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Whatever Happened To Earthworm Jim?

In the modern era of gaming, it's relatively easy to find hand-drawn stylized games, but back when development was less accessible, it was a rare thing that set games apart. One can find this particularly detailed, fluid approach to designs in "Cuphead" and "Hollow Knight," and there are too many beautifully hand-drawn indie games to count — but in the classic days, it was a much rarer art form. A uniquely cartoony style, fluid animations and gameplay, coupled with charming characters and settings made "Earthworm Jim" a lasting icon of the mid-90s — and one of the few games worth getting an old console for the authentic experience.

The first two "Earthworm Jim" games were developed by Shiny Entertainment, a fledgling company founded by industry veteran David Perry. It's been a long, long time, and until a few years ago there was absolutely nothing new from the franchise. Fans of the stylish side scroller may have wondered for years what exactly happened behind the scenes to lead to the demise of "Earthworm Jim," who was at once one of the most ridiculous and overpowered characters in gaming

Decades-old interviews and modern-day retrospectives with former team members — and Perry — reveal the mystery of where this iconic video game franchise went. As it turns out, the answer is far murkier than many might have imagined.

Earthworm Jim was the brainchild of a young developer and a former Dreamworks animator

Despite only being 19 when he started Shiny Entertainment, Perry already had a solid background in game development. As a 17-year-old, he worked on "The Terminator" at Probe Software and later worked on "Aladdin" and product tie-in games "Cool Spot" and "Global Gladiators" at Virgin Games. When Perry left Virgin Games, Playmates Toys — which held the license for "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" — was looking for something fresh. 

"We didn't really know what we were actually going to do," Perry said in an interview with Develop, referring to the start of Shiny Entertainment. "We knew whatever we chose we could make something of, but we needed that inspiration." Former DreamWorks animator Doug TenNapel was hired by Shiny for sketches, and his Warner Brother and classic animation inspirations spawned the first version of Earthworm Jim. The concept took shape, including just how overpowered this classic character's abilities were. Shiny Entertainment started developing the game, and Playmates published and promoted it with a line of toys.  

In the second half of the 1990s, Earthworm Jim turned into a series, following the massive success of the first game. "Earthworm Jim 2" was developed and published by all of the same partners, but in 1995 — just one year after the first "Earthworm Jim" — Perry sold Shiny Entertainment to Interplay Games. 

Looking back, Perry called the sale of Shiny Entertainment "the biggest mistake I've made in my career" (per Develop). 

After the first two games' success, Earthworm Jim went to Interplay Studios

David Perry didn't sell Shiny Entertainment to Interplay for petty cash, it was — at the time — a move that came from the need for developers who could work in 3D. "I'd thought Shiny was a one-focus shop," Perry said to Develop magazine in a retrospective 2012 interview. "I thought we just did hand-drawn pencil animation. Little did I know that my team would be so adaptable to switch to 3D." 

Though his team did eventually prove itself with 3D classics like MDK, half of the team reportedly left after the Interplay purchase — including Doug TenNapel, the now-controversial animator who originally designed "Earthworm Jim." These former employees would later found The Neverhood Inc and release the eponymous classic claymation game "The Neverhood."

But back at Interplay, Shiny Entertainment was still chugging along, and moving away from its cartoony, whimsical roots of "Earthworm Jim." In fact, to spur creativity in the team, Perry apparently instituted a new "no sequels" rule which, according to PC Gamer, "ensured oddball ideas could thrive." Though the interview sources that confirm this policy's existence are long lost to archives, it explains why the next "Earthworm Jim" game, "Earthworm Jim 3D," had no involvement from Shiny Entertainment. Despite no involvement from the original creators, "Earthworm Jim" was kept on life support, and is still missing to this day — for the most part, anyway.

Shiny Entertainment was done with Earthworm Jim, but the franchise continued to its detriment

In total, half of the games in the series were made by Shiny Entertainment, but not the last two — "Earthworm Jim 3D" and "Earthworm Jim: Menace 2 the Galaxy." Neither game was received well by critics or fans, and together they spelled the all-but-certain doom of the "Earthworm Jim" series. 

Interestingly, the North American N64 release of "Earthworm Jim 3D" was one of Rockstar Games' first published titles. For this title, Interplay handed off the main development to the sub-studio VIS Interactive. The first — and only — 3D game in the series was panned on release. Critics particularly complained about its lack of polish, stylized charm, and its camera. In 2000, GameSpot said to rent it before you buy it, and that "a little tweaking... would have made all the difference in the world."

Its follow-up got even worse reviews. "Earthworm Jim: Menace 2 the Galaxy" was a complete 180 for the series as it left the 3D realm and turned back to 2D animation. Only this time, it was exclusive to the GameBoy Color and lacked all of what made "Earthworm Jim" so iconic. IGN said at the time that while it's better than most platformers on the GameBoy, "this isn't the same Earthworm Jim I enjoyed on the console systems a few years back." Indeed, the 3D title is considered among the games that ruined their own franchises, but all hope might not be lost.

Earthworm Jim series has been dormant for 25 years, but it's not dead yet

"Earthworm Jim 3D" and "Earthworm Jim: Menace 2 the Galaxy" weren't quite the final nail in the coffin, but things did look dire. After years without any peep, rumors of a new "Earthworm Jim" game started to surface. Atari — which recently purchased Interplay — confirmed in 2006 that it would be a PlayStation Portable game made by much of the original team, including Perry and TenNapel. By 2007, industry insiders had playable development builds of the game, but by the end of the year, Atari sold Shiny Entertainment, and development on the PSP title suddenly stopped. 

After being cut loose from Atari, in 2008, Interplay announced "Earthworm Jim 4," but there was suspiciously little information about it available anywhere. There wasn't even a contact for media outlets to learn more about the game. By 2011, Interplay had to confirm the game was still in development. But in the last 12 years, there's been nothing new from Interplay — it didn't even develop the remaster that came out in 2010. Gameloft did

Not all hope is lost for the world's most daring space worm. Despite being on the verge of death for decades, there were reports of both a new "Earthworm Jim" TV show and game in development — with the OG team back once again. It's one of the few confirmed projects for the Intellivision Amico, a retro gaming console said to release soon that aims to bring back classics and offer new games too. If it's anything like it's hyped up to be, it's sure to be one of those games that blow players away – if it gets made.