Developer: Cyclone System
Released: November 1991
US Cartridge ID: NES-WQ-USA
Genre: Action Adventure
Supported Peripherals: Controller
ROM Size: 2 megabit
Mapper: MMC3 (128k PRG, 128k CHR)
Eschewing the typical lighthearted fluff that contextually justifies the large majority of the NES’s game library, Wurm: Journey to the Center of the Earth presents itself as an unusually weighty cautionary tale wrought by a variety of gameplay types and cinematic exposition. As the brainchild of Yoshikawa Shouichi (also responsible for Golgo 13: Top Secret Mission’s excellent scenario direction, script writing, and English translation), Wurm follows the same path as its spiritual predecessor in numerous design elements, though it casts aside Duke Togo’s gritty real-world setting in favor of a futuristic science fiction one to host its message.
Much like Golgo 13: Top Secret Mission, Wurm’s decidedly more adult approach to conveying its story lends its plot far more gravity than is typically expected of an 8-bit title, and it is the story, not the finer points of its at times awkward gameplay mechanics, that makes it a meaningful and engaging experience. Driven by a startlingly well-realized motivating ideology (which can be reviewed on the creator’s website, though only partially in English), Wurm strives, and to some extent succeeds, at questioning mankind’s place in the world’s natural order through an examination of our race’s tendency to dominate, to control, and to fight.
It is this ideology that drives the core metaphors at the heart of the story. At the turn of the twentieth century, man is still driven by an innate compulsion to prove his dominance over all. A sudden and violent series of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes threaten the existence of life on Earth’s surface, and man is left with no option but to plumb its depths in search of the source of this recent string of natural disasters. Under the advice of a team of experts, a group of elite soldiers are dispatched to investigate the source of the disturbance using highly specialized, all-terrain “VZR”s, or Wurms. The four that were sent out haven’t been heard from, and Captain Moby and her crew are sent after them to discover their fate.
Players assume the role of Moby, the daughter of the respected scientist Dr. Banda piloting the VZR 3 when it was lost, over the five acts of the story arc. Each of these acts involve digging further below the earth’s crust to find the lost VZR pilots while trying to foil the plot of the subterranean Nonmaltans, and are played out through the use of five designated game types: HSS (Horizontal Scroll Shooting mode), VSS (Vertical Scroll Shooting mode), CSRP (Cockpit Shooting/Role Playing Mode), SARP (Shooting Adventure/Role Playing mode), and Cinema Mode.
The HSS and VSS stages play in a way similar to Gradius or Gun-Nac, though Moby has full control over the VZR’s configuration at all times: in rocky areas she may choose to have it roll along the ground as a tank, its front drill primed to bore through softer surfaces if necessary. If the enemy takes priority as a threat over the terrain, the VZR can be changed into a hovercraft with a wider array of weaponry, or in more demanding circumstances, its aerial form, a jet equipped with lasers. Each of these ships’ range of capabilities expand over the course of the story, eventually allowing for massive shockwaves capable of clearing most enemies from the screen in a single hit, though the player must always remain mindful of the VZR’s fuel reserves if they wish to survive passage through an area.
While in the Wurm, the crew will occasionally alert Moby of the appearance of a particularly strong monster. Engaging will shift the game into the CSRP mode, where the action is viewed from a first-person perspective from the piloted VZR. Before attacking, the player will have the opportunity to speak with each of the crew members on board. These conversations, wherein Moby’s compatriots will offer advice and thoughts on the current encounter, can serve to either raise or lower the ship’s defenses as well as the likelihood of success. If someone expresses something irrelevant and useless or admits doubt, these ratings may be lowered; however, someone offering useful advice or encouragement can greatly improve the crew’s odds against the enemy. After a predetermined number of conversations, the player must shoot down the enemy by targeting and firing at its weak point. Though the Wurm can whittle away at the life of the monster at any time that its weak point is exposed, the monster can only be defeated once the “possibility” rating has reached 100%.
After felling an enemy in CSRP mode, Moby will usually exit the VZR to explore the current area on foot. The SARP mode stages are small mazes that must be explored to find the missing VZR pilots, in addition to necessary items and clues. These stages consist of mostly side-scrolling platform action, and Moby must shoot and kick her way through whatever opposition might be encountered. The nonlinear nature of these areas are analogous to the city streets of Golgo 13, though they feel much more claustrophobic due to the cramped passages painted in somber, muted hues. Wurm’s level design, while not as the stark and barren design as can be seen in Metroid’s alien caverns, draws a great deal of inspiration from the tone established in Nintendo’s early hit, but successfully reimagines it to suit its own purposes.
