You know, I think I love you, too, game.
Welcome to Wurm: Journey to Center of the Earth (also known as “Vazolder: The Underground Battle Space” in Japan), that rarest of beasts: The game with four distinct modes of play and two terrible titles. What an overachiever! Wurm was brought to us in 1991 by lesser-known publisher Asmik and way lesser-known developer Cyclone System. It’s a crazy smorgasbord of vertical, horizontal, and first-person shooter with a dash of side scrolling run-and-gun thrown in and cinematic cut scenes reminiscent of Ninja Gaiden’s as the finishing touch. This places Wurm firmly in the quirky NES shooter hybrid camp with Xexyz and The Guardian Legend. While its gameplay doesn’t quite reach the heights of Guardian Legend, I found myself charmed and a little taken aback by its somber and surprisingly mature story.
In Wurm, you play as Moby, a young woman with neon green hair almost as strange as her name, who captains the VZR-5, a super high-tech tank with a giant drill on the front that can dig through solid rock. It can also hover, use a variety of weapons, and even transform into a jet. According to the manual, this vehicle is the titular “wurm,” though it’s never referred to as such in-game. Moby and the rest of the VZR-5 crew are burrowing deep into the earth’s crust in order to investigate the cause of a mysterious series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that are devastating the surface. She’s also searching for traces of the four earlier VZR ships that were dispatched on the same mission, but never returned. Among the crew of these lost ships was her father, Professor Banda, and her love interest, Ziggy. Moby’s a pretty badass “Lady Protagonist” (as the instruction manual describes her) and she proudly sports the same ludicrous green hair/red swimsuit combo as Samus Aran in the first Metroid and the star of the obscure FVM game Time Gal, so she’s okay by me. She soon finds herself exploring a surreal underworld filled with hostile creatures and getting wrapped up in an ongoing war between rival subterranean races.
Wurm consists of five “acts” separated by major plot developments. Each act contains three to five distinct levels that add up to grand total of twenty levels for the entire game. You start the game in a horizontal shooting mode where you guide your tank from left to right, blasting enemies and using your drill to tunnel through walls that otherwise would block progress. Pressing up and the A button will engage hover mode and allow you to leave the ground and fly freely, but this will consume more of your limited fuel. Allow the fuel gauge to run out and you lose. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to find additional fuel in the form of pickups from destroyed enemies, so I actually never ran out once during my playthrough. My advice: Engage hover mode right away at the start of each of these stages and never look back. The ground is for losers. You’ll later gain the ability to transform into a jet, which is faster and has its own distinct set of weapons to use but consumes even more fuel and doesn’t have a drill. I found the jet to not be worth the trouble despite looking cool and stuck with the tank in hover mode, but it is nice to have options to keep things fresh. Unlike in most shooters, you can take multiple hits and you have a regenerating health bar in the form of your shield meter. If you find your shields getting low, you’ll want to slow down and let them recharge a bit before you’re stuck staring at the game over screen.
Eventually, the screen will start to shake and you’ll transition to a first-person boss fight against a single giant foe. You’ll need to dodge left and right to avoid the enemy’s attacks (or try to shoot its projectiles out of the air before they reach you) while also concentrating your return fire on its weak point. That’s not all, though: You’ll also take breaks from the shooting periodically to access a menu where you converse with the different VZR crew members, who will each offer their advice on how to defeat the boss. This reminds me of the back-and-forth between the different bridge crew members in an episode of Star Trek and really is a standout gameplay element in Wurm that I can’t recall seeing in any other action game of the time. You need talk to your crew in order to restore health points lost during the battle and to raise your possibility percentage. You can’t actually kill the boss until your possibility rating reaches 100%, no matter how much you blast away at it prior to that. Talking to some crew members will increase your possibility percentage, while speaking to others who might dispense bad or discouraging advice will leave it unaltered or even decrease it. In the end, it takes a combination of lots of accurate shooting and consulting with the right NPCs to bring the boss down. Very unique!
After defeating the boss, Moby will decide that it’s time to leave the VZR and explore some nearby caverns on foot. This leads to yet another gameplay mode where you control Moby directly as she walks and jumps around a side scrolling level searching for clues to the mysteries of the underworld and lost crew members from the previous VZR missions. During these segments, she can defend herself with a pistol (that has limited shots, so be careful) and a mean roundhouse kick. Anyone who’s played 1988’s Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode for NES will recognize the similarities here right away. Moby animates and controls just like Golgo does in that game, which is no coincidence, as both projects involved a ton of input from designer and artist Shoichi Yoshikawa. Your robot sidekick in Wurm is even named G-13. Cute. In fact, Yoshikawa himself still maintains to this day a bilingual website devoted to chronicling the story, characters, and oddly elaborate philosophy of Wurm. Pretty cool, if not also a bit strange.
Just when you think there can’t possibly be more, Moby will return to the VZR and suddenly overhead shooting sections are added to the mix! These play out similar to the side-view ones in that you’ll fly around blasting enemies and drilling through walls until you reach a boss. You can still transform between your hover tank and jet forms in overhead mode, but the VZR’s ground-based tank form is off-limits here.
So that’s how the game is structured, with the play style continually cycling through these four modes while you encounter new NPCs, plot twists, enemies, and weapon upgrades along the way to keep things fresh. It’s a lot to describe and indeed a lot to take in for new players. Unfortunately, Wurm does fall a bit into the “jack of all trades, master of none” category, as none of these four gameplay styles is a truly extraordinary example of its kind. The horizontal and vertical shooting sections are the best of the lot, but they’re really just adequate and a far cry from greats on the system like Life Force or Zanac. The on-foot sections with Moby are by far the weakest, as they feature only five total enemy types to encounter and none of them pose much of a threat or are particularly fun to fight. Wurm is a fairly easy game. I was able to complete it for the first time in about three hours and I was by no means rushing. The levels simply aren’t all that punishing when compared to similar ones in other games of the period. You also get unlimited continues and a password for each act in case you want to take a break and return to the game later.
Wurm looks great for the most part, especially in the anime cut scenes and first-person segments with their large, well-detailed boss monsters and animated backgrounds. Cut scene artwork is heavily recycled throughout, though what we get is very well-drawn and expressive. I absolutely love the cheesy ’80s/’90s sci-fi anime look of everything. The game’s soundtrack is a real treat, too. It really drives home the strange and alien atmosphere of the game’s setting. It sounds exactly like what getting lost in a monster-filled ancient ruin 200 miles beneath the earth should sound like, if that makes any sense.
What really elevates Wurm for me, though, is the storyline. It’s high-minded, tragic, and nuanced in a way that I’ve never seen attempted on the console before. It’s also plenty corny, to be sure. This is anime people fighting against an empire of underground monster men, not Shakespeare. Without spoiling too much, however, I will say that Wurm’s gutsy plot twists and hauntingly ambiguous ending really stuck with me. By the end of this game, not all of your comrades have made it and you’re left to wonder if the surviving characters will be able to learn from the catastrophic mistakes of the past before it’s too late or if history is doomed to repeat itself. Wurm is a title with a message and with subtext that touches on the world outside the game. For all its bombastic sci-fi shenanigans and dodgy dialog, it’s earnestly trying to communicate something important to the player and, in my case, it succeeded. If anything, this is even rarer and more interesting than an NES game that combines four gameplay styles into one. It’s the ultimate reason why Wurm gets a high recommendation from me.
If you like shooters, games with brave big-haired Lady Protagonists, and stories that aspired to be more than the usual kid’s stuff before it was cool, you owe it to yourself to give Wurm a go. Just don’t judge it by its awful North American cover art. Jesus.