dirt using Jim’s weapon. While it resembles the gameplay of the first level, the execution is much more puzzle-like — and the fact you’re against the clock adds a significant amount of pressure that wasn’t there on that initial stage. The stage also features some impressive real-time terrain deformation; this is something we still don’t see all that often in today’s games, whether they’re 2D or 3D, so to see it implemented so effectively in a 16-bit console game provides further evidence that if nothing else, the Earthworm Jim games are astonishing showcases of what the Sega Mega Drive and the Super NES are capable of in the right hands.
In the infuriating (but visually arresting) third level, you’re bouncing puppies on a cushion in order to drop them into a funnel, with the eventual aim of bouncing a bomb into that same funnel to defeat the enemy hurling the puppies at you. In the fourth, Jim inexplicably disguises himself as a blind, flying cave salamander and floats gracefully through the intestines of an unspecified creature as a surprisingly haunting electric piano rendition of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata plays in the background — and as he attempts to avoid sharp pencils and pinball bumpers. The stage ends with a quiz show in which the answers are completely nonsensical, followed by a game of Simon using coloured pinball bumpers.
While there’s a certain amount of joy to be drawn from Earthworm Jim 2’s absolutely chaotic progression of seemingly completely unrelated levels, ultimately this does leave the experience as a whole feeling extremely disjointed. Rarely a moment will pass by where you won’t be asking “why am I doing this?” — whether “this” at the time is carrying pigs from a mud trough to a wooden platform, or riding Jim’s iconic “Pocket Rocket” in order to escort a bomb hanging from a hot air balloon while attempting to avoid what appear to be naked cavemen catapulting themselves at him.
In other words, one could argue that Earthworm Jim 2 is trying a bit too hard; at times it feels like the video game equivalent of the class clown, deliberately humiliating themselves in a variety of different ways in the hope that the people laughing at them will naturally transition into laughing with them at some point. On the other hand, there’s an argument to be made that with Earthworm Jim 2’s clear separation between levels, the experience as whole is best treated more like a series of one-off cartoon episodes; no-one ever complained about Tom and Jerry’s lack of narrative coherence, after all.
It’s kind of hard to think of it in that way, though; conventions of game design over the years have conditioned us to think of character-centric video games as single experiences that gradually take us on a journey from start to finish, at the very least implying some sort of narrative even if none is stated explicitly. In Earthworm Jim 2’s case, though, the aesthetic, tonal and mechanical shifts from level to level are so vast that it often leaves one feeling like they’re playing a collection of minigames rather than a single coherent experience.
The main issue is the lack of context. Jim shows up on each level with no preamble or setup, and you’re often given an objective to complete with no explanation. “Use the bomb”, one level says, without there being anything that looks even a little bit like a bomb anywhere on screen. Moments later, puppies are flying out of a window and you’re dealing with questionable collision detection as you attempt to bounce them safely to their destination. “You have 90 seconds”, says another level. “90 seconds to do what?” you will quite understandably ask, but no answer will be forthcoming. “Take the bomb with you”, demands another level, moments after you sail right past said bomb’s starting point and immediately get set upon by cannon fire from sailing ships, flying saucers full of snot and the aforementioned naked cavemen.
None of it makes sense, and while this bold approach to in-your-face “humour with attitude” worked well for mid-’90s audiences, it’s harder to latch on to from a 21st century perspective. The trouble is that the game as a whole doesn’t really feel like it’s trying to say anything beyond “look how zany we are” — and as anyone who has ever attempted to hang out with that guy from Accounts who wears Christmas jumpers in July and owns three vuvuzelas will tell you, that’s no basis for a meaningful long-term relationship.
All this might sound like I’m being a bit hard on Earthworm Jim 2 and I probably am; both games were widely praised at the time of their original release, after all. And I will say that all of the above isn’t to suggest Earthworm Jim 2 isn’t worth playing; if nothing else, it remains an absolute technical marvel of the 16-bit era thanks to its astonishing animation, excellent music and extensive use of digitised sound. On top of that, it’s certainly a memorable experience if you’ve never explored it before — and an interesting case study on game design for those interested in digging deeper into how and why some games just feel like they “work” better than others.
Earthworm Jim 2 is a fascinating piece of game history, then. From the perspective of a 21st century audience, it’s hard to latch on to and truly enjoy in the same way a player in the mid ’90s would have — but it’s definitely an experience worth having at least once. In a world of increasingly focus-grouped, play-it-safe blockbuster games, it’s refreshing to revisit a time when creators were left free to go absolutely wild with their creations — however chaotic, incoherent and nonsensical the result might have ended up being.
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