ToeJam & Earl (JVP/Sega, 1991)
We hope you're down with funk, spaceships, aliens, hula girls, garishly-wrapped presents, and giant pools of cheese
It means all kinds of things. Let’s look at the two most binding definitions of the word:
This iconic game has plenty of jams and plenty of implied bad smells… and a lot of everything else, too. ToeJam & Earl is a piece Mega Drive/Genesis bedrock, not to mention a game that stood unique among contemporaries with its gameplay style and innovative combination of concepts. Further boosted by its incredible soundtrack, the game is part of any core collection for the console.
Work began on TJ&E in 1989, when two Electronic Arts developers – Mark Voorsanger and Greg Johnson – set out on their own to develop a game that combined the real-time action of a console title with the elements of a roguelike.
What’s a roguelike, you ask? Well, it’s kind of like an RPG… except you’ll almost certainly die, the world you’re in is randomly generated, and everything is turn-by-turn instead of real-time. That is, you control the pace of the game completely, and in between actions, it remains frozen in time. The term comes from the original game of this kind, Rogue, which is a rather bland-looking (by modern standards) text and ASCII based game for early computers. There are newer reworkings with graphical tiles and enhanced interfaces, but the idea remains largely the same. Voorsanger and Johnson took this idea to Sega, and Sega liked it so much that they asked to publish it exclusively for the Genesis.
TJ&E can be played by one or two people, controlling the titular characters: ToeJam (a little red guy whose entire “head” is represented by two long stalks ending in huge eyes) and Earl (a tubby orange alien wearing some stylish shorts and classic wraparound shades). Their totally righteous but comically designed rapmaster spaceship has crashed, and they need to find all of its component parts to repair it and continue on their way through the cosmos.
Players guide the duo across a plethora of floating space-islands in ¾ perspective, avoiding constant peril and totally lame hassles all the while. If ToeJam and Earl end up separated, the screen simply splits along the middle, tracking their separate wanderings. The universe through which this search-and-retrieve mission is conducted can be randomly generated at the time of play, or a fixed-in-place set of levels that are the same each time you play the game.
Besides your ship’s missing parts (which are represented VERY abstractly), you’ll find all kinds of funky shit on the ground and wandering around this bizarre floating maze. One of the primary elements of play is the scattering of pickups represented by garishly wrapped presents all over the place. Mimicking another element of most roguelikes, these presents all do different things (most good, some bad), and once you open a present of a certain type (using the menu you access with the B button), you’ve identified all future instances of its kind that you find. Until then, they are mysteries. One present even randomizes (and thus negates all your identification of) all presents. What a pain in the ass.
You’re not alone on this bizarre chunk of earth, either; an astonishing variety of weirdos roam the environment, some wishing you more harm than others. One of my favorites is the hula dancer. She often shows up around more harmful guys like the little red devils, and drawing too near her results in ToeJam or Earl compulsively mimicking her dance (and allowing the other nasties to get the jump on you). There’s little in the way of offensive tools in the game, forcing players to adopt a careful and thoughtful approach to moving through the world. Some beings will be found asleep, and holding down A allows you to creep by them slowly but quietly. Some also behave in certain predictable ways, allowing you to pay attention and use that to your advantage. Telephones reveal parts of the map (accessible by pressing C), and elevators move you up to the next board. Usually, a hint will appear to tell you that a ship part is on the level you’re entering… so scour the whole thing!
ToeJam & Earl features a lot of color and wackiness in it graphics, strongly tied to its overall early-nineties vibe. Its amazing soundtrack, composed by John Baker, comes on even stronger with the 90s power, with a R&B funk style inspired by musicians like Herbie Hancock and thick with bass and flex. The music is another example of a soundtrack really turning that YM2612 all the way out, and I rank it among the finest in the Genesis game library.
Initially, ToeJam & Earl sold poorly, but it built a cult following and also rode on the coat-tails of Sonic the Hedgehog during the Christmas of 1991. It spawned two sequels, and a Kickstarter for a new game successfully reached its funding goal in 2015.
I give ToeJam & Earl 8 out of 10. It’s a pretty fun game, if not a little meandering and open-ended sometimes… but it was definitely a unique spin on console gaming with its combination of source ideas. And man… that SOUNDTRACK.