Title: ToeJam & Earl
Developer: Johnson Voorsanger Productions
Platform: Sega Genesis
Genre: Action, Dungeon Crawler, Roguelike
Unless you’re a total gaming nerd, you might not be familiar with the roguelike genre. This is a subgenre of typically role-playing video games that spawned from the video game Rogue. Most, but not all tend to be turn-based games with randomly generated levels and permanent death of the character forcing the player to start from the beginning of the game each time a character is generated.
An old genre dating back to the late seventies, these games consisted of ASCII graphics. Even to this day, a lot of developers keep true to the tradition when making a new roguelike game. However, some developers have decided to keep up the times and find new ways to give the genre a modern twist.
The growing popularity of the roguelike genre over the past few years has kept me excited. Video games tend to operate on a basis of rewarding the player, and with roguelikes functioning in a somewhat opposite way it is difficult to bring this kind of genre into the mainstream. However, I am easily reminded of one of my favorite roguelike games that not only was so unique, but also so masterfully made itself appealing to fans outside of the genre. That game is ToeJam & Earl.
ToeJam & Earl was released in 1991 for the Sega Genesis platform, and is the cornerstone release of Johnson Voorsanger Productions (later renamed ToeJam & Earl Productions). The release was somewhat early in the Genesis’s lifespan, and the titular characters were intended to be part of the list of new mascots Sega was planning to push out on the heels of Sonic The Hedgehog.
ToeJam & Earl are aliens hailing from the planet Funkotron (not very creative, I admit) who end up crashing their spaceship into earth after running into a meteor shower. Now they have to avoid hostile earthlings and rebuild their ship in order to return home.
Levels are groups of fragmented islands, some connected by thin strips of land. Each of these has an elevator somewhere in the map that will take you to the next level. If you fall off into space, you land on the previous level. Earthlings inhabit every level. The earthling choices are comical. These can range from Hawaiian dancers, boogeymen, stampeding nerd herds, and even Santa Claus. Some Earthlings will offer to help you, usually for a price, but most want to harm you.
The game world is filled with presents, which contain random things to benefit you like increased movement or the means to defeat enemies. Presents also contain many things that will harm, slow down or outright kill your character. Identifying these presents early on is crucial to avoid opening a bad present at an inopportune moment later on. Unfortunately, identifying presents comes through trial and error—or paying one of the scattered wise men a lot of money to do it for you. All your risks in identifying can easily be wiped by opening a “randomizer” present, which mixes up the contents and the look of all presents, making you having to start back at square one for identifying.
The characters are unique, one being a red 3-legged creature in a backwards cap and medallion, and the other being a giant yellow slug in board shorts and sunglasses. They are clear appropriations of ’90s urban culture, and their speech is rich with California slang of the era.
No, there is no dungeon-crawling or medieval hack-and-slash like you would find with Rogue or other notable roguelikes, but the presence of permadeath, limited character resources, and randomly-generated levels and items holds true. Earthlings are usually tough to dispatch, requiring special items to do so that aren’t easy to come by. Because of this, avoiding them is crucial in order to survive and reach your goal. Sounds stressful? Surprisingly, it is quite the opposite. Besides the most dire situations that are found in far later levels, avoiding enemies, collecting items, and locating pieces of your missing spaceship feel absolutely laidback. Gameplay is leisurely and chill which is one of the biggest reasons why this game is so marvelous. On paper, it is difficult, but it doesn’t feel difficult.
The soundtrack is superb, filled with memorably upbeat funk and hip hop tunes inspired by the likes of The Headhunters and Herbie Hancock. This level of effort and quality put into producing was unheard of for console gaming at the time and takes full advantage of the Genesis’s YM2612 FM synthesizer.
Unfortunately, the sequels to this game just couldn’t measure up to the original, largely to pressure from the publisher. A sequel designed to be a true successor was Kickstarted in 2015 and is currently in development by creator Greg Johnson with the release date still to be announced. Even if it can’t be done justice, there’s no overlooking such a unique gem that stands out in the Genesis library and remains as an important milestone in innovating the roguelike genre.
ToeJam & Earl Gameplay (Sega Genesis):