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Endings: Who needs closure when you have cows?

This week’s “Bloggers Wanted” topic is endings, and some – including the introductory post – have used this to complain about how weak so many video games’ endings are. I understand these complaints – after all, it takes a lot of time and effort to get to the end of a video game, and we want payoff for all the things we’ve done. Without closure, we feel betrayed, as if the whole game was just an arbitrary series of meaningless (if, hopefully, fun) tasks. A good game should tie everything together at the end and make you feel accomplished. This article isn’t about any such game. Instead, I want to talk about two classic games that deliberately fail to provide any closure – but in doing so, manage to have among the most memorable (in a good way) endings ever.

Cows make everything funny. If you don’t believe me, read the Wayside School books. (The second one ends when the school must close due to a… cow infestation.) The Earthworm Jim games realize the comedy potential these farm animals hold. In fact, you encounter a cow during the very first part of the very first level of Earthworm Jim. In order to progress, you have to launch it in the air using a refrigerator. This sets the tone for the rest of the game: it’s weird. Very weird. Weird enough that the refrigerator-aided cow launch does not seem remotely out of place.

As you progress through the game, you encounter so much absurdity that, by the end, you may have actually forgotten all about the cow launch. At the end of the game, you finally defeat Queen Slug-for-a-Butt and save Princess What’s-Her-Name (yes, that’s her actual name). The titular Jim meets the princess in the ending scene. He visibly lusts after her. The princess looks ready to kiss him…

And then she gets crushed by the cow from the first level.

Not only is all of your progress pointless now; it’s pointless because of something you did. The cow launch wasn’t a cutscene – you, the player, launched the cow that doomed the princess. Because of you, the only ending you get to witness is Jim’s soul-crushing disappointment. And that’s what makes it so hilarious.

At the very end of the last scene, Jim looks around shiftily and then takes the princess’s crown. Congratulations: you braved a whole batch of hard (and I mean hard) levels, beat all the bosses, and defeated the Queen. You get a stupid crown you stole from the head of the princess you accidentally squashed. And then the game is over.

Earthworm Jim 2 was basically an attempt to out-weird the first game, which is no easy task. Yet they succeeded; so bizarre is this sequel that it blurs the line between video game and acid trip. (This is a game, I should probably mention, where upon defeating every level, you are rewarded by a screen with two grazing cows, one of whom says, simply, “Well done.”) Like the rest of the game, the ending takes what the original did and exceeds it.

The main bad guy of Earthworm Jim 2 is a psychotic crow named, fittingly, Psy-crow. At the end of the game, we see Jim, Psy-crow, and the princess in a screen, along with this text: “And so, having defeated the nefarious Psy-crow, our hero, Earthworm Jim, wins back the heart of the lovely Princess What’s-Her-Name.”

And then the princess sheds her skin to reveal that she’s actually… a cow.

The aforementioned text then changes to replace “Princess What’s-Her-Name” with “Cow”. And then, as Jim looks on in disbelief, Psy-crow suddenly reveals that he, too, is a cow. The text changes again to accommodate for this.

And then – this is what got me really laughing – Earthworm Jim also sheds his skin, and he is also a cow.

It’s absurd. It’s completely nonsensical. The ending not only fails to close the game, but actually degrades the entire experience. And frankly, I find it even funnier than the ending to the original.

The Earthworm Jim games seem to make a point of not taking themselves seriously. These two ending pretty much deny us any opportunity to. Are the endings disappointing? That’s not a fair question – they’re supposed to be. That’s the joke. In a game with an actual plot and actual characters, you’d expect something of a sendoff, even if it's just something as simple as the Mario World end scene. The Earthworm Jim endings strip us of our ability to see the games as even having a plot – there is maybe some small hint of plot, if you look hard enough, but then at the end they derail it. They’re games that run 100% on wackiness, and that’s what the endings really get across in their absurdity.

It’s been said that humor is a matter of defying expectations. The Earthworm Jim games certainly meet this definition; I don’t know of any other video game whose ending is such a blunt “screw you” to the player, who had expected some closure, even weak closure. But for both the original and the sequel, the ending is probably the most memorable part of the game simply because of this. After all, even if we were prepared for a weak ending, we probably hadn’t expected cows.
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About Gengarioone of us since 11:29 AM on 10.20.2010

Male college student from Virginia here. I've only ever owned Nintendo consoles, so if a game's not on any of those, I'm probably not interested. (There are exceptions, though). I'm also a huge fan of the Metroid, Pokemon, and Legend of Zelda series. That's pretty much all you need to know about me from a short blurb on a gaming website.