‘ToeJam & Earl’ has to be the most Nineties ‘Rogue’-like game ever made, but is there much left when you strip away the nostalgia?
Developed by JohnsonVoorsanger
Published by Sega
Released in 1991
Working late one evening I passed a club that was clearly having a 90's theme night. I could tell this from the queue as it seemed club goers today believe that everyone in the 1990s dressed like a Spice Girl or wore torn jeans. Given that I'm in my mid-thirties I'm too old to worry about clubbing, 'Club 18-30s' makes this very clear. However, unlike the crowd of Geri wannabes and Noel Gallagher lookalikes I was alive in the nineties and remember it very differently. For me the decade didn't start in 1996, there were half a dozen years before that; where bright colours and an "awesome" "radical" attitude prevailed over Brit Pop and Girl Power. A time when the Fresh Prince was rapping, when Rocko enjoyed a modern life and when Nickelodeon and MTV were still culturally relevant. A period when eighties excess hadn't completely been replaced by millennial indifferences, a decade encapsulated by 'ToeJam & Earl'.
As Games TM magazine noted "The characters were quintessentially Nineties in their designs. ToeJam’s backwards baseball cap is the most obvious sign, but the trends of the time spill over into every aspect of characterisation, right down to the slang they use when they run across each other in-game."
The plot sees aliens ToeJam & Earl stranded on Earth following a crash-landing. One or two players must find the scattered pieces of their spaceship across 25 surreal floating island levels. Attempting to stop the otherworldly duo is a bizarre set of Earthlings, including massive hamsters in balls, stampeding tourists and devils. There's an irreverent humour that wouldn't feel out of place in a Lucas Arts game, hardly surprising considering that Steve Purcell and Tim Shafer have both confirmed that they contributed ideas during the development of 'ToeJam & Earl'. The game plays with established gaming conventions, as ToeJam and Earl are hardly aggressive aliens, they're simply laid-back extraterrestrials who desperately want to leave Earth and return to their home planet of Funkotron. To say it's an odd premise would be an understatement, especially as ToeJam and Earl stumble around islands covered in cheese, restricted due to their obesity and extra limbs.
"Sometimes you just need to sort of let go a little bit and see what surfaces in your mind" designer Greg Johnson once told the Garmasutra website. "Believe it or not I actually had a dream about the characters back around 1989" recalls Johnson. "Oddly enough they came to me while I was sleeping. I woke up and wrote down a little bit of dialogue. The next morning I sketched a picture of them. They ended up looking pretty much as I pictured them" the designer recalls. According to other interviews the inspirational nap occurred while Greg Johnson was on a beach in Hawaii. Because of this, fans of the game have often questioned how clear the designer's head was when the ideas started to flow. "Many people have asked if I was using drugs or smoking pot when I came up with it. Simple answer … “nope”. I never have actually, and don’t think I ever will." Johnson believes the character concepts were the result of residue stress caused by early games he had worked on. "I had just finished making a few really big games about aliens, 'Star Flight', 'Starflight 2' and 'Star Control' (with Paul Reiche and Fred Ford) and I still had aliens on the brain."
While the characters may have come from unconscious thoughts, the framework for the game came from something very familiar to gamers. "The original 'TJ&E' game came from a couple things that sort of converged. One was a love I had for an old game called 'Rogue', the original 'Rogue' that I played with ASCII characters on the mainframe computer on a terminal in a little room, until 3:00am many nights when I should have been sleeping or studying."
The similarities between 'ToeJam & Earl' and 'Rogue' aren't exactly glaring at first, but closer scrutiny reveals the influence. While there is a fixed stage option for players who enjoy memorisation and repetition, the game’s primary mode randomly generates stages from pre-defined segments. The islands weren’t just connected horizontally by both hidden and visible pathways, but vertically. The levels stack on top of one another and are accessed by an elevator. Falling from above can allow you to explore areas otherwise inaccessible, which was key to levelling up. Like 'Rogue' repeated play of stages is beneficial as along with space craft parts the islands of 'ToeJam & Earl' are covered in presents.