The action stages are stitched together with cinematic cutscenes like those pioneered by the Ninja Gaiden and used to great effect in the later Vice: Project Doom, where narrated anime-style shots of character interactions become the primary device for plot exposition. The illustrations used in these scenes are often recycled with new text overlaid, but are spaced well enough to avoid becoming overly repetitive. Outside of full-screen cut-scenes, Moby will often speak with those she encounters during the other game modes through a text box at the top of the screen, and the limited range of facial expressions that indicate her surprise or indignation at certain junctures are surprisingly effective.
Wurm: Journey to the Center of the Earth’s presentation is generally good, but it is extremely uneven. The cinematics and the first person shooting scenes are easily the most eye catching spectacles, making use of large characters and bright colors to draw attention. The platforming areas are well detailed, and Moby’s sprite, though stilted and awkward in its animation, is large and stands out well against the backdrops. The main problem with the presentation in these areas lies in the enemy design, or lack thereof: there are only a couple of enemies that will ever appear in the SARP stages, robbing them of some the character that the game otherwise is extremely effective in building.The shooting stages are the weakest visually, with boring, nondescript walls forming pathways and rooms populated with a confusingly discursive collection of enemies including aggressive purple rocks, miniature dragons, and giant evil plant life further supported by a wide variety of unidentifiable blobs of differing colors, shapes, and sizes.
The game’s music is largely excellent, with the upbeat and energetic main theme being echoed throughout many of the game’s action themes, and the soundtrack, catered to the circumstances in which Moby finds herself, is uncommonly apt at evoking the appropriate tone. The sound effects, however, are awful: Moby’s feet sound like a sqwak of white noise burped from a walkie-talkie when landing from a jump, and she makes a strange metallic noise when she is struck by an enemy blow.
The ambitious gameplay is good, but it never reaches the heights of the NES’ AAA action games. The shooting mechanics are solid and novel, and the control is tight but often feels sluggish. The enemies are generally slow moving, and projectiles are relatively easy to avoid as the VZR returns fire. The first person shooting scenes are far more focused than those in Golgo 13, and as a result are far more enjoyable. Though there are some hit detection issues related to the perspective, they rarely interfere enough to inadvertently cause the player to fail. The conversation system is an engaging addition to the battle system, but the lack of variety in responses has a tendency to devolve these scenes into boring streams of repeated text until the enemy resumes its attack. The side-scrolling sections play extremely well: Moby moves easily and fluidly, and the mazes are never so large and unwieldy as to frustrate and confuse the player. Moby is also an extremely a capable fighter, and can still handily dispatch her enemies with powerful kicks if she depletes her supply of ammo.
The story itself is what draws all of these disparate elements together to create a unique and thought-provoking game. The dangers presented by the human ego and the consequences of acting on it are blatantly clear here, and are strengthened through Moby’s rendering as a believable protagonist that the audience can identify with: abstractly, she’s fighting for the continued existence of her people. More immediately, however, her driving motivation comes from the loss of her father and her boyfriend at the hands of those she is fighting.
Furthermore, the designers should be commended for the respect they show for their female protagonist. Moby’s gender is never obscured, nor is it ever explicitly drawn attention beyond her ridiculous red knee-high boot and swimsuit get-up that she sports while taking on the denizens of the underworld. By making the hero a woman, Moby’s motives and emotions are given room to resonate without being trampled beneath the bullet-proof bravado that most 80s and 90s male action heroes employed ad nauseum. Her gender is not used as a flimsy plot device, nor is it wielded as an easy justification for her weakness: by challenging the player’s perception of media influenced representations of strength and heroism in the face of adversity, her femininity is used as an effective way to highlight the universal nature of her plight.
Wurm: Journey to the Center of the Earth is ultimately an average game wrapped in a provocative and highly symbolic story that elevates it to heights well beyond its worth based on sheer technical merit. Its heavy reliance on subtext was certainly polarizing point in its critical reception, but those that like some substance in their games will find a lot to enjoy here.
|Wurm: Journey to the Center of the Earth
|地底戦空バゾルダー (Chitei Senkuu Bazorudaa)
The Underground Battle Space: Vazolder