The Earthworm known as Jim started out as a product of that wonderful, demented time known as gaming in the 90s. He first hit the Genesis console in 1994 thanks to Shiny Entertainment and was the epitome of an era when the big thing in platformers was some kind of animal mascot With Attitude. In this case, the mascot was a humble worm that gained access to a cybernetic suit, and the attitude was one of defiance with a distinct hick flair and some of the most bizarre levels put to code. 15 years later, the worm is back, but, as with many games from yesteryear, it’s starting to show its age.
The original Earthworm Jim, like many games of the 80s and 90s had just the barest thread of narrative to keep the proceedings moving. In this case, Psy-Crow, one of the villains featured in the game, happened to be chasing his next victim and, upon atomizing him, inadvertently let a super powered cybernetic suit crash to the Earth and come into the possession of a lowly Earthworm. This worm, now with limbs, muscles and the ability to jump, shoot and whip rip his own annelid body out of the suit to use as a whip, now fights Psy-Crow and other galactic evil… Just because.
And that’s it. There’s no rhyme or reason for why one level starts on junkyard while another takes place underwater in a sea-base that’s comprised of giant hamster tubes. There’s a randomness and surreal quality to Earthworm Jim that you either simply accept or else walk away from the game, unable to make peace with the frequently bizarre tangents it will shoot off on.
As with a lot of HD ports or remakes, this is the best that Jim and his world have ever looked. The jaggy sprites and primitive color gradients that first debuted on the Genesis have been cleaned up with sharp, colorful imagery that more closely evokes the intention of the creators. Had the processing power been available to Shiny Entertainment at the time, this really is what Earthworm Jim would have looked like.
The same holds true for the audio side. Better sampling has resulted in clear voices, and more accurate music. The race through various Andy Asteroids levels is now complemented by a more authentic banjo manically playing in the background. The Evil The Cat levels of hell now have a clearer distinction between the classic strains of Night on Bald Mountain and the sudden change to elevator muzak. And of course, Jim himself has never sounded quite as crystal clear redneck as he does here with his various “Yeehaws” and other exclamations with a southern US twang.
While Earthworm Jim HD has gotten numerous tweaks in the presentation department, and even in modes available, the essential gameplay is untouched. By the standards of today, that’s probably not a good thing. Like all games from the 80s and 90s, the platforming is a simple affair, largely handled by two or three buttons. It’s classic stuff here, with Jim going from left to right as any good animal mascot would, but the game is now going up against 15 years of evolution to the genre, and some of the mechanics, unlike games such as Nintendo’s Mario-centric titles, don’t hold up as well. While certain elements such as the lack of a double jump are noticeable but understandable, other areas clearly need some kind of re-think. The biggest detractor to this is the lack of consistency in navigating the environment. For example in the early levels, some areas require Jim to bounce on tires in order gain altitude to proceed. That in itself is not a problem, but tires that Jim CAN jump on look identical to piles of tires that are merely background and are either passed through completely, or act as invisible barriers.
This occurs regularly throughout the game, with environmental elements confusing the player as to whether they should be used as stepping stones, or whether they can’t be interacted with at all. The game also suffers from a lack of precision with jumps that perfectly often arbitrary difficulty old platformers had of some of the challenge of the game resting in the struggle to fight the controls. The game also suffers from the traditional problem of retro-titles of a dramatic difficulty spike in the final level. In a world of friendlier, easier to manage titles, Earthworm Jim HD is, understandably, an old school experience with little patience for inexperienced gamers.
On the flipside, there are a plethora of new difficulty modes, and, tellingly, the original difficulty of the game is the hardest of all. There are also new multi-player maps that can be played both online and off with a total of four players, although these largely consist of re-used art assets from previous levels now designed with some co-op elements such as players being required to hold doors open while other players proceed through the level. It extends the life of the game, and adds a feature not present in the original version, though some of the same issues with the single-player experience also carry over into this new mode.
When all is said and done, Earthworm Jim HD is one of those titles that is really made for fans of the original. It looks good, sounds great, and still contains that same off-beat, often surreal humor that still stands out even today. The controls and general game design show off their age, and younger players, used to the more gentle experience of contemporary games will likely find the mercilessness of 20th century games to be off-putting and alienating. Earthworm Jim HD is an interesting snapshot of an era in gaming’s development, but lacks the timelessness of something like Tetris. This is a relic of the 90s and it shows.