Friday 2 March 2018

Mega Drive Review - ToeJam and Earl in Panic on Funkotron (Game 156)

'ToeJam and Earl in Panic on Funkotron' is a sequel that shouldn't have been, delivering the type of gameplay that no-one expected and that existing fans didn't want.  But is a betrayal of preconceived ideas enough of a reason to ignore this odd humorous platformer?

Developed by Johnson Voorsanger Productions
Published by Sega
Released in 1993

There's an unwritten rule when it comes to Sequels: Honour the success of the predecessor. The most beloved follow ups take everything that was great in the previous game, improve upon these foundations and cast aside the bits that didn't work. In theory at least, a great deal of pre-production is already done. A tone or style has been established and usually beloved characters will return. If there's not been a hardware change some of the game engine or artefacts can also be reused, allowing developer’s time to perfect, hone and polish what worked before.

In the games industry it seems that sales are the deciding factor that determines if a sequel is green-lit. Money men often will ignore critical successes, but will throw money at a franchise that has sold sufficient volume, even if the series is of dubious quality.

This is why it's somewhat surprising that a sequel to 'ToeJam & Earl' exists at all. According to video game historian Bill Paris the first game achieved "almost unanimous critical acclaim"; however, Sega deemed it a commercial failure due to low initial sales. "'ToeJam & Earl' was a very slow burn title,” developer Greg Johnson confirms. “Sega considered it a flop. Its numbers really came much later as it grew slowly by word of mouth and eventually became something of a cult title.” While fans had fallen in love with gaming’s most surreal double act, it was actually magazines who really clamoured for another game featuring the funky space aliens. "ToeJam & Earl have the kind of charisma that makes them a natural for a sequel" wrote GamePro.

Unable to ignore a swelling fan base Sega finally embraced 'ToeJam & Earl'. According to critic Chris Johnston, ToeJam and Earl even became "one of Sega's second tier mascots, alongside Sonic" and IGN claimed Sega came to consider it a “key exclusive title." Sega's most irregular game was granted a follow up.

"The original idea for the sequel was to make it just like the original game but add to it” admits Johnson. Consequently the sequel starts off where the first game ends. After their efforts in the prequel the two funky aliens have finally gathered all their rocket parts and left Earth for their home planet. But they're not alone. Annoyingly, dozens of earthling stowaways have clung onto their spaceship and are understandably causing a Panic on Funkotron. Worse still they have scared away Lamont the Funkapotamus, the source of funk in all the known the universe. Since they're responsible for the humans on their funky home world, ToeJam and Earl must round up the earthlings while also luring back Lamont from the alternative universe that he now resides in.

Like the first game a lone player must choose to play as one character, but as before, the game is designed with two players in mind; one controlling ToeJam the other guiding Earl. In fact the default mode is unusually two player, suggesting playing alone goes against the designers intentions. The main focus of the game is to trap the earthlings in special jars which will allow for their safe transportation back to Earth. However throughout the game you meet other Funkotronians who give additional quests; typically demanding you help them find an item. Johnson talks at length about how he and programmer Mark Voorsanger aimed to improve on the first game. "Mark and I had a number of plans to add more new Earthlings and new presents and new types of terrains and environments.  Going inside houses was a big one we were thinking we would tackle."

However the world would never get to see these proposed improvements. Like it's prequel, 'ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron' was originally intended to be a top down 'Rouge' like game with randomly generated levels. Greg Johnson and Mark Voorsanger tried to stick to the sequel golden rule but Sega did not approve. “We got about 3 or 4 months into it and then pulled up short" recalls Johnson. "The message we got from Sega marketing was, ‘We don't get this game and aren't sure how to sell it’, so we switched gears, tossed out what we had built so far, and started over on a side-scrolling version of the game.”

As IGN puts it "what's here though, isn't bad. Different, yes, but not bad."  The objective of the game remained the same even if the player was viewing things from the side rather than high above. For the most part a player will follow an arrow to find the human stowaways scattered throughout the level. If this doesn't give enough information using the funk scan shows points of interest on the current screen, although this is limited. Once all the earthlings have been found and captured the direction arrow turns green and points towards a spacecraft.
This allows you to send the stowaways back home while you progress onto the next stage. An up press makes your controlled character rummage through nearby scenery which typically results in finding a present- a key object in the previous game. However in the sequel the variety of present types has been greatly scaled back and most simply give you points. If an upgrade is found they don't change the gameplay, they simply enhance your powers: granting more powerful earthling storage jars, improved radar scans, teleporters or a vacuum which makes capturing earthlings much easier. In 'Panic on Funkotron' there are plenty of bizarre mini-games to enjoy however. The best of these sees ToeJam and Earl involved in an impromptu jam session with an alien friend, where button taps are used to bust some funky shapes next to a pumping boom box.
Though short, these rhythm action sections are tremendous fun, foreshadowing later music games like 'Parappa the Rapper', 'Bust-a-Groove' and 'Space Channel 5'.

Levels are no longer randomly generated and frequently the game requires you to figure out exactly how to get up to specific platforms where Earthlings are hiding. However, these puzzles are occasionally logic-free and frequently rather annoying. In some cases, you just have to jump randomly around in the hope that you'll find an invisible platform. Hidden off-screen pathways also exist but are never visually signposted. This leaves the player with no choice but to routinely press themselves against all walls just in case there may be something lurking out of sight.

