What killed Earthworm Jim?
I wasn't quite sure what was going on, but I knew that I loved it.
One night, when I was in 4th grade, I convinced my parents to take me to the local grocery store. In the back of this store was a small rack of videogames, mainly SNES and Genesis, and among those titles was something my friend Eric had told me I should play. He had said that this new game seemed like something I'd have built myself, but at 9 years old, I struggled to understand what that would mean. There, in the back section, tucked away from the dangerous rated “R” films, I found it: a fresh new copy of Earthworm Jim jammed into a protective plastic covering. I was in such a rush to buy it I failed to even examine the back of the box. I knew nothing of what I was getting into, and as soon as the game loaded up on my Sega Genesis, I knew even less. Sitting on the carpet in the living room in my shorts and basketball shoes, I played into the night, and couldn’t possibly explain any of it to my parents the next morning.
The first few minutes of Earthworm Jim are an indecipherable mess of game logic. You have a gun but you can also use your own body as a whip, which you might need to either attack enemies or reach higher platforms. You have a few types of gun but ammo is mostly. Attacking refrigerators will launch cows into space, which may or may not constitute a save point system. Most things that move are enemies, except for the things that aren't. Surfaces may be springy or slippery or a trap that kills you for no reason. Energy balls affect your health but maybe also your weapons or maybe it's more dangerous to throw your body at enemies but nothing is made clear, including your destination. Even by platformer standards, a genre known for making the player traverse weird and illogical terrain, it’s a labyrinthine series of choices unlike anything I had seen up to that point.
Even with an instruction manual (which I lacked) the game didn't make any sense. And that's why I fell in love. Sure, there was a worm with guns and a space suit who was fighting fish and anthropomorphic junkyards, but the elements you'd now consider "character" were less important than the nonsensical and hilarious ways you were asked to interact with it.
I think I understood what my friend Eric meant. This game was made for me.
Over the coming years, there would be a sequel game and also a Saturday morning cartoon, the latter of which I still just goddamned adore. That kind of dedication to expanding the brand seemed to imply the franchise was headed somewhere, but then it disappeared. So what killed Earthworm Jim?
A Worm's Eye View
Earthworm Jim has a surprisingly progressive origin story. Following on the success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Playmates Toys decided it too wanted to expand into the toy-driven boys’ media market, but using games as its jumping-off point, rather than movies or cartoons. For 1994, this was a pretty wackadoo idea. Artist Doug TenNapel pitched a bad-ass worm character, and the team at Shiny Entertainment bought the rights. TenNapel worked on developing the character and his world, while the Shiny team took this opportunity to build a satirical videogame.
Having worked mainly on lower-tier licensed properties up to that point (you may remember them for their Cool Spot videogame based on the 7-Up soda mascot), Shiny embraced this opportunity to do whatever they wanted with an all-new, original game setting. They even named the female protagonist "Princess What's-Her-Name" as a joke about how disposable damsels-in-distress are treated in the game world. The satire may have been lost on younger audience members, but the gigantic world populated with bizarre characters, including a fish version of the Devil, were certainly mind expanding encounters.
This same team would go on to develop Earthworm Jim’s direct sequel, adding new game elements like snot parachutes and more gunning sequences. But what rules of gameplay they had stuck to in the first game flew completely out the window. There's a part midway through the game where Jim must navigate a cave as a blind salamander while avoiding sheep. There's also an isometric bomb delivery system and a honest-to-God game show sequence. Earthworm Jim 2 proved that the franchise had legs and that the creative team could make Jim's bizarre, sometimes horrifying adventures suit almost any style of play.
It seemed like Earthworm Jim was here to stay. Then tragedy struck, in the form of business.
Eating the Dirt
Interplay acquired Shiny in 1995, and a new team was brought in to work on the game’s next installment. This title would be based off of the cartoon show and incorporate its characters and settings. Unfortunately, production on the cartoon got cancelled just as production on the third game began. This resulted in the creative team being spread too thin, especially amid a merger and the re-adjustment of production and programming personnel. The bulk of EWJ’s original team wound up working on the Playstation platformer Wild 9 which has largely been forgotten by time, despite its inclusion of a gravity gun for solving complicated crate puzzles.
Earthworm Jim creative leads TenNapel and David Perry were dismissed and publicly announced their disdain for what was happening to the character. Finally, after a tumultuous three year production cycle, Earthworm Jim 3D hit the market on the Nintendo 64 platform with a dull thud. A broken, literally unfinished game, Earthworm Jim 3D featuring box art for big bads and game sequences that were never included in the finished product. Worse, with the show being off the air for three years at this point, kids had even less of a way into understanding the series, with the game itself serving as a poor line into its own larger universe.
A fourth entry in the series was dumped onto the Gameboy Color, but it was merely a simplified version of the original game with a focus on collecting coins. Beyond this, rumors of an expanded revision of the original games ran rampant for a decade, including an official announcement in 2006 for a Playstation Portable title that was officially cancelled two years later, and fourth entry in the series which Interplay announced in 2008 but has never built upon. The original entries got an HD makeover for modern consoles, but why are there no new Peter Puppy adventures and where is Evil the Cat when we need them most?
Well, burn out. Creative burnout and personal bad blood. David Perry (the original coder) and TenNapel have expressed alternating desires to bring EWJ back while also having little interest in working with the people who still maintain the rights. Turns out, if you have a creative team producing work that no one else can mimic, it can be bad for business to kick them off the project. Sure, you could argue that platformers as a genre haven't made a graceful transition to modern (or even last generation) consoles, but that's not really Earthworm Jim's problem either -- the games have always had weird mechanics which seemed to change from one moment to the next, and that was always part of the joy of playing them. If the original team were giving the opportunity to do an Xbox One level release, for example, I could see it starting in a fake 16-bit platformer style before becoming a Call of Duty style shooter and then a Cooking Mama clone and then a You Don't Know Jack style party game. And who knows what the developers could accomplish with modern online multiplayer.
As Earthworm Jim started as a satire of the video game industry, it makes sense that it would be doomed by the problems of the video game industry. Sure, there was its terrible timing in getting stuck with the first wave of 3D hype, and perhaps TenNapel and Perry would have seen their character’s rights reverted to them by now if the contract they’d signed in 1994 hadn’t amounted to pretty much a handshake. But while we might still see some miraculous revival for this franchise, it’s best not to get our hopes up. In fact, it might be better if we all agreed to pretend that there were only two entries and a delightful cartoon show in this series, focusing ourselves not on the brutally unfun way the series fell into obscurity but on the beloved unpredictability which made it so singular in the first place. Because that's what really killed Earthworm Jim: it just couldn’t be replicated.
Brock Wilbur is a critic, filmmaker, stand-up comic and huge 6'7" monster who loves you. You can follow him on Twitter @brockwilbur.