Disclaimer: the pink dinosaur is Asmik's mascot and does not appear in Wurm. So don't get your hopes up.[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Asmik and Sofel's Wurm, released in 1991 for the Nintendo Entertainment System.]

Wurm: Journey to the Center of the Earth belongs to that oft-ignored subset of NES games that try to be several different things at once. There’s a reason this field is oft-ignored: from The Adventures of Bayou Billy to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, most multi-genre NES titles are tepid and clumsy. But that didn't stop Wurm from trying.

In the purest sense, Wurm began with Vic Tokai’s Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode. A 1988 NES adaptation of Takao Saito’s manga, Golgo 13 mixed side-scrolling action with first-person shooting and several other play styles in a decidedly awkward manner (indeed, the game’s now remembered mostly for slipping a sex scene past Nintendo’s censors). The following year, two Vic Tokai developers, Hiroshi Kazama and Shouichi Yoshikawa, declined to work on the next Golgo title, The Mafat Conspiracy, and instead turned to a lesser-known publisher called Sofel. There, they set to work on a genre-mixing game that was entirely their own. Wurm was that game.

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In their attempt at something original, Kazama and Yoshikawa came up with an odd mix of 1950s pulp science fiction, 1970s anime shows, and the hollow-earth theories of scientist and possible lunatic Marshall B. Gardner. In Wurm’s near-future scenario, four VZR drilling machines and their crews have vanished while on expeditions beneath the Earth’s crust, leaving only the VZR-5 and its captain, a willful, green-haired woman with the unflattering name of Moby, to search for them. While her father and numerous friends are among the missing, Moby stays true to her vacuous anime-heroine inspiration by fretting the most about her fiancé, a lost VZR crewman with the even less flattering name of Ziggy. She also dresses like the original Metroid's Samus Aran, minus the armor.

I still think it's better than Gradius. Less Sniping, More Drilling

Much like Golgo 13, each of Wurm’s five chapters spans several different genres. Most common are the shooter stages, which shuttle the VZR-5 (and later, the VZR-4) through horizontally-scrolling areas and the occasional vertical challenge. Both involve fairly repetitive enemies and scenery, but there’s a steady progression in the weapons the VZR-5 can use and the forms it can take. And even though players are often at the mercy of the ship’s constantly depleting power gauge and over-sensitive controls, the shooter levels remain the game’s least irritating segments, as well as its least memorable ones.

After the initial shooter stage, the game reveals its oddest attempt at a new form of gameplay: first-person levels that pit the VZR-5 against a boss and its various attacks. The hit detection bizarrely grows less accurate as objects get closer, and in order to destroy the enemy for good, the game demands that players tread through a disjointed series of conversations with Moby’s allies, most of whom offer useless statements to the effect of “Let’s blow him away.” It’s a promising idea snatched from graphic adventure games, but Wurm does little with it.

At least let us use the Zapper here, Wurm.Journey to the Center of Tedium

Yet the game doesn’t truly fall flat until Moby leaves the VZR-5 to explore. Strutting around in her battle-ready leotard, she navigates blandly designed subterranean mazes with only a blaster and kicks at her disposal. The enemies she faces are just as limited, with one type of vaguely apelike soldier making up most of the opposition. And there aren’t very many foes, at that; half of each side-scrolling action stage consists of Moby prancing through empty caverns. Wurm might’ve overcome the mediocrity elsewhere if it had enjoyable action-platform sequences (as Sammy’s Vice: Project Doom did). Instead, they’re the worst part of the game.

In fact, much of Wurm is just sloppy. The hit detection is awkward, boss sprites and backgrounds are reused, the characters lack detail (and faces), and the game’s hazy prologue only shows up if the title screen’s left running for nearly a minute. Even the dialogue has puzzling errors, as shown by a second-chapter boss battle in which the crew confuses a rock monster’s “navel” with his eye. It’s hardly what one would expect from a game that took two years to develop, or one that actually includes a credit for “game balance.”

Well, I'm afraid he'll never play guitar again.Throwbacks best buried

Nor does Wurm’s plot elevate it. The game’s setting and convoluted history of vast civilizations inside the Earth sets it apart from basic NES action themes, but the story sequences, like an old-fashioned Japanese superhero show, dully repeat the same scenes over and over. Each chapter shows Moby and her helmsman Dan exchanging random lines about energy readings and cave sectors, prompting Moby to give an order, head out of the ship to investigate, and then pine for Ziggy. On that note, Ziggy’s fate is the only real surprise in Wurm’s later chapters, and it overshadows an abrupt final battle that leads only to an all-text pacifist diatribe against war—specifically, a nuclear war that took place inside the earth thousands of years ago.

Still, there’s an oddly compelling quality to Wurm. Even when it’s spewing dull levels and ridiculous narrative twists, the game gives off an ominous undertone, making one curious to see just where it’ll go next, even if it’s just another cavern full of boring mazes and awkward conversations. And while Moby’s a shallow lead by any modern measure, she’s smarter and more aggressive than the other heroines of her day. There's also an unexpectedly nice 8-bit soundtrack by Dota Ando, who’d later work on Battle Arena Toshinden and Guilty Gear X.

Moby, unlike Samus, doesn't need armor. Or dignity. Cover Stories

Few would appreciate Wurm’s limited appeal. Its unique approach won some admiration from Nintendo Power, which hailed it as “one to watch out for” in a mid-1990 preview, but the game wouldn’t hit until over a year later, right in the middle of the North American launch of the Super NES. Had it arrived a few months earlier, Nintendo Power might’ve even granted it a cover, as the magazine resorted to fronting largely unknown titles like Power Blade and Metal Storm during the pre-SNES doldrums.

In November of 1991, though, no one really noticed Wurm when Asmik, the game’s North American publisher, gave it a rather quiet release, with cover art that resembled a hair-metal album more than an anime-themed exploration of a deceased scientist’s insane theory. The game sold slightly better in Japan, where it was known as Chitei Senkou Vazolder (or “Vazolder: The Underground Battle Space”), but never merited a sequel. The staff moved on, and Yoshikawa worked on several Bonk games, including a canceled Nintendo 64 title.

It’s easy to see Wurm as a disappointing mess that's mocked in both Japan and the West, but it’s just as evident that the game had potential in its unorthodox style and atmosphere. And even with its numerous failings, Wurm still has fans. Yoshikawa might be the most devoted of them, having set up a bilingual website that covers the game’s storyline and history. It’s a fitting tribute for a game that was perhaps loved more by its creators than the vast majority of its audience.