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The Memory Card .51: The flying cow

4:00 PM on 01.15.2009 // Chad Concelmo

One thing that is great about videogames is designers can pretty much do anything they want within the virtual world they create. While, of course, there is a general audience they want to please, videogame designers don’t feel the same kind of pressure to appease everyone as much as, say, a movie producer or television executive do. In a way, the more absurd the videogame the better!

This concept applies even more to retro games. Years ago, there was such a small, specific group of people playing videogames that designers could get away with a lot of oddities you would never find in modern, popular games.

The perfect example of this throw-caution-to-the-wind attitude lies in Genesis (and Super NES) classic Earthworm Jim. It goes without saying that the designers weren’t out to please the masses with some of the crazy stuff that goes down in this game. And that is the reason Earthworm Jim is so great.

Hit the jump to revisit my favorite part of Earthworm Jim; a game full of almost too many memorable moments to count.

The Set-Up

Earthworm Jim is a ridiculously wacky platformer released for the Genesis in 1994. And, honestly, “wacky” doesn’t begin to describe how awesomely ludicrous the game really is. Well, I guess “awesomely ludicrous” is the better way to describe it then. There you go!

In the game, you play as an earthworm that happens to land inside the collar of a giant spacesuit that falls to Earth. Upon entering this suit, the helpless earthworm turns into a mutated, powerful superhero by the name of Earthworm Jim.

Throughout the game Earthworm Jim battles villains Psy-Crow and Queen Slug-for-a-Butt and their evil cohorts, one of which is a killer goldfish. Like I said ... awesomely ludicrous.

Besides the stunning animation and gorgeous 16-bit graphics, one of the best parts about Earthworm Jim is its excellent level design. Each level in the game is completely different and offers some of the most creative gameplay ever incorporated into a videogame.

During the first level of the game -- entitled New Junk City -- Earthworm Jim shoots and leaps his way through a massive junkyard full of crazy enemies and hilarious situations.

At the very start of the level, Earthworm Jim sees a simple yellow road sign with the shape of a cow painted on it. A few jumps later our mutated hero runs into an actual cow standing on the end of a large tree branch. Hanging by a thin rope above the other end of the branch is a large refrigerator. I know, it’s completely random, but that’s what makes Earthworm Jim so wonderful.

Being the curious humanoid megadrile he is, Earthworm Jim uses his trusty gun and shoots apart the frayed rope.

With a crash, the refrigerator comes crashing down on the end of the branch, hurdling the poor cow into the air and off the screen.

After this ... nothing. The cow doesn’t come mooing back to the ground or anything. Literally, the level just continues on as Earthworm Jim battles more enemies and tackles tougher platforming sequences.

It isn’t until later in the game when this week’s Memory Card moment occurs: the flying cow.

The Moment

After playing through a wide variety of incredibly creative levels (bungee jumping!), Earthworm Jim eventually makes it to the game’s final level: Buttville (hehehe).

Once getting through a surprisingly tough supply of platforming obstacles, Earthworm Jim reaches the dastardly Queen Slug-for-a-Butt. Using the skills practiced throughout the game, Jim eventually defeats this final boss and makes his way towards his ultimate reward: the Queen’s sister, the kind and loving Princess What’s-Her-Name.

As Earthworm Jim walks closer, he notices the beautiful princess standing on the edge of a rocky precipice. Her striking read hair cascades over her voluptuous body like lava flowing from a perfectly-formed mountain. Her large eyes sparkle in the light of the setting sun.

Earthworm Jim steps forward as the princess blows him a kiss.

Everything is perfect.

Jim, just a simple earthworm not too long ago, is finally going to be with the woman of his dreams.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, the cow that flew off the screen within the first five minutes of the game comes crashing down on top of the princess. Her crown flies off and lands on the other side of the rocky cliff.

Earthworm Jim’s jaw drops.

The princess is dead.

With this, the game ends and the credits roll.

God, so brilliant.

As the credits finish the game throws in two more amazing jokes. First, the edge of the cliff supporting the cow and crushed beauty breaks off, plummeting the princess into the hot lava below. Secondly -- and, man, is this great -- Earthworm Jim pops on the screen, snatches the abandoned crown, and disappears.

Fade to black.

You can watch Earthworm Jim launching the cow on the first level and see it come crashing back down to Earth after the final boss right here:

The Impact
What can I really say about this sequence other than the fact that it is so freakin’ hilarious?!

I have no idea where the designers came up with their sick and twisted ideas, but they really help make Earthworm Jim one of the most memorable videogames of the 16-bit era. While a small handful of retro games were funny, Earthworm Jim managed to not only elicit laughs, but contain some of the best platforming gameplay of the time. Quite a feat, if I may say so myself.

The flying cow gag in particular really managed to genuinely surprise me the first time it happened.

Since the game is so overwhelmingly odd, catapulting a cow into the air for no apparent reason really doesn’t really seem all that strange. And by the time the player gets to the end of the game the cow launching sequence is almost completely forgotten (is also helps that there are several million other awesome jokes to distract your attention).

So let’s set up the last scene to show how perfectly placed the gag really is.

The last boss is defeated. Even the music that comes on signals a satisfying triumph. The screen fades out and cuts to a beautiful princess standing on the edge of a cliff. The graphics are extra pretty to help set the tone for the damsel’s well-earned rescue.

Everything in this scene is the definition of a clichéd videogame ending.

And then out of nowhere the cow just kills the princess. There is no build up; no anticipation. It just happens.

And that’s what makes it so fantastic.

I don’t remember if I figured it out immediately, but once I realized that the cow was not completely random, but the same cow that Earthworm Jim had launched into the air on the first level, I was blown away. Even today, all these years later, I still am impressed by how well the entire joke works. It is pretty brilliant and there have only been a small amount of games since that have matched Earthworm Jim in genius-level humor.

I was going to try to end with some kind of clever joke or “moo” pun, but, really, how can I top a giant cow falling on top of a princess and killing her.

I really can’t.

Let me just simply say that I adore Earthworm Jim and the flying cow is a videogame moment I will never forget.

The Memory Card Save Files

.01 - .20 (Season 1)
.21 - .40 (Season 2)
.41: The tadpole prince (Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars)
.42: Pyramid Head! (Silent Hill 2)
.43: Waiting for Shadow (Final Fantasy VI)
.44: Solid vs. Liquid (Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots)
.45: The birth of the cutscene (Ninja Gaiden)
.46: Insult swordfighting (The Secret of Monkey Island)
.47: A castle stuck in time (The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker)
.48: 'That's the magic flute!' (The Wizard)
.49: Saving Santa (Secret of Mana)
.50: A shocking loss (Half-Life 2: Episode Two)

Chad Concelmo,
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