Duh-duh-duh-duh-DUH duh-duh-duh-DUH duh-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-DUH…
There probably aren’t too many pieces of videogame music catchy enough to stick in a player’s mind for over twenty years, but for me, ToeJam & Earl’s main theme is such a track. At the time of writing, I haven’t played the game in many years, but still that main theme remains clear as a bell in my head, as does much of the rest of the game. ToeJam & Earl became one of my favourite Sega Mega Drive titles when I first played it as a kid in the early 1990s, a hugely enjoyable and highly original game that received a great deal of much-deserved praise from many Mega Drive / Genesis owners.
Released on the Mega Drive in 1991, ToeJam & Earl was developed by Johnson Voorsanger Productions, a company formed by Greg Johnson and Mark Voorsanger in 1989, and published by Sega. The game stars titular heroes ToeJam (the three-legged, red one) and Earl (the fat, orange one), two aliens whose spaceship crashes on Earth, their goal then being to collect all of the scattered pieces of their ship so that they can use it to return to their home planet of Funkotron. “Funkotron” is a much better name for a planet than “Earth”, after all. However, their efforts are hindered by Earth’s inhabitants, an oddball and dangerous cast of enemies who roam the game’s levels. The game can be played alone as either ToeJam or Earl, or two players can play cooperatively as the funky extraterrestrial duo.
When ToeJam & Earl was released, it immediately stood out as an extremely original title, offering an experience different to the majority of other console games available at the time. Although it was a very colourful and vibrant game, in terms of its actual design it didn’t take its influences from cartoony platformers or anything similar – rather, its main influence was 1980 dungeon-crawler Rogue, which Greg Johnson had been a big fan of. This was how ToeJam & Earl came to feature randomly generated levels, items and enemies, a choice that certainly added to the game’s replayability. The game does also offer a “Fixed World” mode in which the levels always remains the same, but where’s the fun in that?
Despite this decidedly different approach that could have easily turned off many publishers, Johnson has said that ToeJam & Earl wasn’t actually difficult to pitch to Sega: “Back then Sega of America was just starting out… The fellow there, Hugh Bowen, was very receptive to the concept. They were really looking for new distinctive titles to help them compete against Nintendo at the time.” And distinctive was definitely something that ToeJam & Earl turned out to be.
Although its design made it difficult for critics to categorise the game, there were certain elements which the majority of critics agreed upon, mainly that ToeJam & Earl was an original and addictive game with a great sense of humour and personality; that the soundtrack by John Baker – a mixture of funk, hip-hop and jazz – was fantastic; and that the two-player mode worked so brilliantly, it actually outshone the single-player mode as the best way to play the game.
Earth as found in ToeJam & Earl is, oddly, a series of islands floating in space, one above the other, with each of the game’s levels taking place on one of these islands. ToeJam and Earl must ascend through these levels, some of which contain a piece of their spaceship which must be collected before making their way to the elevator that takes them up to the next island / level. Falling off the edge of an island means you drop down one level to the island you just ascended from, which makes another walk to the elevator necessary. And while a map of each level can be accessed, the map screen is covered by tiles which only disappear and reveal the terrain beneath as you actually traverse it.
In visual terms, the levels in ToeJam & Earl don’t offer much in the way of variety: there’s grass, sand, roads, and water, and that’s it. But this is more than made up for by what these levels actually contain, which is a huge number of bizarre and imaginative enemies and items that really help bring the game to life.
The “Earthlings” who act as the game’s enemies, for example, consist of a wide range of characters such as pitchfork-wielding devils, flocks of mortar-firing chickens, maniacal dentists, seductive hula girls, ghostly ice cream vans, monstrous mailboxes, malevolent tornadoes, and many people’s favourite, the stealthy boogeymen. Although you can cause the majority of antagonists to pop with a few accurately thrown tomatoes (violence in ToeJam & Earl is usually a slapstick affair), avoiding them is often the best tactic, although this can be tricky in regards to the quicker enemies.
There are also other, non-aggressive Earthlings such as the Wise Man – an old man in a carrot costume – and a jetpack-wearing Santa Claus, both of whom are connected to the game’s item system, but more on that in a moment. It’s clear to see that a lot of imagination and effort went into the creation of the game’s cast, and this paid off in the long run, as these amusing and memorable characters greatly add to the fun and charm to be found in ToeJam & Earl and remain an integral part of what gives the game its identity.
While Forrest Gump’s mother claimed that life was like a box of chocolates because you never knew what you were going to get (here’s a hint: look at the cover of the box, you stupid woman), she could just as easily have been talking about ToeJam & Earl’s item system. As with the enemies, a lot of imagination went into the wide array of items to be found in the game, which appear in the form of wrapped presents. And here’s the thing: you don’t actually know what’s inside a present until you open it, activating the item. Only then will the contents of that particular present type – identical items share the same wrapping paper – be memorised in your inventory for future reference.
This wouldn’t be so bad if all of the game’s items were helpful, such as the several different health boosts you can find, money to spend on various services, Icarus wings enabling you to fly, a decoy to distract enemies, spring-shoes enabling you to jump, etc. But they’re not. Some negative-effect presents include a storm cloud that regularly blasts you with lightning; disgusting food that lowers your health; a book that puts you to sleep, rendering you temporarily vulnerable; and even instant death, costing you one of your precious lives. Thankfully there’s no poorly knitted Christmas sweater from a senile great-aunt, though: “Yeah, this is much better than the Akira Kurosawa box-set I asked for, thanks.”
