ToeJam & Earl – Sega Genesis
Platform: Sega Genesis
Developer: Johnson Voorsanger Productions
Release date (NA): March 12, 1991
Nerd Rating: 5 out of 10
It’s an adventure. It’s an homage to, and a parody of, ‘90s hip-hop. It’s an intergalactic bromance of epic proportions. Maybe epic is a bit grand to describe such a game, but I look back 25 years to some very fond memories of playing it with friends. Sega’s ToeJam & Earl was fun at its core, with an emphasis on friendship, music, and laughs that kept me playing and replaying the game for hours (at the expense of studying).
What could go wrong on a casual ride through the cosmos? You could let Earl drive the “highly funky, ultra-cool, righteous rap master rocket ship”, and it could be dashed to pieces all over the planet Earth. Luckily ToeJam and Earl aren’t killed in the accident. The only way home to the planet Funkotron is to gather said parts and reassemble their pimped-out ride that looks part boom box, part submarine, and part snowmobile. Nothing’s ever easy, and their mission is no exception. Numerous hazards appear to make the task even more difficult. The duo aren’t discouraged as they groove through myriad levels of dangerous, sometimes cheese-covered, environs.
ToeJam & Earl’s goal is pretty straightforward: collect 10 very conspicuous ship pieces while avoiding a variety of enemies and stuffing their faces with junk food. On the surface, you might think that an easy task. With experience playing other games from that time, you might expect diverse levels and challenging boss battles. Instead, levels are much the same in their looks, with the exception of those covered in melted cheese. The layouts are randomly generated and hidden on the level map until finding a ringing telephone or wandering close to the edge of a concealed area of the map. But when the levels are largely the same colors, with the same features, the variety is limited.
The real fun lies in the discovery of new power-ups and the unveiling of new enemies. There’s no warning system in place, aside from perhaps audio clues, that you might be about to meet an enemy. Many are completely quiet, even seemingly benign at first, until the right mix of circumstances comes about. For example, a hula dancer can compel ToeJam and Earl to dance along with her for a short time. That’s innocent enough, unless dancing keeps them from fleeing something more terrible, like a psychotic dentist, a reckless mom with a shopping cart, or a herd of nerds. Most of the enemies take ridiculous and hilarious forms. Some of my favorites include a shadowy boogeyman, tomato launching chickens, and a giant hamster inside a clear plastic ball. The power-ups come in the form of presents, but their identities are mysteries until opened, and some can nearly kill the protagonists. Once opened, all presents in the same wrapping paper design are identified. If the randomizer is opened, the contents of all the presents are changed. The discovery process begins again, and it’s a suspenseful mechanic that I welcomed in an otherwise slow game.
The default speed of ToeJam & Earl and its controls is lethargic. I remember turning the music down to converse with friends while I played. There was hardly ever a reason to pause the game, since long spans of time could pass without anything happening. But this made for an excellent contrast with the hair-raising moments, where I silently prayed I would have the right power-up to help me escape a fast, deadly enemy. Falling off the edge of the level to the previous board below was always frustrating, even if I knew the location of the level’s exit via elevator. The prospect of meandering across previously explored territory would normally incite me to waste a power-up in hopes of speedier transit. In fact, even the obstacles rarely dispatched the heroes in one fell swoop. Health is whittled down by enemy contact or missiles, malicious presents, or drowning until the next mistake spells death. At least ToeJam and Earl revived near the spots of their deaths, so they could immediately resume their plodding quest.
Amid the repetitive levels and music are some real creative gems and bits of humor. After drinking root beer, burping ensues. Santa Claus can be surprised and will drop presents before he disappears. ToeJam and Earl can literally drown in cheese on some levels, which might not be such a bad way to go. The general feel of the game, thanks to small details in character wardrobe and the music, brings to mind a Fat Boys music video crossed with an enjoyable b-grade scifi movie. I found it nearly impossible not to laugh while I played.
While the game can be played by a single player, the fun more than doubles when playing with a friend. When ToeJam and Earl are near each other on the screen, they talk and joke with each other, and power-up effects are shared. Otherwise, the screen splits to allow them to explore the levels more efficiently. Since revealing sections of the map is important for finding ship pieces and the elevator to the next level, it can be completed much more quickly with a buddy. And it’s just more fun to experience the surprises and near brushes with death when your best bro from Funkotron is with you.
It’s no surprise that this game earned good reviews and spawned sequels, even a Kickstarter campaign to bring a game to life on the newest consoles. Its originality and fun co-op play deserve my recommendation. My main problem with the game is its long and dull periods of ceaseless wandering. I would be tempted to grab a sequel for my Xbox One for the sake of nostalgia, but I doubt it would have much replay value for me. After playing some of the loud, hectic titles in the current gaming environment, it might be nice to relax to the groovy beats and low-impact gameplay of ToeJam and Earl’s newest successor, as long as it offered some laughs like the original.
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