Amazingly for the second game levels were in part designed by Even Wells who is now co-president of Naughty Dog. He has since been involved in the creation of 'Jax and Daxter', 'Crash Bandicoot' and even the 'Uncharted' games. For 'Toe Jam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron' all the generic standards are met with underwater stages, slipy slidey ice worlds and also fire environments. Of course with imaginative names like Mac Daddy Meadow, chill-in' fields,  kickin' cliffs, Awesome arctic, and Roastin' Road you're given clues as to what to expect but I'd wager you've never seen a stage environment like Hyperfunk zone.

Each of the 17 stages is visually distinct and there are plenty of uses of parallax scrolling, which makes the environments look nice.

Despite the dramatic change in perspective it would have been of some comfort to fans that the surreal offbeat humour remained. There are very few games where you'll be hunting for cow ghosts, ducks on magic carpets, a rich elderly woman surrounded by angry poodles or a naked man singing opera while hiding in a cardboard box. In fact the shift in viewpoint has meant that many of these humours and frankly bonkers ideas are a lot easier to see. The sprites in this game are huge and beautifully animated. The bird's eye view of the first game meant you never got too close to the protagonists and the three-legged ToeJam and his rotund homie Earl are two characters that deserve a bit of scrutiny. However the huge sprites did cause some headaches when the development team tried to incorporate the dynamic split screen effect that had been so praised in the prequel. In the first game if the characters were close the screen division would vanish however it would remain if both players were far apart on different sides of a level. "We found that the split screen didn’t work so well with two big characters and faster paced action, so we kept them on the same screen, but two player co-op was definitely at the core of [the sequel]". At the time it was unusual to see a corporative multiplayer game. Usually if two people played simultaneously they were in competition rather than working toward a unified goal.

'ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron' was released in 1993 to encouraging reviews. In a retrospective article Retro Gamer magazine notes that "it's safe choice of genre meant that it wasn't nearly as polarising with the critics as the original game. The game generally did well across the board with scores over 90 percent from Sega Pro and Mega [magazines]."  Electronic Gaming Monthly felt that "there is more to explore this time around. The second time is a charm." Mean Machines magazine even claimed that 'Panic on Funkotron' is “a sequel that completely outshines the original. The wittiest game on the Megadrive and breathes fresh life into the platform game genre." I’m inclined to agree with part of this sentiment. While I preferred the original game, it's hard to deny that 'Panic on Funkotron' is a platform game like no other. There are some great moments like the dancing mini game and the experience certainly looks and sounds superb. The problem is that  finding all the Earthlings and restoring the funk gets tedious long before this fairly long game concludes, whether you're playing alone or with a friend. There simply isn't much variation between what you have to do on each stage and without the randomly generated stages seen in the prequel, 'Panic on Funkotron' really doesn't warrant repeated plays. While I do appreciate a game that's happy to explore novel ideas I really wish the game simply fixed the faults of the first game and walked the path the developers originally intended. “I think 'ToeJam & Earl 2' was a very original side-scrolling game,” comments Johnson, “but it confused the heck out of the fans.” With many preferring the original game the word of mouth support never meant a continued increase in sales for this sequel. Critics may well have favoured the sequel but fan response was best described as fairly tepid. "When Sega said they didn’t think a sequel would sell and that we should change direction and build it like a side-scroller with bigger characters and more fast paced action our thought was “OK, you guys probably know best” so we did our best to keep the spirit of TJ&E alive in a new type of game" admits designer Greg Johnson. “It was actually a fun challenge [but] it was probably not a good strategic move for the franchise".

Despite the promised advertising push from Sega, 'ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron' never enjoyed the commercial success the prequel had and as a result both the developers and Sega decided to set aside the 'ToeJam & Earl 'series. It would remain on the back burner for another nine years, until Sega had moved away from hardware. In 2001, Johnson decided to approach Visual Concepts, then a subsidiary of Sega, with a pitch for a third 'ToeJam & Earl' game. After the failure of the second game it understandably was based on the top-down 'Rouge' like original game.

Johnson has since revealed that although they didn't apologise, even Sega acknowledged that they may have made an error demanding the changes. “I had lunch with Toyoda Shinobu, who was Sega's VP of Development and he admitted that it was probably a mistake on Sega's part to jump to a side-scroller,” he recalls. “I told Shinobu-san that I guessed that was the closest thing I'd ever get as an apology from Sega. He smiled, and I must say was very gracious about it.” "If I had a time machine I'd pop back and tell old us to ignore all the requests we had from Sega to change the second game and continue with things as we started" Greg Johnson once told Retro Gamer magazine. "[We should have] built game two to be a true sequel to game one".

Clearly there's no pleasing us gamers. When a sequel seems to be little more than new levels and a new main character sprite we get annoyed that publishers are selling us the same game twice. However, when a follow up bears little relation to the original we get upset too. Usually fans of a series flock to a new entry, but on this occasion I can't help but wonder if 'Panic on Funkotron' would have been much better received if it didn't have ToeJam and Earl attached. Fans wouldn't have got annoyed by the change in genre and those new to the series wouldn't have felt alienated by joining the series part way through. Although it has fantastic graphics and humorous parts, this game really is just another good platform game. The slight problem is that the Mega Drive isn't short of good platform games. What it does need is more overheads viewed 'Rouge' Ike games and if 'Panic on Funkotron' had simply improved on the first 'ToeJam & Earl' game it would be the best in the genre.

Where did I get this game from?
The retro gaming community is filled with warm and friendly folk. I bought 'ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron' 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! 

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