Written by Bearded Robot Guest Writer: Jim Harris
ToeJam & Earl
Release Date: 1991
Platform: Sega Genesis/Mega Drive
Developer: Johnson Voorsanger Productions
With the release of ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove due sometime this year, I thought it appropriate to take a look back on one of the funkiest franchises to grace our consoles. In this article I will mainly be focusing on the original game from 1991 that kicked it all off.
This game has stuck with me throughout my life and is one of the most ultimate nostalgia trips I can take. I remember my uncle bringing over a copy for me to play around 1994 when I was just a kid of 3 or 4, I instantly loved it, the bright colours, the funkalicious soundtrack and the simplistic yet challenging gameplay. I grew up cherishing these characters and would rave about them to whoever was unlucky enough to listen to me at school, college and inevitably the pub.
Let’s take a brief look back on how the game started.
ToeJam & Earl was the brain child of Greg Johnson who created the characters and plot whilst on vacation in Hawaii. Greg then met Mark Voorsanger, a video game programmer, through a mutual friend and relayed his idea over. They then formed Johnson Voorsanger Productions and approached Sega of America with their design. Sega loved the idea and commissioned the production of the game.
Now, whenever I try to explain the plot and characters of the game to people who have never heard of it or experienced it before, it’s usually a tough job. I put that down to the sheer madness of the story and environment that the game consists of, but anyway, here goes…
ToeJam & Earl are two aliens from the planet Funkotron. Whilst cruising through space one day in their spacecraft, Earl’s piloting causes them to crash land on a surreal representation of Earth. The two aliens must then work their way through a series of levels numbered from 0 upwards, through enemies and environmental obstructions finding pieces of their scattered spacecraft. They have to find and use elevators to progress to the next level but also have the hindrance of being able to fall off of the edge of the current level, plummeting to the level below, or if really unlucky, a few levels below.
Throughout the levels there are brightly coloured presents which are able to be picked up and unwrapped to reveal either helpful items/weapons like ‘Icarus wings’ that enable you to fly around the current map and the ‘tomato slingshot’ that gives you the ability to pummel earthlings with a constant stream of tomatoes until they pop, or harmful surprises such as the ‘total bummer’ which instantly kills you and the ‘rain cloud’ which is an actual rain cloud that follows you around zapping you with lightning making you lose health for an annoying amount of time.
While on the subject of harmful items, the array of enemies in this game is seriously impressive. Mostly earthlings, these characters are scattered across the levels and can make gameplay seriously difficult. You have the fairly easily avoidable Lil’ Devils who skip around with a smile ready to jab you with their forks and sharks in the water who instantly follow and hurt you. But you’ll also come across more deadly enemies such as the Dentist who chases you and can seriously hurt or the Phantom Ice Cream Truck who appears out of nowhere after hearing some music. There are the annoying enemies such as hordes of bees flying around stinging you or the mole who will steal most of the presents from your inventory, there are also a fair share of weird ones too, including the group of chickens who race around with a tomato firing mortar and Hula Girls who make you dance uncontrollably for a few seconds, these are incredibly frustrating to get away from.
There is a subtle levelling up system also incorporated which gives your health bar a slight boost each time and also a fun title on each level up you achieve. Health can be acquired by eating food found around the maps like fudge sundaes and pancake stacks but also depleted by rotten or mouldy food.
Essentially the game was billed as a 2 player adventure with a 1 player option, in my opinion this is the perfect description. It’s amazingly fun to play on your own but nothing beats playing with a friend, the dialogue between Toe Jam & Earl is different in the 2 player mode with even more quips and jokes to laugh at and watching your mate fall 5 levels down due to a pair of unexpected rocket skates is something to cherish.
With all the surrealism and comic book style characters the game still manages to capture early 90’s culture with enough emphasis that makes even the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air look bland and boring. Filled with Californian slang, mind bending background patterns and a soundtrack of hip-hop and jazz-funk to die for, it instantly makes me think of being a child around at that time and leaves me wanting to crack open a bottle of Sunny D or get out a Mighty Max playset while watching Are you Afraid of the Dark? On Nickelodeon.
Hopefully this theme has been recreated with upcoming release ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove. This updated and remastered version of the game has been the product of a successful Kickstarter campaign and has been in production for the past couple of years with major consoles such as the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch all having confirmed that they will be releasing the title sometime in 2017.
Overall ToeJam & Earl is an incredible game that still holds an overwhelming importance even 26 years later. Ground breaking for its split screen capabilities that even Sega at the time didn’t think possible. Appealing to both adults and children. Diverse enough to keep you coming back for more and challenging enough to last (I guarantee you it will take forever to complete), I recommend this game to everyone and anyone who likes a good old fashioned co-op adventure that doesn’t take itself too seriously.