You Can Keep Your Crash Bandicoot—When’s the Earthworm Jim Comeback?
Of all the 1990s gaming characters I remember, it’s the Super Suited wriggler I most want to see revived.
Illustration by Gavin Spence.
Crash Bandicoot's back in action courtesy of the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, a PS4-exclusive (for now) collection featuring remastered versions of the mutant marsupial's first three games. All date back to the original PlayStation era, with the third game, Warped, coming out in 1998. So while N. Sane might appear all shiny and new, what's under the hood, all of that spinning through crates and leaping over chasms, is gameplay two decades (and change) old.
Crash isn't the only old-timer making a comeback in 2017—days ahead of E3, Accolade announced its return to publishing with news of another Bubsy game, resurrecting the anthropomorphic bobcat for a fifth title 21 years after his last, 1996's wretched Bubsy 3D. The Woolies Strike Back is due out in late 2017.
Seeing these cartoony characters, these cutesy but kind of crooked platforming avatars, from 1990s gaming returning to the contemporary fold can't fail to have a man in his later-30s thinking back to all their peers who aren't looking ahead to new releases. Sonic and Mario are evergreens, of course, here for keeps. But beside those mascot-level characters, the 16- and 32-bit eras produced all manner of colorful heroes, the majority of which are now barely footnotes in gaming history.
Croc and Aero, Ristar and Superfrog, Zool and Mr Nutz—many came, a few really tried, most disappeared. Rayman is hanging in there, courtesy of a couple of inspired 2D romps, and now Crash's back, albeit not in a new game, yet. But is anyone clamoring for Gex: Return of the Gecko? Exactly.
But Earthworm Jim? Now. There's an idea.
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Watch Waypoint's Guide to Games episode on another hugely individual, equally classic platformer, Psychonauts.
Let me tell you about Earthworm Jim. Firstly, obviously, he's a worm. Not that worms didn't find their place in gaming in the 1990s, thanks to Team 17's point-and-click tactical series, but a worm as an action hero? As a Sonic and Mario-challenging almost-mascot-level character to later splash across t-shirts, stationary sets and lunchboxes? As a video game someone turned gets-his-own-cartoon-series something else entirely? Rather less obvious. I mean, it's hardly the most instantly sign-on-the-line-right-now of elevator pitches.
Yet the original Earthworm Jim, originally a 16-bit Sega release but soon enough ported to SNES and several other platforms, was a massive hit in the summer 1994. It instantly made my Mega Drive-owning pal across the road and I put down what we were playing—usually EA Hockey, or the then-fresh FIFA Soccer—and poke around in its gooey, gross-out, goofball silliness. It was a run-and-gun platformer like so many we'd seen before, but so individualistically offbeat, chiming perfectly with our early teens appreciation of stuff like Eerie, Indiana, Ren and Stimpy, Animaniacs, and later The Tick.
Stateside TV advertising for the game drew a raft of complaints—i.e., it was the perfect promotion for a new IP trying to find a place in the crowded platformer market. Developer Shiny Entertainment, headed up by David Perry, had hit it out of the park with their first swing—the company's debut game, designed explicitly as a franchise-launcher (and, as it proved, successful in that respect) sold bucketloads, charmed critics, and made the much-smaller me contort with glee as I launched cows, flexed entirely fake muscles, blasted cackling crows out of the sky and bungee-jumped beside gigantic booger monsters. I loved Earthworm Jim.
And while the series' one venture into 3D territories, 1999's does-what-it-says-on-the-box Earthworm Jim 3D for N64, was a definite "miss" on the score sheet, Jim's generally been lucky in terms of titles carrying his name and likeness. Late-1995's Earthworm Jim 2 was another smash on 16-bit systems, released alongside the airing of the Earthworm Jim cartoon, although later ports to the Game Boy Advance and PlayStation didn't go down so well; and 2010's HD reissue of the first game, for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, was warmly received. "Still crazy after all these years," was GameSpot's summary—and, yes indeed, I would really like to see some of that bananas spirit back again, in an all-new adventure.
(And before you ask, no, I don't count the Gameboy's Menace 2 The Galaxy as a proper Earthworm Jim game. Let's all please forget that ever happened, OK?)
So what's keeping Jim? With Sonic going back to two dimensions for the imminent Mania and the UbiArt Framework-assisted Origins and Legends showing that Rayman's never better than when he's running left to right in a side-on setting, right now feels like a perfect time for the slippery hero to slide back into his Super Suit for some on-brand mirth and mayhem.
