Toejam & Earl
Posted at 12:37 on 1st March 2015 - permalink

Some extremely welcome and long-awaited news came last week: Greg Johnson, designer of the original Toejam & Earl games, has started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation of a new game in the series.

You can pledge to the Kickstarter here:

The original Toejam & Earl for the Sega Mega Drive is my favourite game of all time. I’ve never gotten around to writing about it in depth for this site, so this seems like an appropriate time to get some thoughts down.

I first played Toejam & Earl shortly after Christmas in 1991. A friend from school turned up at my door with the cartridge (that he himself had borrowed from another friend) and a second controller stuffed in his jacket pockets. “You HAVE to play this.” We knew absolutely nothing about the game. We watched the three minute long intro (at the time there was a lot of competition between developers to create longer and more elaborate intros) and weren’t much the wiser.

We started playing it, and playing it… soon after buying our own copies and obsessively rooting out its (actually funny) secrets and quips. We had seen, in microcosm, what games would become – social, emergent, witty and unpredictable. It took surprisingly many sessions before we completed it for the first time, as the temptation to experiment (calamitously) with the startling variety of items and enemies in the game was too great. It took longer still before we were sure we’d seen and done everything the game had to offer, by which time we were ready to dive into the sequel.

Toejam & Earl is an action-adventure game for one or two players. It’s a game about exploration and friendship and a satire on culture shock and generational differences. Toejam and Earl are two teenage aliens from the planet Funkotron who crash their spaceship on planet Earth. The object of the game is to explore Earth (represented, in as confusing and alien a way as possible, as a stack of 26 layers of procedurally generated islands floating in space), collecting the ten pieces of the ship and returning home. A secondary goal is to achieve the rank of Funk Lord, which is done by accumulating points that are awarded by opening presents and uncovering tiles of the map.

The main obstacles standing in the way of these goals are hostile earthlings (an assortment of animals, stereotypical suburban American humans, and mythical creatures), environmental hazards (tornadoes, quicksand, falling off the edge of the world, etc.), and bad presents (although almost no present is entirely bad – many have a mix of positive and negative traits that can be put to strategic use by an experienced player). Many of its underlying mechanics will be familiar to people who have played Rogue (which Johnson played obsessively at college) or any of the many more recent ‘rogue-like’ games such as The Binding of Isaac or Spelunky.

Toejam & Earl was released into a 16-bit console scene dominated by arcade conversions and platform games, which would later become dominated by fighting games and hidebound Japanese RPGs. It took a completely different approach to anything else on the market at the time. This was probably because the designer, Greg Johnson, had spent the previous decade working on increasingly elaborate ‘sandbox’ space trading and exploration games. (Random fact: the “Greetings and various apropos felicitations, my name is Toejam…” speech that Johnson cites as being the seed of the idea for the characters and subsequently the game echoes a line from the Pkunk aliens – voiced by Johnson – in the game Star Control II.) This served as a foundation to learn about building solid, replayable designs with lots of interacting parts.

Credit should of course also be given to programmer Mark Voorsanger who was unfazed by the challenges thrown up by Johnson’s design – no Mega Drive game had included sprawling procedurally generated levels and seamless transitions between shared and split-screen viewports before.

Concept art (many examples of which are included in the manual, and are used for the basis of the large pieces of art in the intro – look at Toejam’s hands) was furnished by Sam & Max creator Steve Purcell, with Johnson and Avril Harrison (who between them created the sample images for Deluxe Paint) creating the art in-game. John Baker composed the funky music, making heavy use of the Mega Drive’s Yamaha YM2612’s ability to make fairly convincing slap bass sounds.

Most console games at the time (and many since) were built by focusing exclusively on the loop of giving the player a problem to observe, testing their manual dexterity (and perhaps light puzzle solving skills) in executing a solution, and rewarding with a visually thrilling payoff. Toejam & Earl is more interested in creating a dialogue (both mechanical and narrative) between the two players, outside of the screen. (It has been described as being a “two player game with a one player mode”.)

