Move over Mario and Sonic–Earthworm Jim is here. This robot suit-wearing character who battles evil is one of the wackiest and most surreal of his time, and both critics and fans fondly remember the first two video games featuring the heroic earthworm.
The character made his debut in the 1994 platform game Earthworm Jim for the Sega Genesis, and the game received praise for its fluid animation, hand-drawn designs, strong personality, and the titular earthworm himself. The game spawned three sequels, a television series, and several comic book issues, but, with the behind the scenes drama of the production of Earthworm Jim 3D and Earthworm Jim: Menace 2 the Galaxy, the franchise has remained dormant. In an age of sequels and reboots, perhaps it’s time for Earthworm Jim to emerge from development hell and take his rightful place in the pantheon of video game heroes.
Earthworm Jim was created by David Perry, who started making basic computer games at just 15 years old. As an adult, Perry moved to London and developed games for Microgen, creating memorable and nostalgic titles like Dark Maze and Three Weeks in Paradise. It didn’t take long for Perry to make a name for himself in early gaming, and he eventually moved to the United States and started making games for Virgin Games USA, working on titles for Sega, including Terminator, RoboCop vs. Terminator, and Global Gladiators. He also worked on the video game adaptations of Disney’s Aladdin and The Jungle Book.
On October 1, 1993, Perry formed his own company, Shiny Entertainment, and signed a deal with Playmates Interactive Entertainment (the company behind the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) to distribute free games. Playmates Interactive wanted to launch a new franchise to capitalize on Sonic and the Mutant Turtles’ success, which led to Earthworm Jim’s creation, thanks to designs from animator Doug TenNapel. Disclaimer: Doug TenNapel is openly homophobic and transphobic, and I do not share or support his views. Rather, I’m looking at the character of Earthworm Jim himself and separating art from the artist, and while I do talk about TenNapel’s work, I find his views insulting (especially as a gay writer and human being) and unacceptable.
Perry saw the character’s sketches and immediately snagged the rights to Earthworm Jim. TenNapel worked closely with Perry, designing the game, creating level ideas, and voicing the titular earthworm.
The humble soil dweller and all-American hero made his debut in 1994 in the run and gun platform game Earthworm Jim. After a super-suit falls from the sky and lands on Jim, he develops superpowers. He becomes a groovy hero, protecting Princess What’s Her Name from various enemies and tackling beautiful and whacky level designs. The game was a smashing success, popular among both critics and fans. GamePro, a multiplatform video game magazine company, stated that the game boasted “the most innovative gameplay since Sonic first raced onto the Genesis,” adding “in the first level, New Junk City, Jim leaps off old tires, climbs strange crevices and cliffs, swings from chains, and creeps through a maze of garbage–and that’s the most traditional level in the game.”
Given the first title’s success, Perry and TenNapel immediately started working on Earthworm Jim 2, released in 1995. The sequel’s premise and gameplay were mostly unchanged from the original; as Earthworm Jim, players traverse through zany levels to save Princess What’s Her Name from various enemies. This time around, levels included a game show-type challenge, and Jim utilized a new slime tool that served as a slingshot and grappling hook. Once again, fans and critics loved the game, and IGN and GameZone declared it even better than its predecessor.
The two games’ combined success spawned a television series that aired for two seasons on the Kids WB channel from 1995-1996. Most episodes, created by Doug TenNapel, involve the series’ villains attempting to steal Jim’s super-suit and rule the universe, but the happy-go-lucky earthworm—voiced by none other than the great Dan Castellaneta—always interferes with their plans. The show garnered praise for its animation style and humor, and Playmates Toys released a series of action figures based around the show.
Meanwhile, several comic book series focusing on Earthworm Jim tied into the animated series. Marvel Comics released a three-volume comic book miniseries while TenNapel published Earthworm Jim The Comic, which tells Jim’s origin story. Devere Comics, known for their Bettleborgs comics, published a series which often included free stickers with the issues.
Aspects of the comics and television show, including animation style and newly created characters like Evil Jim, also found their way into Earthworm Jim 3D and its follow-up, Earthworm Jim: Menace 2 the Galaxy. Unfortunately, behind-the-scenes drama around these two games, combined with the introduction of 3D graphics, spelled doom for the franchise.
The nail in the earthworm’s coffin came after Interplay Entertainment bought Shiny Entertainment and delegated the original team behind Earthworm Jim to other projects, most notably the PlayStation platformer Wild 9. Subsequently, the franchise passed into the hands of VIS Entertainment, and they decided that Earthworm Jim would transition from 2D to 3D, just like Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog had done previously.
Adapting Earthworm Jim’s gameplay to an extra dimension proved to be a struggle for VIS Entertainment, and the game languished for three years in development hell. Finally, in October 1999, Earthworm Jim 3D released to mostly negative reviews, being called uninspired and unable to compete with other 3D games at the time. While the concept remained the same as the preceding games, the level designs were bland. The camera featured a poor design and was often obscured by Jim, leaving players unable to find their way through the various levels. Although Perry and TenNapel served as consultants for the game, they were dismissed for unexplained reasons and later commented that they hated what was done to the franchise.
A month after the release of Earthworm Jim 3D, a fourth title, Earthworm Jim: Menace 2 the Galaxy, was published by Crave Entertainment, a company that had nothing to do with the first two titles. The game revolves around collecting one hundred coins to advance to the next level; gone were the innovative and cleverly designed levels and challenges, replaced by simplified gameplay concentrating on exploring levels and collecting items. Earthworm Jim: Menace 2 the Galaxy received poor reviews upon release, with many critics and fans blasting the tedium of collecting coins and the lack of the original games’ charm and style.
Following the fourth Earthworm Jim title’s poor reception, the franchise fell into obscurity with no new games or merchandise. Game developers scrapped plans for a sequel, but the original game did see a remaster in 2010 with the release of Earthworm Jim HD. The game was similar to the original but boasted smoother graphics and redone level designs, however, in 2018, the game was removed from the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live.
It’s a shame that Earthworm Jim hasn’t reemerged from obscurity, but the history of the games and their wavering quality shows that unless the original team behind the friendly earthworm are involved in the project, any new material might be doomed for failure. It’s time to give David Perry and Doug TenNapel the creative freedom to rejuvenate the franchise and bring the groovy Jim back for more whacky adventures, and both parties have expressed interest in returning to the character.
What do you think about Earthworm Jim? Are you a fan of the games and the whacky earthworm himself? Let me know in the comments and as always, stay nerdy!
By Mack Veltman