Two days ago I played a Sega CD for the first time as well as the definitive version of one of my favorite games from my childhood: Earthworm Jim.
This is a game that I played so often that I basically have the progression route for a whole play through etched in the muscle memory of my hands. The only other games that I might have a similar intimacy with are Mega Man 3, Sonic 2 and maybe the first Tomb Raider game. That last one is a real maybe but I wouldn’t rule it out. Final Fantasy VII may be my favorite video game period but that came into my life at a much later time.
Even with that deep level of nostalgia and rote memorization, though, there is still so much to be delighted by. Not to say nostalgia still isn’t mixed up in it though 0.0
For one, consider the era it came out in. It was the early nineties and Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network were just ramping up. I remember Nickelodeon being turned on a lot in my home and my parents liked it more than I did. You see, I was probably around four years old, and almost everything on that channel terrified me. I remember an episode of Rugrats that had a freaky as hell dream sequence.
My mom was also a big fan of The Ren & Stimpy Show and the niche it carved out for itself. People these days seem to call it toilet humor. When I look back on things like the episode where Ren had cavities, I’m more tempted to call it comedic body horror.
Whatever it was, though, it caught on and we got things like Rocko’s Modern Life, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, Eek The Cat, Cow and Chicken and Space Goofs. And Little Kid Ailix liked every single one of them more than Ren & Stimpy. Cow and Chicken was probably my favorite. Maybe you could lump in Ed Edd n Eddy if you cared to. That hooked me also.
Considering that Earthworm Jim dropped in the early nineties and its blend of juvenile humor and absurdity, I think it’s fair to say that it was part of the same general trend. Earthworm Jim also may have had more personality than all of them, though.
I mean, who else remembers Boogerman? Nonstop toilets, nonstop boogers, nonstop monsters made of literal crap, it just played out the whole toilet humor gimmick to death. I was in elementary school back then and that game was somehow really popular with my peers. But it was a lifeless golem made of pandering gimmicky bullshit. I mean I’m being way more articulate than Little Kid Ailix was, but Little Kid Ailix knew that Boogerman was built on two or three gags being cycled over and over again. It was a distillation of all of the laziest tendencies of the Ren & Stimpy derivatives.
Don’t get me wrong, Earthworm Jim was totally one of those derivatives as well, but it was more than that. In fact, the gross out jokes were kind of the smallest part of the whole equation. There were other gags to, but even those gags were just one part of the whole.
(Is it just me or do the loading screens in the special edition look like the title screens from shows that were part of the What A Cartoon block from Cartoon Network?)
I mean, the For Pete’s Sake level, for example. That clearly relies on a big versus small gag. Jim is big and Jim is protecting Pete who is small. If Pete get’s hurt, Pete turns into a giant red bulldog monster with throbbing veins, clutches Jim in his teeth and drags him back a few obstacles behind where he was. It’s a classic gag, sorta reminiscent of Looney Toons, really.
But look at all the other details that the game gets you to take for granted. What planet are you on and why can you see space? Why does this seem to be the only level that gives you a sense of having just come from the interstellar race with Psycrow that you do between every level?
The music also adds something. It adds something during every second of the game, because Tommy Tallarico is an angel sent to Earth to make beautiful beautiful music. But in For Pete’s Sake the music is restrained, which lets everything else go to the foreground. But still has this droning, rhythmic, science fiction quality.
Oh, and this tonal balance that happens between the normal gag stuff, cuteness and eerie atmosphere? It shifts dramatically in the second to last level, Intestinal Distress. The level is weirdly minimal, save for the appearance of being inside of someone’s digestive tract. And the music is…well…horror movie music. I can’t think of any other way to describe it. Sure enough, the last level is called Buttville.
During one of my early play throughs, I remember the growing realization that the final boss and villain of the game, Queen Slug For A Butt, is bodily connected to Buttville. As in, you are actually inside her and your progression to the exit- AKA her asshole -triggers the final boss fight. Little Kid Ailix was like “is this…seriously what it looks like????”
That, needless to say, goes beyond “toilet humor” and is truly weird. And the music in this level. The track commonly known as Falling, in a different context, could actually create a feeling of vertigo and dread. I almost wanna say it reminds me of falling into Hell. Certain puns come to mind, like “the belly of the beast”.
Actually, at the age I was when I first played this, it hooked my imagination. I’ve always written stories, almost compulsively, and Little Kid Ailix was set on a kick of designing stories set inside of bodies.
Anyway, on the special edition for the Sega CD, one of the first things you’ll notice is that the soundtrack is so crisp and perfect that the music alone could fully justify it. It’s just that good. If you’ve played the SNES or Gameboy Advance ports and thought they were markedly inferior to the Sega original, then the Sega CD sound quality makes them absolute garbage by comparison. Maybe it was re-recorded- I don’t know just now. I do know that the Sega CD was capable of CD quality sound so it wouldn’t surprise me.
And while I love how smooth the muscle memory of my endless play throughs can make things, my heart was instantly warmed to find out how many of the levels are expanded. In the part of New Junk City where Jim is suddenly without his suit, he announces “I’m nude!” with a Southern drawl.
Did Jim have a Southern accent in the WB cartoon series? I don’t think he did. But the “Ahm noood” combined with his “woah Nelly!” from the original makes me think he was meant to be Southern in the game. Could that be why there’s a loading screen with him *snickers* loading stuff into a truck bed? It also seems consistent with the banjo music that plays when you race against Psycrow. And yes, banjos are a commonly recognized hallmark of Earthworm Jim music. Banjos, science fictiony electronic beats, parodies of music from nineteen-thirties Disney cartoons and industrial rock. And it all fits into the same atmospheric whole. Did I mention the composer, Tommy Tallarico, is a freaking gift?
So I was wrapping up the Psycrow race after What The Heck? when this shit happened
I blink and I’m like “What the fuck is this shit??”
This shit wasn’t in the original game. After tooling around for a minute, I notice the music for this new level has creepy, empty wind sounds and dry wooden creaks, like a plank dangling from its nail off of a crappy cobbled-together fort. And what is that pink thing? It’s kind of like…a dinosaur? I guess? Are those nostrils or its eye sockets? They’re empty so I wanna go with nostrils. Please let them be nostrils.
So you inch up to it, it starts to stalk you, it speeds up and…and…what the fuck are those sounds it’s making? It sounds crazed and hungry, but what are the actual noises? Hoots? Grunts? Gibbers? All of the above?
Whatever this nightmare fuel is, you gotta deal with it throughout the whole level. In fact there are a few puzzles built around getting the pink, sightless, hooting crazy fucker to crash into things to remove barriers or step on levers to launch you into the air.
What delighted me more than all that, though, was that this new level, called Big Bruty, required me to use all of the same problem solving strategies I used as a seven year old. It re-connected me with Little Kid Ailix’s feeling of having solved a few puzzles, got a game over but still eager to press on in spite of the frustration. This bizarre little curve ball of a level actually made me feel a lot of things that I haven’t felt for a long, long time.
It was a very pleasant night of gaming with my amazing girlfriend, in other words. And a lovely way to get re-acquainted with a gleeful part of my childhood. Now I kinda wanna see if that graphic novel the original devs are working on is in any way obtainable
(Eat your heart out, Doug Funnie, someone did the black and white pencil intro better then you! 😀 )