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The Making Of Eartworm Jim

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Ask anyone who their favourite 16-bit character is and Earthworm Jim will always get mentioned alongside Sonic and Mario. Created by Doug TenNapel and brought to life by the magic of Shiny Entertainment, he’s the star of one of the 16-bit era’s most zaniest games and remains popular today. Here, David Perry recalls how it all started.

It was a tenuous time for videogames. Their popularity had reached a peak not seen since the mid-Seventies, but the looming storm cloud of 3-dimensional change was… looming, like… a big, dark, polygonal cloud.

EWJ Screen Cap (13)

Fun was a driving factor in Earthworm Jim. No idea was too crazy to be included.

Dave Perry found himself staring into the industry’s abyss, wondering whether to jump, climb down, or be pushed: “I had an offer to head up the game development for a new game publisher called Playmates Interactive Entertainment.” he begins. “I decided not to take the job and instead signed a contract to borrow a few million dollars from them to fund Shiny. Thank God I managed to pay them back!”

But God had nothing to do with it. Unless you subscribe to the theory that God created worms. If that’s the case, then Dave is right to thank Him and his legions of wriggly right-doers, for they provided the inspiration around which Shiny’s establishing title was built. Otherwise, he’d do well to thank Doug TenNapel. “In those days, we always had lots of ideas, and licences too, so we had many choices of direction. The team mentioned a guy called Doug TenNapel for the animator’s position, and I said he couldn’t join the team unless he did a demo to show his talent.” explains the 6’ 8” code commander.

TenNapel had freelanced on early Nintendo games, and had been employed as lead animator on Bluesky Software’s Mega Drive adaptation of Jurassic Park, when he was introduced to Perry. As Doug himself admits, his strength was not in animation, but in character design. Dave told us about his first impressions of the renowned artist: “Doug is very tall. Like me.” But Dave’s opinions go beyond the pencil jockey’s physical stature, however impressive and similar to his own it might be.

EWJ Screen Cap (3)

This dog’s bite is definitely worse than his bark.

“He’s a super creative guy, is easy to like and he’s even good at basketball. Doug just oozes new characters. If you had lunch with him, his napkin would have five new characters doodled on it by the time you left the restaurant. I can’t imagine how many he has now in his sketch books.” Our guess would be 84, but it’s one in particular that has our immediate interest: an eccentric hybrid of sci-fi technology, a cylindrical invertebrate and an overfull wheelie-bin of surrealist humour.

“Doug drew Earthworm Jim as his demo for Shiny, and got the job! I liked it so much it became our chosen direction and we turned down everything else to make it happen,” recalls Perry. TenNapel had been desperate to leave his current employ and get in on the ground level with a truly inspired game design, so had gone overboard preparing for his Shiny interview.

Although it wasn’t his intention at the time, all the characters he’d squeezed from his pencil in preparation for the showdown with Perry were incorporated into this new project – each more surreal than the last. But in order for Shiny’s debut title to really grab gamers by the eyeballs and twist their nipples into submission if they tried to put the controller down, Dave Perry insisted every team member take an active role in the game’s early development.

EWJ Screen Cap (11)

There’s plenty of variety to Earthworm Jim’s levels.

“Doug had created another character in the past called Evil the Cat, so I wanted him to include that character in the game, and we came up with a rule that everyone had to help with designs. So, everyone would draw sketches of ideas and we would make a giant pile of them. Everyone would laugh at the programmer’s artwork, as it sucked, but it would always get conversation going. Sometimes people would believe in something strongly, so they’d pull together a demo to show what they meant. If it was possible, it went in,” he recalls.

Surely the creative process of something as timeless as Earthworm Jim went far beyond the artistic content, however. The strength of the backstory and the quality of the script must go a long way toward generating the depth of gameplay that such classics exhibit. We put the question to Perry: “No. The game didn’t really have a story or a script.”
Fair enough. It was just a theory.

Building a virtual Tate Gallery of surrealist cartoon artwork for a run-’n’-gun platform game is a great idea, but hinges on finding a programmer detached enough from reality to try and chart the elastic limits of a Mega Drive cartridge. Fortunately, Perry knew the perfect candidate, who was well known for washing his face in the experimental programming sink. “Earthworm Jim was the last game I personally programmed. I miss it terribly. My office has hundreds of programming books just waiting for the day I retire from directing projects and get back to making them myself,” continues Perry. And platformers certainly seemed to be his bag, as he continued: “I’d programmed a lot of platform games over the years; I had just recently done Global Gladiators, Cool Spot and Aladdin in a row. So I’d been trying to find ways to get the ‘feel’ of the games nice and tight.”

EWJ Screen Cap (9)

The loading screens looked especially cool.

Indeed, a cynic could easily write EWJ off as just another platform game, but it was this kind of invaluable experience, which enabled the animators to lift the worm off the screen and allow players to connect with the character. “Back then the animation was hand drawn (with pencils!), scanned and coloured digitally. It would then pass into a compression tool, which was my secret weapon. There’s a lot more animation in Earthworm Jim than a Mega Drive can store!” laughs Perry, looking back at the endless difficulties of programming with a distinct fondness. He continues: “We were lucky as we had Mike Dietz as our Animation Director. He worked closely with Disney on Aladdin and was probably the best paper animator in the business. That said, it’s not just about animating, it’s about timing and finding ways to compress animations. He would do time sheets that would use frame 1, 2, 3 then 2, then 7, then 3, then 1 etc. He’d re-use old frames and draw the animation intending that to happen. So he was thinking technically too, and that made him priceless.”

Standing back and looking at the entire EWJ project, the wealth of technical expertise infused in the game (which ran parallel with the apparently endless spaghetti string of surrealist humour) was something particularly special. Each member brought a proficiency to the table that other developers could only dream about. Perry agrees.

“For my previous four games, the audio was done by Tommy Tallarico. So for Earthworm Jim I told him to really go for it. In Global Gladiators, he found a way to get real guitar samples to sound like they’re being played, so for EWJ he decided to go farther and did banjo tunes, bagpipe tunes, harmonica, and more. What you hear is an audio guy experiencing freedom and having fun.”

Successfully bottling “fun”, as the Shiny team had managed with their opening number, granted them the industry acclaim they deserved, but was also the ultimate cause of the company’s woe. Crows were circling over Jim’s head, and they weren’t waiting for a cow to fall from the sky. “I worked on Earthworm Jim 2 with our other Shiny programmer Andy Astor, who did the Special Edition for Sega CD. I liked those games. I hated the stuff that Interplay, VIS and Crave did. I asked them to stop, but Interplay refused.”

Sequels are inevitable, but once a hungry conglomerate sets their mind on wringing every last drop of blood from the stone of a once great game, the franchise invariably suffers. The creative team behind EWJ were hung out to dry and could only watch as their beloved invertebrate was homogenised, dissected and sold off piece by piece.

“I got nervous as I knew 3D was coming and my team just wasn’t equipped to handle it. I tried to stick it out and started buying Silicon Graphics computers etc, but this money was out of my bank account. The team wasn’t excited about 3D, so I sold my equity in Shiny to Interplay, and Interplay became responsible to pay all royalties on future sales. That’s when the trouble hit. They kept making Earthworm Jim games, conversions and so on – none of us got paid. Still to this day.”

You can read the rest of our Making Of Earthworm Jim in issue 33. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com

Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from Imagineshop

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