The contents of these presents are a mystery to the player prior to unwrapping them and offer good or bad surprises. While some may contain swarms of bees or instant death others provide rubber rings used to survive in water, rockets boots for speed and even Icarus wings for flight. When it came to deciding which power up would be included in 'ToeJam & Earl' Johnson used an ingenious method of selection. "I came up with about 250 ideas of presents but I could only fit about 30 of them into the game. So I wrote all of my ideas on post-it notes and put them on the floor sticky side up. Then I put my cat down in the room and slammed the door. I took the first 25 post-its that stuck to her feet. I use that method quite a lot actually. It works pretty good but sometimes it's hard to get her back because she goes under the sofa". Unlike 'Rouge's bonuses, the pick-ups in 'ToeJam & Earl' are largely defensive and combat seems to be discouraged. “'ToeJam & Earl' really was more about finding ways to evade enemies rather than to fight them” Johnson confirms. But it wasn't just the blind box upgrades that kept a player on their toes. The randomised levels also make the game obviously unpredictable. While this may increase the replay-ability it also means some levels can't be finished. Too frequently I found randomly generated ship parts or the elevator to the next level would appear on a section of the level that couldn't be reached. There seems to be no safe guards that ensure every level can be completed and as a result often a playthrough has to be abandoned.
This is infuriating when you have just one ship part to collect, as (through no fault of your own) the game was suddenly impossible to finish. Of course, random generation also means some times the game is too easy. It's entirely possible for all the ship parts to appear in the first ten stages meaning you'll never have to face the increased numbers of enemies found on the later levels.
Because of these problems critics seemed to love and hate the random stages in equal measures. "You just want to keep playing and playing to see what comes next" observed Mean Machines magazine. "It's not a difficult game to finish, but it's the compulsion to find and do everything possible that keeps you coming back." Sega Power magazine didn’t agree though. "It's all well-and-good having maps that are different every time, but that's means some are real head scratchers when others are finish-able in seconds".
Dispute differing opinions, reviewers seemed universally baffled by how the randomised levels were achieved. It was a technical feat that was achieved by Greg Johnson's business partner programmer Mark Voorsanger. "Greg suggested these fun ideas that are completely untested on the platform and I'd just smile and sweat - hoping I'd be able to figure out how to deliver. I hated to say no to Greg so just put faith in his faith in me. Randomly generated worlds made both his work (and mine) quite the puzzle - literally. [...] It kept me awake at night wondering how, and when, it will all blow up. My greatest anxiety was that we were doing things that hardware documentation said wasn't supposed to work."
The duo formed Johnson Voorsanger Productions and pitched the idea to Sega. It was a process Johnson describes as “easy peasy”. "We got a meeting right away since Mark and I had both made commercial games before,” he recalls. “Mark and I had made up some 3x5 cards that had the terrain tiles drawn on them so we could show Sega how the random map generation would work, and we had made mock screen shots." Sega's then marketing manager Hugh Bowen "loved the concept from the beginning" although the character names that so enchanted Bowen were apparently not the ones Johnson originally intended. RetroGamer magazine claimed that "their distinctive names came about purely accidentally." "Mark has a bit of a hearing problem and when we were first making the game I told him the names of the characters were 'Flow Jam and Whirl' which seemed like good hip hop dance names" Jonson told the magazine. "Mark heard me wrong and coded them as 'ToeJam & Earl'. I only noticed it when we were showing the game to Sega. They liked the names so we decided to keep them". Bizarrely In a Twich-feed, Greg Johnson later retracted this though, confessing he made it up during the Retro Gamer interview to appear "Punchy". Regardless of the names they heard, Sega loved the game concept so Johnson and Voorsanger got the result they wanted. "We became first party with Sega. That means that we went directly to Sega and they were our publisher."
