Earthworm Jim Preview

For many games who were around back in the mid-90s, Earthworm Jim (SNES, GEN, PC) is one of the most fondly remembered platforming franchises around. Conceived by animator Doug TenNapel and developed by Dave Perry's studio Shiny Entertainment, the game had a visual aesthetic that drew from other work such as Ren & Stimpy as well as its creators' own off beat imaginations, somehow melding perfectly into the colorful world of a video game. Sadly, the legacy of the spacesuit-clad worm and his platforming hijinks has not been particularly well maintained in recent years. There were two nonessential Game Boy Advance ports of the two original games in the series, and one ill-advised trek into 3D handled by VIS Entertainment.

Now, Atari, which owns Shiny and the rights to Earthworm Jim, is looking to reinvigorate what has become a rather limp and flaccid worm. After a few years of making Matrix games, Shiny (sans Perry) is revisiting what most would call its best loved franchise. Recently, Atari announced the simply named Earthworm Jim for PSP. During a recent Atari event, I had the opportunity to get some hands on time with one of the game's levels.

Earthworm Jim for PSP keeps the classic Earthworm Jim shooting and jumping (and head-whipping) gameplay intact, but updates the graphics to a very attractive "2.5D" style featuring 3D polygonal foreground objects and two layers of 2D and 3D background elements in parallax scrolling. All of the gameplay itself is thankfully kept in a sidescrolling 2D perspective. From a visual perspective, the bizarre Earthworm Jim aesthetic comes through intact, even after losing the meticulously animated sprites of the original games and replacing them with 3D models. One thing the original games did better than the majority of their contemporaries was character animation; anyone who played the games back in their day can no doubt attest to how fantastic they looked in motion. Those classic animations are all present and accounted for--the stoic feet-planted rapid-fire blaster shot, the head grappling hook, the aforementioned head whip, and so on.

Unfortunately, the game was only playable on a PS2-based development kit, but it still gave a good idea of what to expect from the final product. Like many of the game's other elements, the control feels very much like it used to. Jim runs, jumps, shoots, and uses his head as a whip either to attack enemies or to grab onto hooks or tightropes. Also like its predecessors, the game is pretty tough. This means those aggravating crows will still fly in and attack you from offscreen just when you've latched onto a hook hanging over a pit of spikes. It just comes with the territory. One element that was a bit frustrating, however, was that it was frequently different to tell where exactly one was jumping because the destination was out of frame. This may have been a property of the original games as well--my memory does not serve me well here--but one way or another it's frustrating at times.

The most succinct way to sum up Earthworm Jim for PSP based on the brief time Atari has given with the game is that it is the New Super Mario Bros. to Earthworm Jim's Super Mario Bros. As with Nintendo's recent reinvention of its classic platforming series, it is more concerned with transporting and polishing classic gameplay and presentation elements rather than necessarily pushing the genre miles forward. This game features classic characters such as Princess What's-Her-Name, Evil the Cat, and Queen Slug-for-a-Butt. There are classic environments such as Heck (though Atari would not confirm if it's still filled with lawyers this time around), and of course there's the classic gameplay. Earthworm Jim 2's puppy bouncing level returns. The junkyard level Atari recently displayed will also feel extremely familiar to existing fans. Tommy Tallarico's original score is being reprised, both in original and remixed form for various parts of the game. The sound team is also making new sound effects based on those in the original games.

These many similarities don't mean there won't be new things as well. Atari producer Matt Rush promised that new moves for Jim are coming, but that the team is still working on getting them tweaked and polished. Players will also have to fully assemble Jim's suit over the course of the game by finding individual elements of it scattered throughout levels. The suit can them be further upgraded, potentially opening up these promised new moves. Shiny is also working to ensure that levels feature a certain amount of nonlinearity, allowing players to take multiple routes and find hidden areas. Stages will have multiple optional objectives, and in many cases the player will only be able to complete all of them by playing through the stages multiple times. Though only one environment was shown recently, Rush was sure to note that some of the game's eight levels will be completely new. He described one called "Birds and Bees," the site of an epic was between, fittingly, birds and bees. The level is strewn with complex Rube Goldberg-like devices and traps. "Remember that board game Mousetrap?" Rush asked. "It's like that." There will also be some kind of local wireless multiplayer mode, though it was not on display.

Perhaps the strangest new addition to the game is the ability for Jim, at any time, to start dancing. This isn't just an idle animation or a special move. No, the player actually completely cuts out of the game and is placed into a discotheque with music and bright flashing colors, with Jim centered on screen, busting some moves. It's unclear if that has any tangible purpose in the game, but it's more entertaining than Pause.

The recent portable systems from Sony and Nintendo have been something of a boon to old school platforming plans, and Shiny's upcoming Earthworm Jim game seems to shaping up to be another well made addition to the growing list of portable throwback platformers. Little has been seen of the game so far, but the core elements seem solid and manages to capture the classic Earthworm Jim look and feel.

Atari plans to release Shiny Entertainment's Earthworm Jim for PSP in spring 2007.

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