Last night I hooked up with an old friend for the first time in a few years. These situations are always exciting, but often a bit nerve-wracking too. Would we still get on? Would I have moved on as a person and be forced to see our old relationship in a new, less enthusiastic light? Would uncomfortable present-day reality stomp all over the happy nostaligia of the way things used to be between us?
In short, the answers were yes, no, and absolutely not. The old friend was Earthworm Jim, and thanks to Gameloft's new HD upgrade for XBLA (and coming soon for PSN), he's cooler, friendlier, and more fun than he ever has been. So now, I shall recount to you exactly why this may very well be the absolutely definitive version of one of the 16-bit era's finest platformers.
Unlike many HD re-releases of 16-bit games on the two big consoles' download services, Earthworm Jim HD is the real deal. No blurry old sprites upscaled and smudged into a gooey mess here. All of Jim's levels, sprites, backgrounds and special effects have been redrawn, reworked and thoroughly beautified to create a genuinely stunning-looking game. Jim was always a looker, but his new, more vibrant, more detailed visuals are a truly gorgeous sight to behold.
Cult games, especially older ones, are fairly numerous. Cult soundtracks, far less-so. Jim's OST, composed by veteren game music genius - not to mention creator of the Video Games Live concerts - Tommy Tallarico is one of those soundtracks. Clever, creative, moody, and at times utterly, gloriously insane, I'm borderline delerious at its treatment in Earthworm Jim HD. Not a single track has been messed with, but they've all been remastered excellently, so you can now appreciate every beat, bassline, sample and random twang like even the SNES' legendary sound chip could never allow you to.
As much as we used to mock them, the idea of unlockable game-specific kit for your Xbox Avatar is starting to come into its own now. And Jim HD's are brilliant. First up, there's a rather natty Earthworm Jim t-shirt, which actually made me a little jealous of my small digital man and now has me on the search for a real world one for my very real self.
But way better than that is Jim's power suit. A perfect 3D replica of Jim's spacesuit, it almost made me do a little air-punch when I discovered it, and it's going to take something very special indeed to make me put anything else on my Avatar ever again.
Jim was always a slickly kinetic show-off. Beautifully animated - which the re-painted frames really show off now - and highly versatile, he was a pleasure to control. But now he's even better. Thanks to analogue stick control, his movement is far more precise, and his multi-directional shooting - although still making use of the traditional eight directions - is far more fluid and instinctive to use than it ever was with a d-pad. It sounds like a simple point to make, but when you get your hands on Jim HD you'll find it immensely refreshing. The space racing Andy Asteroids? levels are almost a whole new experience.
I would have hated Gameloft to have crowbarred in a bunch of 3D cutscenes just for the sake of pandering to modern conventions. They would have stuck out as awkwardly as a Speedo-wearing man in a strip club next to Jim's flawless 2D eye candy. But we do now have six pages of static, comic book artwork explaining Jim's backstory as an intro to the game. It's funny, wonderfully drawn, and packed with completely authentic personality for all the characters involved. I like it a lot.
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