Turns out that what comes next, a fourth game proper, has been in a state of limbo for several years. After a PSP series entry got canned in 2007, apparently having been 80% complete (journos got to play it, even), everything went quiet on the release front—and that's how it's remained since. Not for want of trying, mind. Earthworm Jim 4 was formally announced in April 2008, only to fizzle out over the next few years, publisher Interplay citing financial pressures for its protracted development. And to date, still nothing concrete.
Above: the cow-launching lunacy of (the SNES version of) Earthworm Jim's first level, New Junk City.
Perry, who VICE spoke to about Shiny's legacy in 2015 (where he revealed the connection between Jim and Hong Kong Phooey), claimed in 2012 that he was certain there would be a new Earthworm Jim game, eventually. Speaking at the Brighton-held Develop conference, and subsequently quoted by Eurogamer, he said: "It's one of those things that, no one's got the time right now. I'm sure it's going to happen, I just can't tell you exactly when."
As recently as 2015, Nick Bruty, artist on 1994's Earthworm Jim, expressed his willingness to get a new game out there. As reported on Nintendo Life, he wrote on Reddit: "I think everyone would be up for it sometime. Feels like unfinished business, but [it's] hard to align everyone. I wouldn't do it without the key players."
Related, on VICE: 25 Mega Drive Games That Don't Completely Suck Today
Besides Perry—who's probably out of the equation now, as the CEO and president of Gaikai—and Bruty, those key players are producer David Luehmanh, designer Doug TenNapel, composer Tommy Tallarico, and programmers Nicholas Jones and Andy Astor. Naturally, they've all drifted apart, onto wholly different career trajectories. Of them, it's TenNapel who might be (no offense intended to everyone else) the most significant name to have attached to any new Earthworm Jim title—for better, and worse.
TenNapal's expressed absolutely abhorrent sentiments on LGBT issues in the past, and was an author at the far-right-wing website Breitbart in 2009, which says plenty about his personal political and ethical leanings, at the time at least. Nevertheless, it was he who designed the character, created levels, and even voiced Jim in the first game. It's not really clear how much you can separate Earthworm Jim from TenNapel, however much his past statements might make us wish to. Any effort to resurrect the series must reckon with the fact that the "key player" is also the most toxic one.
Writing about him on Gameological in 2013, Bob Mackey said: "I don't view TenNapel as a cackling villain; if anything, he's a talented guy who got exposed to some particularly toxic ideas that stuck in his brain," adding, "it's easy to see that Doug TenNapel is capable of great things." But it's also easy to see how his involvement could ring alarm bells for others on the project.
TenNapel himself has been quiet on all things Jim in recent years, but in July 2013 he did post on the official Earthworm Jim Facebook page, writing:
"Everyone loves Earthworm Jim 1 and 2, and I don't generally acknowledge EWJ 3[D] as a real part of the Jim universe. So if I was making another Jim game, would it be too confusing to call it Jim 3? Or would it have to be Jim 4? How about Earthworm Jim 4 The Fans?"
Responding to comments on the post, TenNapel added: "If we ever make another Jim, and I'm involved, Jim will be 2D animated. It needs to be a simple run, jump and shoot (and whip!) platform game. I spent some time with Nick Bruty last fall, and… We would want to give everyone the feeling of playing the first game."
So, guys, guys, come on, now. What's keeping you? That's what I want, too! And thousands of others do as well. Would Earthworm Jim 4 succeed as a Kickstarter? I'm not sure—nostalgia value only travels so far when it comes to crowdfunding, as Dizzy makers the Oliver Twins will tell you. And TenNapal's mouth-running recent past makes that approach a moral minefield, too. But I'm certain that, somewhere out there, a publisher must be waiting for something Just Like This. If Bubsy, of all anthropomorphic characters in gaming's dark past, can get himself another shot then, surely, Jim has to be stepping up for one of his own before long.
I'd really love to see Jim kick off his slippers, get Peter Puppy fit again, dust off his blaster and give Psy-Crow—or whoever shows up with a new set of nefarious plans that simply have to be stopped—a good whipping. Show me the rogues gallery of '90s gaming's used-to-be-somethings, and he's the one, probably the only one, who I can see fitting in 2017. Madcap platformers bursting with personality and color, not to mention some sly satire, can work as well today as they did back when. And it's been long enough, now, that nobody involved needs to worry about early birds. They all died years ago.
Illustration by Gavin Spence.
Come throw your "'Rocket Knight Adventures' was better" argument into Mike's face on Twitter.