It’s impossible to understate how much of a fan I was of Earthworm Jim in my youth. I was already a veteran of the first two games in the series, and had watched the cartoon every weekend until it was off the air. So when a third game was announced for the N64, it was safe to say I was on board (I was also on board for the Game Boy Color game released around the same time, but that is another story). I obsessively watched for updates in Nintendo Power and Rockstar’s own site. The game was heavily delayed, leading to a protracted development time of around three years. That timespan isn’t unheard of in modern game development, but in the days of early 3D, this was long enough for it to be declared as essentially vapourware.
It’s no surprise that the game is a complete mess from top to toes. Shiny jumped ship years earlier and left Interplay to find a new developer. They went with Scottish Developer, VIS Entertainment, who, at that time,
And this is all before you even open the box and slot the cartridge in.
THERE’S ONLY ONE EGO FOR THIS JOB
The story starts out with Jim getting squashed by a cow and dropped into a coma. As he clings to life in the hospital, his ego descends into his brains to try its best to piece things back together. This takes the form of a collect-a-thon, most similar to Banjo-Kazooie in objective. Each level has a selection of golden udders you must collect by accomplishing various goals, as well as 100 marbles scattered throughout.
The brain is divided into four parts, which I think is based on the joke the cartoon frequently made about Jim having four brains. The areas are memories, happiness, fear, and fantasy. Predictably, the levels are themed to each, though you probably couldn’t guess just from the names. For clarity, Jim’s memories are of a war between cows and chickens, his happiness revolves around food (same here, guy), he’s afraid of haunted houses and graveyards, and his fantasy is entirely based in the old west. It’s a mix of EWJ weirdness and an absolute lack of imagination.
The levels themselves are a similar mix. If you’re used to the semi-open worlds of Super Mario 64 or Banjo-Kazooie, you’ll probably have to dial back your expectations. There’s a clear loop to most of Earthworm Jim 3D’s levels, to the point where some of them feel absolutely linear. Others are closer to hubs, with each udder stashed behind a certain direction containing its own, isolated challenge.
While this creates a problem that I’ll get to when I’m ready to start launch into full complaint mode, it works for the most part. The level design is largely unimaginative, but gameplay flows reasonably well throughout the corridors.
If you played the previous games, you’ll already have a basic idea of Jim’s abilities. You can fire his gun, whip using his head, hover for, like, a half-second, climb, jump, the whole nine. He can also duck, which grants him the uncanny ability to avoid all projectiles.
Additional weapons can be picked up from vending machines, but these are largely situational. If there’s a vending machine, chances are there’s something in your vicinity that you need to use it on. For combat, the game winds up leaning heavily on Apollo-style rocket launchers, which I found to be only slightly more useful than the main gun. Also, it continues the series tradition of having the pistol having limited ammo until you get beneath 100 shots, whereupon it charges itself back up to 100, but it never really capitalizes on it. In total, I probably only picked up one ammo refill for the pistol, and never really had an issue with running out of bullets. I’m sure this would have been more of a concern in previous versions of the game.
MERCIFUL MUNG BEANS
Early screenshots showed a lot of different things that never made it into the game. Things likes levels on the pocket rocket, a giant kitchen for Jim to climb through, and even snowboarding. None of that made it into the game, at least, not really. The number of cuts are shocking, some of them seemingly at the last minute. If I had to guess what this would be attributed to, it would be a misunderstanding of the N64’s limitations.
There are a lot of signs that there were issues when it comes to cartridge space. Animations, for example, are obviously missing frames, making much of the action feel choppy, even when the framerate is behaving. The worst offenders I could find are Jim’s roll animation, and the idle sequence he has where he uses his head as a hoola hoop. It’s a shame; the game doesn’t look bad for an N64 title, but the animation is sometimes distracting.
Another problem comes from the game’s inability or unwillingness to track the marbles you collected. Banjo-Kazooie had a similar issue with its musical notes; forcing you to collect them all over again if you exit a level or die, but that game had more open levels. Dying in Earthworm Jim 3D forces you to recollect them, but they’re scattered throughout areas that you’ve already finished and have no other reason to return to. It’s aggravating, both because the game is merciless in how many it expects you to have to progress, but also because death can come pretty quickly.
That’s usually the fault of the horrible camera. The early-3D era had this difficulty a lot, and to be fair to Jim, it’s not the worst, but it is extremely uncooperative and the game doesn’t really account for it. The starkest example of this is the segments where you have to eat a can of beans and use the resulting gas to propel yourself onto a platform above you. Yet, the camera doesn’t angle itself upwards, nor is there a way to manually place it there, so you’re always looking at the ground. This then requires using the first-person view to locate your next jump-to location, then just kind of guessing when you’re beneath it. These segments require you to climb extremely high chambers, so it’s easy to be killed by fall damage or worse.
The level design is, in general, unimpressive. A lot of objectives are repeated between levels, and the game seems really hesitant to throw any real threat your way. Platforming is as basic as can be because, well, it has to be. There are moments that are borrowed straight from previous Jim games, but they’re always watered down and unimpressive.
Worst of all, however, is the boss battles, which invariably take the form of a “pork boarding” minigame. In these segments, you ride atop a pig, and compete with a boss to collect 100 marbles. It’s not a first past the gate event, mind you, that would make too much sense. Instead, there are 100 marbles and you have to collect all of them. The boss seems more concerned with killing you, but you’ll still need to knock them around with homing missiles before you can take their marbles.
At first, this is pretty straight forward, but later bosses add annoying wrinkles that make it nearly intolerable. The last couple have the ability to straight up dodge your homing missile, and while there is a strategy to hitting them, a lot of it boils down to luck. The final boss was about as fun as walking barefoot over fresh tar.
And this is in place of any traditional boss battles. You know, situations where the skills and abilities that you built up throughout the game are put to the test? Yeah, instead you get pork boarding. Enjoy.
HEY, BAD DUDES!
Add to all of this the game’s spotty sense of
3D was the battlefield that many former popular licenses met their fate, and Earthworm Jim 3D is perhaps the starkest example of this. The first two games were extremely well-received to the point of being iconic, but this is where things skidded to a stop. To its credit, it’s certainly not the worst platformer of the era, and it’s definitely playable most of the time, but that isn’t the sort of praise you’d
Earthworm Jim 3D is, in essence, a wreck. I might one day feel like trying to untangle the tale of its development, but from looking at the results, the only theory that I have is that it was once an ambitious project. It feels like something that was built, and built, and built, until one day, someone said no more, and it had to be cut down into something that could be put on a shelf. This means that everything that wasn’t quite working at the time of production had to be dropped on the floor, and everything else needed to be stapled together into a cohesive unit.
That’s the impression that it gives off, but regardless of the real story behind it, Earthworm Jim 3D just doesn’t live up to its pedigree. It’s not terrible, but there are aggravations, and there’s nothing really worth recommending.
This review was conducted on an N64 with a cartridge copy of the game. It was paid for by the author.