The lines of dialogue that appear above the players’ heads are intended to be read out by the respective players to report on their status in the world. The elevator rides between levels (necessitated by the level creation process taking a few seconds to complete) are used as natural breaks in the gameplay to allow snacking and chatting. There are advantages to the two players sticking together (opened presents effect both players when they’re both on the same screen, and enemies can be dealt with more effectively), as well as to splitting up (more ground can be covered), and there is constant bargaining and strategising over where to go and what items to use.

Another shrewd design decision is the use of the late 80s/early 90s brand of kitschy surrealism (you know the stuff – cows, checkerboards, 1950s nuclear families, Dali references, etc.) to afford lots of leeway to how things that serve a mechanical purpose in the game are represented. (This approach was later adopted successfully by games such as Earthworm Jim and Psychonauts.)

Need to show that a non-player character is benign? Make him an old man in a carrot costume (nobody has ever run away from a carrot in a video game), or a children’s party magician. Need to make the effects of items unknown until they’re used? Make them wrapped presents. What do kids hate of find uncool? Dentists, homework, nerds, parents, um, chickens with mortar cannons(?). What do kids love? Junk food, rap music, new trainers, the very idea of not just being given presents but jacking Santa Claus.

While this methodology may sound like something that would be written on a marketing person’s flipchart before delivering a character like Poochy or Bubsy the Bobcat, in Toejam & Earl it works. The characters aren’t cocky jerks, they’re fallible doofuses trying to be cool, and bickering and joking like old pals do.

This brings us on to a third excellent aspect of its design, and why so many people still love this game 24 years later. It’s imprinted to the core with the personality of its creators, their genuine love and enthusiasm for what they’re making, their optimism about what games can achieve without violence and conflict. In many ways it reflects the values of the early 1990s Californian game development scene of LucasArts, Maxis and their ilk. There’s nothing in the first Toejam & Earl that feels like the result of a committee decision. As such it’s unquestionably the high watermark of Sega of America’s production history.

As a cultural artefact it’s 3 Feet High and Rising in a medium which has spent the following quarter century almost exclusively preoccupied with guns and glamour. The purpose of games is to create memories, and Toejam & Earl reliably and efficiently creates good ones. (It’s widely believed that the original game was one of the most popular rental games of its era – people sought it out, repeatedly, to play in social settings, years before the plastic guitar games.)

People are still playing it. There’s enough demand for the game that it’s currently available on a good spread of digital stores. I try to set aside an evening to play through it again at least once a year. The random level generation really helps in this regard. While I’ve long since wheedled out the last of the game’s secrets (though it was a good few years before I found out you could cheat death when opening a Total Bummer! present by holding down ‘B’ and opening a food present), the randomisation is extreme enough to make each playthrough appreciably different from the last, without ever feeling outright unfair.

I don’t think it’s accurate to describe Toejam & Earl as a ‘cult hit’. It’s just a game that for lots of reasons at the time never made the leap out of the gulf between a flop and a mega-hit. (I’m fairly certain that no game in the franchise has ever broken a million units, but word of mouth kept it selling for months and years after release.)

I do think it’s appropriate to describe it as an artistically important game. There aren’t that many games that feel like they’re wholly indebted to it (although I think it would have greatly emboldened the decisions to greenlight some offbeat games like Earthworm Jim, Zombies Ate My Neighbours, Parappa The Rapper, Psychonauts and Sam & Max), but echoes of its influence can be felt everywhere. The sequels failed to get lightning to strike twice (although Panic on Funkotron has lots of nice ideas of its own and fleshes out the characters and the world – possibly a little too much), but this doesn’t tarnish the inherent credibility of the first.

If you’ve not played Toejam & Earl, I really think you should do so, with a friend if at all possible. Get a version that includes the manual, and read it first. Play it on a TV with joypads. Set aside an evening or two and get a takeaway in. Don’t complain that it’s too slow and you don’t know what’s going on. And if you still don’t get on with it, well, that’s all the more reason to back the Kickstarter, so that there’s a version out there that caters for modern sensibilities.


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