Thursday, 15 July 2010

Review: Earthworm Jim (XBLA & PSN)

Earthworm Jim was one of my favourite Megadrive games of all time, although it didn’t start out that way. When I first played the game I was confronted by a steep difficulty curve and a unforgiving level design structure that confused me more than it cared to entertain. After a few goes over three days I took the game back to the rental shop thinking that it nowhere as good as the likes of Aladdin or Cool Spot; two of Shiny’s best MD platformers.

However, a few months later something finally made me pick up EWJ again and alas, I found myself renting it for the second time. Surprisingly the game made more sense this time around. The previously confusing level layouts and cheap enemy positioning didn’t seem half as bad, merely providing a much needed challenge to an otherwise simplistic title. Maybe Sega Magazine was right about Jim - that it was one of the most essential must have titles released that year, along with Treasure’s guaranteed spectacular, Dynamite Heady. Or so it seemed.

Out of the two challengers to Sonic’s crown it was Shiny’s Earthworm Jim that most caught on with the general games playing public. The story was as simple as it was idiotic; a man-sized space suit had came crashing down from the sky and the stars above, landing straight on our invertebrate protagonist turning him from an ordinary earthworm into a alien blasting, cow saving super hero. This suit brought Jim intelligence, plus a whole host of enemies wanting to blow him to pieces and steal back that powerful suit he was wearing.

Tasked with battling your way through a bizarre mix of enemies, and something about saving a princess who’s name he can’t remember, the game saw your jumping, blasting, and swinging your way through eight levels themed around junkyards, hell, internal organs, a laboratory, and an underwater base, whilst also delivering its own unique brand of humour.

EJ was always a funny game, with enemies ranging from a psychotic cat with genius levels of IQ; a goldfish with an eye for world domination; and a wealth of bizarre creatures ranging from killer crows to a Jekell and Hyde type puppy dog. It was also incredibly tough, requiring some precision jumping, and extremely quick reflexes in order to navigate some of the devious levels the designers had waiting for you.

Earthworm Jim HD then, is more of the same. In fact, it is almost exactly the same, right down to the obviously amusing character designs and twisted level layouts. What you have here is the 1994 original, remade with brand new, hand-drawn HD graphics, a reworked soundtrack, and disappointingly, completely new voice acting for all the characters and some less than stellar sound effects.

In terms of looks you can tell that every single frame of the original game’s animation has been re-drawn in HD for this version. The vast majority of animations still look really smooth, and almost Disney-like at times - just one of the trade marks of Shiny’s 16bit output. Everything from when Jim scrunches up his face in anger, to when his big eyes almost burst out of his face when hit are all accurately represented here in this HD take on things. Jim’s range of moves is also identical, being armed with a plasma pistol and his own wormy body as a whip, used both to grapple on hooks and to slap the enemy into submission.

The only qualm is that the new flash-like visuals lack some of the personality and raw detail to be found in the original’s 16bit bit sprites, though admittedly not all, with much of the humour based off the graphics still coming through. More importantly, every last sprite created for this remake is at least trying to accurately represent the original artwork, rather than completely re-envision it for modern day audiences. Essentially the flash-style nature of the work does this instead without cheapening the overall look and feel of the game too much.

Gameplay wise, some fifteen years on from its original release Earthworm Jim is still a solid enough title, challenging and reasonably fun after a while, even if being a little too abstract in its design to be completely successful today. Initially frustrating, the game regularly presents you with some rather confusing level design choices and some limitations with regards to how much Jim can use himself in order to traverse certain areas of his environment. For example, he can only jump down from hanging onto wires or hooks, rather than being able to jump up to reach higher ledges or platforms. Instead the game makes you find alternative routes to reaching a previously unreachable destination. Sometimes this pays off and reveals a rather cleverly thought out approach to the strange level design. More often that not though, it simply leads to more frustration and another trip to the continue screen.

However, It is also apparent that EWJ isn’t all that hard once you get back into the swing of things, learning the layouts of each stage and knowing where to jump, and which parts of the environment to touch or avoid. In this respect EWJ HD is as faithful as it could be to the original MD game, and to an extent that is actually a good thing. Some of the design choices that initially seem bizarre to modern day audiences start to make some kind of sense, and you can begin see how the developers have tried to craft a fine balance between a fair challenge and impossible odds. Jim has always had less in common with contemporary platform games in this regard, although in 2010 this maybe does him more harm than good.

Combined with its off-the-wall sense of humour, strange characters, and filled with originality, EWJ is still a potentially enjoyable game even if it doesn’t quite hold up as well as you remember. Newcomers to the series, and old fans without the patience required to enjoy it will surely be disappointed. Give it a chance though, and Jim can be a reasonably entertaining and particularly challenging alternative to other 16bit platformers of the time. Worthy of the HD remix treatment? Maybe not, but better than another poor attempt at a 3D sequel.

Sadly, not everything is quite as forgivable with this release. Whilst some of the gameplay deficiencies can be overlooked (more a deliberate part of the design than anything else), the use of new sound effects and poorly arranged soundtrack simply cannot.

The developers at GameLoft have taken the liberty of changing the voice work for Jim and some of the other characters, making them sound annoying different whilst also taking away some of the endearing personality they had in the original. Voices sound scratchy, and appear to be slightly compressed lacking the clarity they need, thus doing more harm than good for the experience. The brand new arranged soundtrack doesn’t fare so well either. It’s more upbeat and electric than the16bit tunes of the MD original, giving the game a more modern feel but at the cost of becoming intrusive during play.

However, the new sound effects, voices and music do suit the new flash-styled visuals on offer in EWJHD, which is not really all that surprising as the visuals themselves lack some of the detail and personality contained within the original’s 16bit pixel art, but appear fresher and more modern as a result. But perhaps that’s the problem; all these changes cheapen the experience somewhat, and only help to heighten the gameplay issues as you become less immersed in Jim’s world as the game’s outrageous humour loses its sparkle throughout all the tampering.

Despite some annoyances with this HD remake, Jim holds itself together pretty well and provides fans of the original with the best conversion of the first EWJ game since the Win 95 and Mega CD releases. Misguided audio aside there’s very little to complain about in terms of the game being authentic, and certainly, there’s none of the sloppy control problems and graphical slowdown which ruined both GameBoy Advance iterations of the first two games. Perhaps the only real downer is that the game design hasn’t aged very well, often proving to be incredibly frustrating at times, and that the new multiplayer features included in this release are next to useless seeing as very few people appear to be playing it online at the moment.

Earthworm Jim HD may well be worth checking out for die-hard fans of the series, who are likely to quickly become accustomed to its unforgiving nuances, though it isn’t quite as easy to get into as it should be with the level design and gameplay issues putting a dampner on some interestingly twisted characters, and a genuinely warped sense of humour. It that respect, it is almost exactly as you remember it, which is both a blessing and a curse, depending of course just how you decide to approach it and whether or not you care to get around the game’s initially confusing design choices.


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