Everyone loves Earthworm Jim. I love Earthworm Jim too. How can you not? The art style, the music, the vulgar wit and charm, the thumb in the eye of video game tropes – it’s all delicious.
What I don’t like is how goddamn hard this game is.
I suppose that, as a person who likes really hard games, this is odd, but game design principles have changed since then. Games nowadays are often way too easy; you are strolling through the scenery, just mashing the buttons, and it’s like flipping pages. Compared to a game like Okami, sure, I love hard games. Okami was a game where I had to try to be defeated by an enemy. Give me Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry 4 or the new Bionic Commando on the hardest difficulty.
The difficulty that lies in Earthworm Jim is the same that resides in other platformers and action games of the era. It’s the key to why I can’t play even the games I really loved from back then. The challenge is in practicing, practicing, practicing until you can do a perfect or near-perfect run of a level; fail too frequently without earning more chances, and you are thrust back to the beginning of the level, world, or even game.
Where I stopped playing Earthworm Jim is in the middle of the second level, “What the Heck?”, a level which is otherwise brilliant – a red and orange pit of fire and spikes, with black toothy phantoms and lawyers as enemies, and excellent background music. In the distance, Evil the Cat dances madly and watches you struggle.
The flying enemies in Earthworm Jim are really not fun to fight, including those black phantoms; the hitbox for whipping them with your worm-head is very small, and you have to learn a rather counter-intuitive jump-whip rhythm to dispatch them. Using your gun means you have no ammo left for later, and you will need it.
But that’s not why I stopped; bitchy enemies provoke me to continue pummeling them in some kind of strange vengeance against non-existent foes. No, I stopped because there is a point in the level where you must leap, whip a tiny hook, fly across the level, whip another tiny hook which is completely imperceptible until you are already there and within range for whipping, and then somehow fly even further and grab the next platform.
I managed to get both hooks once, and then for some reason, holding the dpad the whole time, I didn’t make it to the platform.
This kind of trial-and-error platforming is really not entertaining. It’s the same as a memorization-based shoot-em-up, but not even impressive enough to be rewarding when you show off to your friends. I don’t mind practicing, but the levels should be forgiving enough that you can establish your skills and practice by playing the game without needing to repeat the same thing over and over. It’s not fun to repeat the same level or sequence over and over and over to get it right; it’s fun to acquire the skills that let you beat a new challenge for the first time, if that challenge is in fact a challenge. It’s fun to face a challenge and overcome it; it’s fun to be given the opportunity to figure out that challenge and defeat it, with the tools you already have. It’s fun to encounter a new enemy in Devil May Cry and warily test out its capabilities, and find yourself hurting after it flings you across the room, and then adapt to its attacks and defeat it with the skills you’ve learned. It’s not fun if that enemy instantly murders you or, when it begins attacking you, is almost impossible to defeat because it stun-locks you and never gets more than half an inch from your body.
Earthworm Jim approximates the kind of fun I want, because you get multiple tries on each level, but it’s more frustrating to know exactly what you need to do, only to find that it is extremely difficult for some arcane reason, buried within its platforming engine, with no explanation, no introduction, no build-up.
Basically, what I’m saying is that it’s a good thing this game has lots of snot jokes.