Mega Drive Essentials: ToeJam and Earl

Ah, the ’90s. The era of attitude. Or, more specifically, the era of everyone spontaneously and inexplicably wishing they were Californian.

Video games certainly weren’t exempt from this trend at all, though various different titles from the era took their attitude towards, uh, “‘tude” more seriously than others.

One noteworthy game from the early ’90s that simultaneously acknowledged the popularity of California-style attitude as well as poking fun at the inherent absurdity of it all — particularly the disconnect between your stereotypical video game nerd and what one would think of as a “cool dude” — was Johnson Voorsanger Productions’ ToeJam & Earl, published by Sega for the Mega Drive in 1991.

ToeJam & Earl is interesting in that it’s an early example of a console-based roguelike. While today we primarily associate this genre on console and handheld platforms with Mystery Dungeon-style games such as Sorcery Saga: Curse of the Great Curry God, some of the earliest experiments with this style of gameplay appeared on Sega’s consoles.

ToeJam & Earl is particularly noteworthy in this regard because it’s not a strict adaptation of the usual roguelike formula. You’re not playing a sword-wielding fantasy hero, you’re not delving into dungeons and there isn’t even much in the way of combat. Instead, what we have here is a primarily exploration-based game with an extremely relaxed attitude and a few sadistic twists — perhaps the first ever example of a “roguelite”.

The story runs that the eponymous heroes have crash-landed on Earth, scattering the parts of their spaceship far and wide in the process. It’s up to you to help them navigate a rather abstract depiction of Earth to recover these missing pieces and avoid the unwanted attentions of the indigenous population. Thus begins an adventure through a series of randomly generated levels in which you gather “presents”, avoid or defeat enemies and attempt to make your way to both the missing ship parts and the exit elevator to the next level.

It’s the “presents” that provide much of the interest in ToeJam & Earl. There are a variety of different package types, distinguished by their size, shape and pattern, and at the beginning of each new game their contents are randomised — you won’t know what they do until you use them for the first time. This is much like what more traditional roguelikes do with scrolls and potions — and, much like those scrolls and potions can help or hinder you in your adventure, so too can the presents in ToeJam & Earl provide both positive and negative effects.

Positive effects allow you greater freedom of movement such as the ability to jump gaps or the ability to defend yourself, while negative effects range from killing you outright to randomly jumbling up all the present effects, requiring you to find out what they all do all over again. Fortunately, the instant death present — appropriately known as the “Total Bummer” — doesn’t necessarily end your game immediately; unlike most roguelikes, in ToeJam & Earl you have a stock of lives that can be replenished as you progress as well as a health bar, so there’s a bit more margin for error than in typical games of this type!

Since the game is so light on combat — in most cases you’ll probably simply want to avoid foes rather than fight them — progression is primarily through the other aspects of the game. You earn points for both opening presents and discovering new areas of the map, with ToeJam and/or Earl’s level increasing at various intervals, extending their life bar in the process. Rather than a numerical level, you have one of nine named “ranks”, ranging from “Weiner” all the way up to “Funklord”.

As you progress through the stages, things start to get more and more interesting. You’ll have to contend with water, which you can swim through for a limited period, and sand, which you slowly sink into. Ringing telephones can be answered to reveal large portions of the map in one go, and exploring thoroughly can often reveal secret pathways. Enemies range from hordes of tomato-throwing chickens to mad scientists, and all are animated with a ton of personality to them, often acting as delightfully merciless caricatures of various social groups.

There are a lot of really nice subtle touches to the game, too. Health is restored through eating food or drinking drinks. ToeJam and Earl have different immediate responses to the things they put in their mouths, while drinking root beer causes your character to wander around belching thunderously for a few minutes. Each of the special items have unique animations for both ToeJam and Earl, and discovering how best to use these is a key part of the game experience as a whole.

Plus there’s the fact that you can enjoy the whole game with a friend in its simultaneous two-player mode. The game implements this excellently, putting both characters on one screen when they are close together on the map, but allowing them to separate and switching to a split-screen view when this occurs. This allows for more efficient exploration — plus some friendly competition to see who can find the ship parts or the way to the next level first. It’s also an approach not commonly seen in games of the era — two-player games at the time tended to either confine both players to a single screen at all times or provide a split-screen experience; ToeJam & Earl combines the benefits of both approaches in a single package.

ToeJam & Earl is a fascinating game that doubtless some people will bounce off — it’s rather slow-paced, for starters, and doubtless some  will simply find it too outright weird to engage with. The fact that you can’t save mid-game is a bit of an issue with the original cartridge, since much like its contemporary Fatal Labyrinth, it expects you to play through a lengthy adventure in one sitting, but the version on the Sega Mega Drive Classics compilation for PlayStation 4, PC and Xbox One provides four save slots and a Quick Save feature, allowing you to quit and resume at a later time or simply cheat death if you so desire. This bundle’s “Fast Forward” feature also helps considerably with the game’s pacing issues.

All in all, ToeJam & Earl is a game well worth playing, even if you don’t find yourself compelled to see it through to completion. It’s a perfect example of a game that both acknowledges and gently mocks early ’90s culture, and is definitely very interesting to revisit from the perspective of the modern, roguelike-saturated era we live in now.

More about ToeJam & Earl

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