Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked My World – #12: Earthworm Jim 2

In GBA, Mega Drive, PC, PlayStation, Saturn, SNES, Virtual Console on December 6, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Title: Earthworm Jim 2

Format: Mega Drive, SNES, Saturn, PlayStation, PC, GBA, Virtual Console

Released: 22nd December, 1995

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As a child, my genre of choice was always the 2D platformer. Prizing reactions, skill and variety above all else, the Sonic The Hedgehogs, and Super Mario Worlds of the early 90s were the games I coveted most. I remember basing a friendship with a kid at school called James Turpin on the fact that he had a copy of Rocket Night Adventures on the Mega Drive. The rest came later. Then there was this really weird kid I met at one of those ballpit-centric adventure playgrounds for about half an hour somewhere up north who wanted my protection from a bully who threatened him with karate (It was like a truly awful 90s sports movie, just waiting to happen). With this chap, I actively attempted to cultivate a long-distance friendship because one of the first things he told me as I coldly turned to leave him to his fate, was that he had a Sega Saturn and a copy of the then-graphically-astounding early 3D platformer Bug!. It really was that simple: I was an opportunistic dick, and games were my currency.

There are plenty of standout examples of the genre, but I would play anything. Balloon-pecking utter oddity Alfred Chicken on our original powerhouse Amiga 500. The equal parts exciting-and-frustrating 2D platformer Elf, proud holder of the title: “first platform game I ever owned”. And stolen late-night Duck Tales sessions on a borrowed Nintendo Game Boy, warmly ensconced in the top bunk in the room I shared with my brother, eyes straining to navigate the grainy lines of the sepia screen whilst he grumbled at me to go to bed. It’s fair to say that I loved cartoon platformers more than fat kids love…well, cartoon platformers, too. And lard.

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The original Earthworm Jim bewitched me. It was all so…unexpected. Each level stranger than the next, encompassing different gameplay styles and magpie-picked pop culture influences, all strung together with a wonderfully tenuous throughline involving a flying cow. But it’s the second title that holds the strongest place in my heart. It followed that rarest of sequel templates: go curiouser and curiouser.

Using a giant marshmallow to play keep-up with puppies and bombs, in order to destroy psychotic space-fowl. The shortest ever Street Fighter brawl with a hyper-intelligent goldfish. A level that actually makes the terror of admin fun. As I said…curiouser.

My family had gone up to stay with good friends of ours, the Overs. My Mum, pregnant with my older brother, had met Carol, who was similarly beseeded with her eldest, in antenatal classes. When me and their second son, Steven, were born close to each other, it seemed natural that the families would grow in tandem. We’d gone up to Church Stretton to visit them, and they had this wonderful big old house built into the side of what can only be described as a small mountain that seemed like something out of a Neil Gaiman story. Rich with mysteries and oddities. Little did I know.

It was pouring with rain when we arrived, late on a Friday night, and we parked the car and ran up this twisting stone staircase that seemed to be hewn out of the very rock. The roads were built at ridiculous angles, where streets would run a metre or two parallel, with the inner about 15 metres higher than the outer, like a series of giant’s steps. It boggled my mind, and made me feel like we were guests in an impregnable castle, squirreled away in the depths of the earth. Writing this, I daren’t ever go back there; it was probably a bungalow on a molehill, but it seemed so huge and gothic back then. I must have been at least 10, because once we were sent upstairs to bed, me and my brother with Matt and Steve in their room, they flicked on the TV, clicked the Mega Drive to “on”, and there was Earthworm Jim 2.

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You know that feeling when you’re so tired you can barely see straight, and you’ve been playing something for so long, that you can’t even be sure you’re enjoying it anymore? That’s how I felt about Earthworm Jim 2, late that night, after a long and stuffy car drive and buried in a darkened room under a duvet. I was exhausted, but we were all crammed around a black and white TV, eyes craning to make out the terrifyingly odd world we were exploring. I’m sure we wanted to go to bed, but we were entranced; each level was weirder than the next, and I was desperate to beat the section we were on, so we could find out where the rabbit hole led.

I was impressed by so much of the game, but there was one moment towards the end, by the time we were bleary eyed and the end of the night seemed to be resting on the back of our necks. After a nightmarish crawl through mounds of paperwork and demonic filing cabinets, in a level which, if I hadn’t replayed it recently on the Virtual Console, I would have sworn was some form of opium dream, you encounter this door. As you go to step through it, it sprouts legs, and moves. Blinking, we followed it. It moved again. We bade Jim give chase, and all of a sudden we’re rushing up and down staircases, pursuing this door through madcap corridors of paper and metal. Up ahead came some kind of wooden cabinet with a brass leg. The door ran over it, and tripped, falling flat. We approached our prize, not really sure what would happen. Jim grabs the door, opens it, from where it lies on the floor, and steps down into it, disappearing from the level.

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It may have been the extreme fatigue. It may have been being awake at a late hour in a strange house on a hillside hewn of rock, like some kind of homey, stoney, Lovecraftian retreat, but this sort of broke my brain. This kind of cartoon logic, applied to an interactive medium, detonated in my mind, and left me with this memory I’m still holding now. This was really Earthworm Jim 2’s legacy for me; that of possibility. That you could make a mainstream, popular, well-reviewed game that sells well, (and became a series of cartoons, crap 3D sequels, and the like) and put in wonderful, logic-skewing lunacy like this that could screw with people’s heads. And they would thank you for it. Games could do anything.

Plenty of other sections of the game were weirder: there’s the out-of-suit battles against series antagonist Evil The Cat (he’s evil. And he’s a cat), where the fact that Jim really is an earthworm is made abundantly clear. Not to mention the level “Jim’s A Blind Cave Salamander” which has you playing as…well, guess – floating around some sort of neon-drenched pinball purgatory to the tune of “Moonlight Sonata”, before taking part in a gaudy 50s quiz show for no other reason than why the hell not? But moment with the door represented a kind of gaming epiphany for me – demonstrating the sheer breadth of rabbit holes we could be going down every time we pick up a controller.

Early on, there’s a level called “Lorenzo’s Soil”. Think of that.

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The whole experience feels like some kind of fever dream, or an unbelievably nerdy Kubla Kahn, but it definitely happened. I think. And it makes you wonder how many other unexplored gems lie waiting, their strange delights begging to be discovered, worlds demanding to be explored and beaten.

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Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe I just love the weird shit.

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