Earthworm Jim HD
One minute Jim was a simple earthworm, doing the things that simple earthworms do. He spent his days digging, eating dirt, staying moist, and most importantly not getting caught on a concrete surface during a hot summer day; Jim was merely minding his own business, just trying to get by like the rest of us folk. That was until the intergalactic bounty hunter Psy-Crow accidently dumped the ‘Ultra-high-tech-indestructible-super-space-cyber-suit’ – Super Suit for short – into his lap.
To say Earthworm Jim had an absurd premise would be the largest understatement the universe has ever heard. Not only is Jim himself a preposterous concept for a hero but he’s surrounded by a cornucopia of demented, bizarre adversaries, highlighted by the Evil Queen Pulsating, Bloated, Festering, Sweaty, Pus-filled, Malformed, Slug-for-a-Butt, who has designs of using the Super Suit herself to rule the galaxy.
The problem with remaking Earthworm Jim today is gamers’ expectations are much different than those found during the 16-bit era; Jim barely has a story to speak of. There’s absolutely no context to let players know where they are, who they’re dealing with or why. Gameloft, developers of this new HD version, have made subtle attempts to flesh out the universe for new players with a brand new prologue comic and level descriptions, but the game still feels completely random. Earthworm Jim isn’t so much a product of its time as it is the product of someone’s mind. It’s literally filled wall to wall with so much absurd nonsense that no amount of shoehorned explanation could ever do it proper justice.
The other major hurdle for new initiates would likely have been the extreme difficulty of classic Earthworm Jim. To address this Gameloft has added three new difficulty levels, in addition to the option to play HD in its Original difficulty. In these new modes arrows have been peppered throughout, bosses now have health bars, attacks deal less damage and so on, but one of the fundamental issues of the original that inadvertently made it more difficult has not been resolved. Platforming in Earthworm Jim has always felt a bit dodgy because of the actual platforms that Jim deals with; it can often be difficult to differentiate what pieces of the level can actually be interacted with. Sometimes you’ll jump towards a ledge expecting Jim to grab it and he won’t, or worse yet you’ll clip a spike and die, having thought it was a background element and of no immediate danger. Jim’s jumps also feel quite different to those possessed by other classic characters. When making large jumps we’ve been trained to get a running start and jump at the last possible second, but more often than not that last possible second comes sooner in Earthworm Jim than it feels like it should.
As for the original difficulty setting, old school Jim players should have much less trouble vanquishing Queen Slug-for-a-Butt than they may remember. Two small but notable changes make the game significantly easier than it once was. When Jim picks up a Plasma blast he can now choose to stock it instead of firing it immediately. Since the Plasma blast can vaporize virtually any enemy in one hit, having them stocked reduces the tension of many potentially difficult sequences. The other huge difference is the reduced levels of inertia in the level ‘Down the Tubes’. The submarine sections of this stage are historically some of the most unforgiving, rage inducing moments in all of gaming. With the inertia tweaked I completed the entire level in a single life. Considering the recent trend of including true original modes in remakes – like The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition – it’s frankly disappointing Earthworm Jim HD is devoid of any such feature itself.
Since Earthworm Jim could be completed in as little as one hour, Gameloft obviously felt they needed to flesh out this version for consumers. HD adds an all new single player level, as well as a brand new multiplayer campaign for up to four players. While the new level is appropriately weird it doesn’t quite live up to the precedent created by original Jim mastermind, Doug TenNapel. Although each of TenNapel’s levels are strange they possess their own distinct feeling of place, while the new level feels arbitrary and random for the sake of being random. This misguided, uninspired design is punctuated by the most infuriatingly dull boss battle I’ve ever participated in.
The multiplayer similarly struggles to find its’ own identity. Although when played with a few friends it can be occasionally hilarious and fun in short bursts, the level design often feels lackadaisical. Rather than create all new assets for the multiplayer, Gameloft recycled existing assets from the single player to create a lengthy series of patchwork stages. Unsurprisingly a lot of the levels don’t translate well and little has been done in most stages to encourage teamwork, save for the occasional high-low route and locked door. It’s also disappointing that some of the more interesting levels weren’t even attempted in multiplayer, most notably ‘Snot a Problem’ and ‘For Pete’s Sake’, the latter of which drops Pete’s escort completely – the sole point of the level – when played with friends.
Earthworm Jim finds itself in an interesting predicament, sixteen years later there’s still nothing else like it on the market. HD, however, feels like a missed opportunity as it fails to genuinely improve many of the issues that plague the original experience. New players still won’t get it and old players will be disappointed by this version’s subtle differences. Earthworm Jim remains groovy, but his return should have been a whole lot more so.