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April 18, 2012 / jwaxo

Earthworm Jim (Slow and Steady)

Don’t scream… don’t scream…

As illustrious as my personal history of video games has been, there are a good many that I still managed to miss out on growing up. Great games for Playstation, Dreamcast, and even my own Nintendo 64 have all managed to been cast aside for other options. It is in these cases that I am extremely grateful for services like the X-Box Live Arcade, which has more and more retro games added to its catalog for my purchasing and playing pleasure.

This is how I found myself playing the classic N64 game Banjo-Kazooie this weekend.

Banjo is a pretty popular and famous game about a cartoony bear and his best pal bird who lives in his backpack. Together they travel through an evil witch’s layer and the twelve or so worlds that link to it, collecting all manner of things that somehow add up to saving the titular bear’s little sister. In case you missed this important fact in that plot distillation, it is a collecting game, one of my personal favorite types of things to do. In fact, you might say that Banjo-Kazooie is nothing more than collecting: there are 100 notes per level, 10 jigsaw pieces, five jinja monster things, two honey comb pieces (which can increase your life), and… more. All sitting there, waiting to be picked up and added to your collection.

Hoarders jokes notwithstanding.

This is all mostly beside the point, because, being a collecting game, there are minor puzzles and time trials in order to get some of the rarer items. During one particularly arduous race up a pyramid that I kept failing, I found myself flashing back to an old, old level. One that haunted my dreams with its difficulty.

A level from Earthworm Jim, of course.

Jim was… a very strange game. Similar to Banjo-Kazooie only in its absurdity and cartoony look, it was about an earthworm and his semi-sentient spacesuit that set out on a platforming and shooting quest to rescue princess What’s-Her-Name. In Jim’s own words, it was pretty groovy, ridiculous, and fun. Jim had a wide variety of weapons at his disposal, including the ability to whip himself at enemies for a melee attack, or as a grappling hook to swing around levels. When my brother brought it home from yet another trade with his friends, we gleefully installed it on our PC and were quickly drawn into its cartoony visuals, silly gags, and tricky levels.

Oh-so-tricky levels.

There is one famous level here, of course. The most famous. It was titled “Down the Tubes” and it worked like this:

  • Pilot a bubble-shaped submarine
  • With horrible, momentum-gaining steering
  • Through corridors and tubes the exact width of the submarine
  • Every tap against the walls causes cracks to form
  • Enough taps and the entire thing shatters, killing you
  • Limited lives
  • Limited continues
  • Limited oxygen that can be refilled at tiny, disposable nozzles
  • Horribly difficult steering

There would be only one way to make this more difficult

In case you can’t figure it out, it was insanely hard. The worst part was that the level wasn’t composed of just the submarine segment: it had a bunch of platforming and fighting segments interspersed throughout, making it hard to get into the submarine zone.

I was not always the most patient of fellows, and certain techniques I had picked up through the years had trained me that the best solution was often the fastest one. So I would panic at the sight of the timer and careen through the level, gaining cracks like flypaper gathers wings and dismembered legs, until, inevitably, the submarine would shatter and I would be treated to the sight of Jim floundering, once more.

Days this haunted me. I would play through the game, carefully save up lives, get to Down the Tubes, and promptly use all of those extra worms up, only to be cast back to the start of the game.

You can guess how I eventually figured out what to do.

It was early one Saturday morning. I was in my little bathrobe, sleepy, and ready to conquer Down the Tubes. Through lidded eyes, I navigated the tubes and caverns, just barely tapping when it needed to be tapped, carefully sucking down all of the oxygen I could get. I was tired and sleepy, and so I took my time.

And I finished that level. In record time, even.

It remains one of the best strategies for dealing with any particularly strenuous event, whether it’s on a timer or not, whether it’s important or not.

And sometimes it’s very, very important to get that jigsaw piece.

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