With the project green lit by Sega, production shifted up a gear and focuses shifted to making the game possible with two players. "Co-op play is now and will always be what 'TJ&E' is all about. Having fun together. Mark and I knew we wanted that from the beginning,” Johnson says, something that programmer Mark Voorsqnger agrees with. "We really wanted to design a two player game so Greg and I could play against each other. We consider ‘ToeJam & Earl’ to be a two player game with a one player option." This will hardly be a revelation considering the title implies two people are needed and in one player mode half the HUD is devoted to an absent character.
With two, obviously, one player controls Earl the other Toe Jam, with the screen merging when the characters are close and splitting when they're far apart. The game’s creators never had a problem choosing who would play as who." I always played as big Earl and Mark always played as ToeJam" Johnson told Retro Gamer magazine. "He's a little shorter than I am and he wore this crazy medallion. We would high five when we did something good or say stuff like "Yo ToeJam" when we came back together again. Then Mark said 'hey why don't we just put that into the game' and I said 'no way I was just thinking the same thing'"! "The first game is mostly just me and Greg in a one room office funky tunes and a whole lot of caffeine" adds Voorsqnger. Music is clearly integral to 'ToeJam & Earl', creating a vibe and feel that other games lack.
Like the visual styling, its slap bass and jazz style hip-hop is very much of its time, but that doesn't mean it's not great to listen to today. Admittedly what I know about West Coast hip-hop can be written on the back of a postage stamp but far more knowledgeable people than me appreciated what the game was emulating. "The soundtrack was inspired by Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters" The Classic Games Room observes. "It's full of funky old school beats that remind you of Funk Master Flash or Serge Bambara. 'ToeJam & Earl' is a fantastic look at nineties musical culture". "I’m half African American and I love old-school funk, so that influenced the game’s flavour,” Johnson explained to Games TM . "Greg would even sing tunes into little recorder as inspiration for the music" recalls Voorsqnger. This music was then composed by John Baker, the first time he had written music for a game. Baker has become a prolific composer who still works in the industry for Zynga. Far too often music in video games is entirely incidental. While 'ToeJam & Earl' can be completed with the TV on mute without the music it's a diluted experience. The protagonists sway to the beat and dance when the controller is left idle. "’ToeJam & Earl’ has always stood out from the crowd a bit. That’s mainly because of its crazy musical-aliens theme" admits Johnson. It may be quintessentially Nineties but this is part of the reason so many people still adore it today. In fact given the excitement for a new entry in the series it is amazing how few copies of the original game were sold. "'ToeJam & Earl' was a very slow burn title,” Johnson says. According to Retro Gamer magazine "the game eventually only sold 250,000 units world wide". While this is impressive for an unknown franchise, considering that Sega adopted the characters as second tier mascots for the Mega Drive I expected the game to have sold more.
So like old episodes of 'Ren and Stimpy' or Ninties themed club nights maybe a brand new audience have discovered 'ToeJam & Earl'. They enjoy it because it's dated, because it captures a mood and a time period. Like retro games it's sometimes fun to simply go back and relive a time gone by simply because it's different to how things are now. "'ToeJam & Earl' is definitely the strangest game I've ever played" noted Julian Rignal in Mean Machines magazine." I think it's destined to become a massive cult classic with those who like to hang out on the weird side."
While it may not be fully understood by those too young to really remember the decade it's encapsulates that doesn't mean 'ToeJam & Earl' shouldn't be played by all. The creators even call the game “gives old school fans a pure blast of funky nostalgia and the new ones a taste of light hearted co-op play”. Radical.
The retro gaming community is filled with warm and friendly folk. I bought 'ToeJam & Earl' from someone who wanted to slim down their collection and move to a digital collection. I've enjoyed his videos for sometime so it's nice that I could offer a home to some of his collection, especially as they were in great condition and were his original childhood games. I bought three games for £35, quite a bargain when you look at how much this game sells for on eBay!