This review was first published in E13, September 1994.
After being lavished with kudos prior to its release, Shiny’s first creation finally enters the congested 16bit arena. Boasting spectacular visuals and a myriad of playful innovations, Earthworm Jim clearly has the capacity to impress. But is there any room for another platform prima donna?
The product of Virgin coder Dave Perry and his band of Virgin defectors, collectively known as Shiny Entertainment, Earthworm Jim appears to contain all the ingredients for a superb videogame. Like Virgin’s Aladdin, the most obvious focus for admiration is the spectacular animation: the movement of Jim and the other characters in the game is sprightly and inventive, and there are lots of genuinely funny sequences that act as a real pull in the early stages.
However, once the initial appeal of the graphics has dissolved, it quickly becomes clear that EJ himself isn’t quite the character he claims to be. Despite Shiny’s attempt to enhance Jim’s personality by combining his worm persona with a mechanical suit which he stumbles upon and jumps inside, there’s still something missing. Basically, he lacks the design sensibilities of popular Japanese gaming icons like Sonic and PC Kid – frankly, he really isn’t that likable. But his tough, defiantly unsavoury appearance does give him at least a modicum of credibility which the Americans will probably go for, even if the rest of us aren’t entirely convinced.
Still, character flaws and all, it soon becomes obvious that Earthworm Jim is a fine, playable game. Borrowing elements from other platformers – such as multi-directional gunfire and rope swinging (with the worm as the rope, needless to say) – Shiny have made Jim an extremely versatile chap. Control is expertly handled, and it’s easy to master Jim’s abilities. But there’s also a fair amount of frustration. Enemies cling rather too tenaciously to Jim’s body, the bosses are unforgiving, and there are far too many leaps of faith required. These aspects probably make the game too tough, especially given the young appeal of the game’s cartoon star.
If you can handle the trickier facets of Shiny’s gameplay, Earthworm Jim delivers some genuinely entertaining moments. High points include a ride on top of a huge hamster and a chance to launch a cow skywards from a seesaw, for no apparent reason other than it’s funny. At moments like this, the game fairly hops along, bursting with inventiveness. But it’s the gaps that lie between them that hardened platform game veterans may find rather dull and overfamiliar.
Technically, both the Mega Drive and SNES versions cope admirably with the paces Shiny has put them through, although Earthworm Jim is essentially a Mega Drive game that’s been optimised to work on the SNES, and Dave Perry’s skilful coding means that in places the Sega machine manages to outclass the SNES. Surprisingly, the notoriously poor sound chip in Sega’s 16bitter emits some remarkably clear samples, which make up for what can only be described as unmemorable background music.
But it’s the structure of EJ that lets it down. There are no passwords or save game options, so the player is required to romp through in a single attempt. With so many level, sub-level, and some rather tedious 3D asteroid bonus rounds, it’s questionable whether anyone would have the enthusiasm to bother. The frustration factor plays a large part in this lack of faith, but it’s also worth remembering that the school of platformers to which EJ belongs is thoroughly oversubscribed – cartoon characters coupled with garish backdrops are fast becoming old hat. Jim’s success hangs on there being an audience that isn’t already fatigued by stuff like this.
It’s strange how the apparently ‘surefire’ hit like Earthworm Jim has ended up as just another good platformer rather than an outstanding one. Although a lot of attention has been applied to the play mechanics, there’s little of real originality here. More significantly, it’s not that much fun. Earthie might win fans with his particular brand of humour, but he’s no platform prodigy.