One particularly amusing item whose effects can work out either well or terribly are the rocket skates, which send you blasting off across the landscape at recklessly high speed. Although this can allow for a quick escape from an enemy, it can just as easily send you hurtling off the edge of the level and out into space, causing you to fall to the level below.
And then there’s the worst item of all, the one that hangs over every playthrough like a threatening cloud, growing larger and darker with every level in which you don’t identify it: the Randomizer. Or “The Utter Bastard” as it might be more accurately named. You might be deep into the game, having identified the majority of your presents (to some degree of cost), giving you options and a decent handle on most situations the game can throw at you. But then you get into a spot of bother and open an unidentified item which turns out to be the Randomizer, which randomises all of the present types in the game, send you all the way back to square one in terms of knowing which presents contain which items. Utter. Bastard. Still, it’s all part of the fun and it can certainly add to the tension.
As I mentioned earlier, two characters connected to the item system are Santa Claus and the Wise Man in the carrot costume. The former drops presents for you if you can sneak up on him and startle him, while the latter can be a godsend as he identifies presents for you as long as you have the money to pay him. Just as in real life, if an apparently mentally unbalanced old man in a carrot costume asks for your money, just give it to him. Then back away. Slowly.
Of course, all of the exuberant creativity bursting forth from the rest of the game might suffer if its playable protagonists didn’t exhibit it themselves, but ToeJam and Earl fly the funky flag with aplomb as a pair of unlikely heroes but likeable aliens brought to life by simple but effective writing, great and memorable character design, and excellent animation filled with little details that add personality, such as the swagger in Earl’s walk or ToeJam’s panicked flailing as he blasts along on a pair of rocket skates.
All of these elements shine however you play ToeJam & Earl, but although the single-player mode remains perfectly valid and immensely enjoyable, it’s the two-player mode where the game is really at its best. As well as adding nice touches such as the ability for two players to high-five each other and share health, and banter between ToeJam and Earl that doesn’t exist in single-player, the two-player mode offers more fun simply due to the extra enjoyment to be had from experiencing such a funny and entertaining game alongside another player. It can take a while to collect all of the necessary spaceship pieces and reach the end of the game in one sitting – ToeJam & Earl has no save system – and such a lengthy journey is definitely more fun in the company of a friend. As long as they’re not throwing tomatoes at you, that is.
ToeJam & Earl is a game that has aged extremely well in a number of ways, such as in its soundtrack and visual design, although this is perhaps best exemplified by its timelessly enjoyable two-player mode. It’s a fantastic co-operative experience that has stood the test of time and is a big reason behind why a lot of people not only have fond memories of the game from years ago but still have a lot of love for how the game stands up today.
It’s great to see that ToeJam & Earl is widely available to a modern audience as well, having been digitally rereleased on Wii, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. If you missed the game the first time around but have access to the rerelease then I highly recommend you pick it up, particularly if you’re looking for a great two-player experience.
ToeJam & Earl is often described as a cult classic or sleeper hit, but whatever its sales figures on the Mega Drive, it was enough of a commercial success to warrant a sequel. However, 1993’s ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron disappointed the majority of fans by opting for a side-scrolling platformer approach (because the existing seventy-four billion side-scrolling platformers on consoles weren’t quite enough, apparently) over the fresh and attention-grabbing design of the first game – a change favoured by Sega and made by Johnson and Voorsanger as they wanted the company’s full support behind the sequel. Johnson has since said, “Mark and I felt it wasn’t worth doing another game that wouldn’t get supported so we switched over. In retrospect its [sic] pretty clear that we should have stuck with plan A.”
After a long hiatus, the series returned in 2002 with ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth on Xbox, a game that received a mixed response despite it having more in common with the more popular first game than the second. Although Johnson has since mentioned the possibility of a fourth game in the series, sadly nothing has emerged yet.
Although the second and third games were understandably more technically advanced than the first, and although they have their fans and their own qualities, the majority of players still seem to consider the original ToeJam & Earl as the best in the series, and with good reason.
Some go further and call it one of the best games on the Mega Drive or one of the best two-player games of all time, and whether you agree with statements such as these or not, it’s easy to see why the game generates so much praise and joy: ToeJam & Earl is a funny, charming, addictive, brilliantly designed game overflowing with imagination and starring two very likeable and, ironically, very human aliens. It’s a fantastically timeless game that deserves to experienced, especially alongside a second player, because it’s just so much fun. And as for that damn main theme…
All together now! Duh-duh-duh-duh-DUH duh-duh-duh-DUH…
Alex De-Gruchy is a writer and editor of fiction and non-fiction whose work has covered comic books, prose and videogames. His 8-issue comic series The Fallen, from publisher Monkeybrain, is currently being published on Comixology, while later this year will see the release of his graphic novel Dead Men from Markosia Enterprises. His upcoming videogame projects include action / strategy title Crystal Arena, visual novel Eternal Forest, and action-adventure Edelin Tales: Portals of Doom. To witness more wordy outpourings from his brain-meats, find him on Twitter: @AlexDeGruchy