The Ill Communication

ToeJam & Earl

Developer: Johnson Voorsanger Productions
Publisher: Sega
N.A. Release: October 1991

Box Quote: "Two hip aliens in a serious jam."

The 16-bit wars that were fought on the playgrounds of America’s elementary schools had both sides lobbing verbal spews at one another about whose console was more supreme.  For team Genesis, Sega kids had an arsenal of games to refer to such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage, Mortal Kombat (with its blood code), Castle of Illusion, NBA Jam, and so on.  But the one that probably stands out the most, at least from a unique perspective, would have to be ToeJam & Earl.

What sets it apart from most games is the fact that it’s a two-player game first, but with one-player options.  If there were two kids in a room, it would be pretty weird to see only one of those kids playing TJ&E while the other just watches.  Seriously, multiplayer is preferred over single player as there are a number of gameplay components designed for co-op play that makes it easier and more enjoyable to play with a partner.

Since it’s a two player game, it stars two characters: ToeJam and Earl.  They are both aliens from the planet Funkotron who crash-land on Earth after Earl took the wheel of their spaceship -- the Rapmaster Rocketship -- and accidently smashed it into an asteroid, causing them to fall down to the planet.  With the ship now in pieces and scattered across the land, this alien duo have to now travel far and wide to collect them all so they can get off the planet.  And the sooner the better because the inhabitants are a bunch of lunatics, with most of them being humans (the galaxy’s AAA, the AAAAA, guide book advices all aliens not to land on Earth because Earthlings are way too dangerous).

With an extreme sense of style, TJ&E latches on to the urban lifestyle it mirrored when the game was released in the early 1990s.  ToeJam is a three-legged purple alien that wears a backwards ball cap, sneakers, and a large gold medallion with his initials engraved on, while Earl is a large-and-in-charge tannish looking alien whose sporting sunglasses, sneakers, and blue colored shorts with red polka dots.  Both need to scavenge the land for pieces of their rocket ship, so it’s a co-op multiplayer game as oppose to a competitive one.

When wondering across Earth, you’ll notice it’s a weird, abstract version of the blue marble.  Level 1 is always the same: a small island surrounded by water with a few presents to collect and an elevator near the eastern side.  After walking into the elevator, it will disappear, transporting you through a rift in space/time and stopping at level 2, which is hovering just above level one.  Every level after the first is randomly generated, so no two levels will be the same.  When it comes to the structure of each level, they are a series of connecting natural rock arches with landscapes covering the tops.  Most of it is green pastures, but occasionally you’ll have to cross vast areas of quicksand or bodies of water.  If you fall off the edge of the level (whether it was intentional or by accident), you will land on the previous level and will need to seek out the elevator again to get back up to where you were.

While on your journey to collect parts of the Rapmaster, Earthlings will try to poke, bite, or squish you whenever they cross paths with you.  Take for example the Insane Dentist who will stab you with his drill, or the Lil Devil who will poke you with its pitch fork until you fall off the edge of the level, or the giant "Hamster in a Rolly-Ball" that will run you over if you get too close.  Best thing to do is to avoid contact and tip-toe around them if they are sleeping, but in those cases where you need to fend them off, that is when presents come into play.

Presents come in all shapes, sizes, and colorful wrapping paper, but choose wisely as the limited inventory will only allow about a dozen or so gifts.  Most presents can be used to defend yourself from enemies such as the tomato slingshot or the decoy, but not all presents help you out.  Some could be the electric shock that drains your health meter or a book that will bore you to sleep, making you temporarily vulnerable to attacks.  Most presents will be a mystery labeled with question marks so you can’t tell whether a gift is good or ill-fated.  Seeking out the Wiseman dressed up as a carrot and giving him a buck will allow you to see what each gift is.  Yes, not all Earthlings are out to get you.  Some would rather make a profit than beat you into the ground.

From a historic angle, what is probably the most interesting aspect regarding TJ&E is how its gameplay was inspired by 1980s Rogue and having barrowed some of its mechanics like randomly generated levels and item identification.  Today we call those types of games “Roguelikes,” but back then TJ&E was just labeled as an action game.  In addition to the Roguelikes elements, a leveling system is included which extends the health meter and gives 1ups.  Each rank has a colorful name ranging from Wiener and Dufus to Rapmaster and Funklord.

Its randomness made it a difficult game to beat.  Since levels and enemies were randomly generated and scattered throughout levels, strategy guides were nonexistent.  You can get stuck on a level where tornados constantly pick you up and dump you over the level’s edge, causing you to repeat two levels several times over.  This was tough as you couldn’t save your progress back then.  With its release on consoles that emulate the Genesis, save states were a blessing that allowed you to beat the game quicker than ever before, so the releases on XBLA and PSN are preferred to the original.

Loved by most, ToeJam & Earl is one of those titles that are brought up in conversations when discussing the Genesis.  It’s a shame that its sequels, Panic on Funkotron or ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth don’t live up to the same levels of praise.  In fact, for the most part, they are regarded as trash.  Last year the original creator launched a Kickstarter campaign that was successful to bring out a new game to the series that goes back the style of gameplay the original is known notably for.  Let’s hope it does.

Posted on: July 27, 2016