Retro Rewind: Earthworm Jim as Child Torture (and Grown Man Torture, Too)

In our weekly Retro Rewind feature, GameFront examines the best (and worst) that classic games have to offer. Check back every Thursday forgotten gems, sacred cows, and fresh new insight into the gaming past.

Earthworm Jim is merciless. And sadistic.

I downloaded the title (and its sequel) for a mere $5 on GoG.com, giddy to re-experience classic hilarious platforming of my youth (I never did get around to grabbing either the HD remake on Xbox Live or Gameloft’s version on my iPhone). Earthworm Jim appeared on the scene when I was just 10 years old, and I remember fondly bringing it home from Blockbuster — but not much in the way of gameplay. I remember quite a bit of the cartoon show, but strangely, almost nothing of the game. At first, I wasn’t sure why…

But now I know: I repressed that sh*t.

Earthworm Jim is savagely difficult. The very first level, a huge pile of garbage called New Junk City, is filled with fast-moving enemies that decimate Jim’s health with their attacks. And forget about shooting them, despite that cool raygun Jim carries around — the gun can only be aligned to the eight compass directions, so unless enemies nicely approach you from somewhere near straight on (which they never do), you’ll just be dumping ammo into the air.

And then there’s level design. Good God, seeing Earthworm Jim levels is like visiting medieval torture instruments in a museum. In a way (a sick way), it’s kind of beautiful. Level 2, for example — set on a Hell planet and titled “What the Heck?” — is all on fire. I mean, yes, the level is supposed to be hellish, and it’s mostly orange, but there are just random flame jets firing out of the ground all over the place, and you wouldn’t know to avoid them unless they’d already set you ablaze. This is apart from the demonic creatures that fly through the air and rip into Jim on sight, moving so fast that it’s nearly impossible to react to them.

Level 2 wasn’t so bad. Level 3, on the other hand, was a new brand of mean altogether.

Set on an underwater planet in a hamster cage-like network of glass tubes (there are even giant hamsters in it), the standard portions of the level aren’t too bad. But then the game demands that Jim navigate a sort of glass bathysphere from one section of the station to another. Through a big rock tunnel. With only a very limited supply of oxygen. The bathysphere is driven by jets that can be moved in 360 degrees, and it picks up far more speed and inertia than it’s capable of effectively stopping to avoid, you know, a head-on collision with jagged boulders. In a later section, Jim has a 90-second run through what seems like miles of these tunnels, and the section demands so much speed that most of the time, you end up dashed on the rocks, the glass orb shattering and water rushing in to murder you. It’s worse than those stages in Sonic the Hedgehog or Echo the Dolphin in which you get trapped in underwater caves, unable to find oxygen, and slowly and horrifically drown.

It is, in a word, a nightmare. I died about 15 times in the attempt to navigate it.

Now, granted, I’m a bit out of practice on 2-D platformers (although I’ve played a few great indie ones lately, namely BEEP, Celestial Mechanica and Mechanic Infantry), but Earthworm Jim isn’t like trying to ride a bike after a few years away. It’s more like trying to ride a unicycle on a tightrope immediately after receiving brain surgery. I don’t have the skills to play this game — I’m not sure that there are skills to play this game.

After a few attempts at the first level, I flipped Earthworm Jim down to Easy difficulty, and I’m a grown man who doesn’t have to be ashamed that getting pummeled by psychotic crows and whatever the hell that cat thing is gets frustrating, all right? On Easy mode, Earthworm Jim is only marginally easier to handle (that submarine level should be used to test if secret agents will crack while being interrogated, and difficulty mode doesn’t make a difference), but I did manage to get all the way through the game.

Despite the difficulty, Earthworm Jim is often a study in retro platforming greatness. It’s possible to go through levels and miss more than half of what’s there. Jumping and catching ledges is only slightly twitchy in that old game kind of way, and some things, like using Jim’s head to swing on hooks, require just enough skill to feel fun and rewarding.

And Earthworm Jim is both hilarious and 16-bit beautiful. There are the goofy enemies, Dr. Monkey-for-a-Head and Queen Slug-for-a-Butt, there’s the Hell level and a three-stage boss battle in which you fight a general made of snot while bungee jumping, there’s one whole level in which all the enemies are jumping, floating, disgusting brains. Some enemies explode and spray deadly prawns at you. None of it even approaches making sense.

I’ve been thinking about 2-D platformers a great deal in the last week, and I wonder if the reason there aren’t more of these in gaming is that people have realized it’s just mean to inflict games like Earthworm Jim on players — games that are hilarious and brilliant and geared 100-percent toward children, that look great and yet are so tough that most kids (and many adults) never get to see everything they have to offer.

I realize what a shame it is that before now, I’d never gotten beyond Level 3. There was so much more that Earthworm Jim had to offer; like ancient torture equipment, the spikes in the Iron Maiden had distracted me from the beauty of its craftsmanship. And like a torture device, surviving the experience is an incredibly good feeling.

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