ToeJam & Earl

toejam and earl

ToeJam & Earl is an action video game for the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive elsewhere). Released in 1991, it centers on the titular ToeJam and Earl—alien rappers who have crash-landed on Earth. As they attempt to escape the planet, players assume the role of either character and collect pieces of their wrecked spacecraft. ToeJam & Earl’s design was heavily influenced by the computer role-playing game Rogue, and took from it such features as the random generation of levels and items. It references and parodies 1990s urban culture and is set to a funk soundtrack. The game was positively received by critics, who praised its originality, soundtrack, humor and two-player cooperative mode. It attained sleeper hit status despite low initial sales, and its protagonists were used as mascots by Sega. Several sequels were produced for other consoles, but their commercial and critical success was mixed.

The game has been called a surreal, comic satire, and a ‘daringly misanthropic commentary on Earthly life.’ ToeJam, a red, three-legged alien, wears a large gold medallion and a backwards baseball cap, while the rotund and orange Earl is marked by high-tops and oversized sunglasses; both outfits are ‘over-the-top appropriations’ of 1990s urban culture. Their speech features California slang. The game is set to a jazz-funk and hiphop soundtrack inspired by Herbie Hancock.

In the game’s opening sequence, ToeJam explains that Earl’s erratic piloting abilities have resulted in a crash-landing on Earth. He says that they must find the pieces of their spacecraft’s wreckage to return to their home planet, Funkotron. The player guides the characters as they avoid Earth’s antagonistic inhabitants and search for the debris. Should the player succeed, the final sequence depicts ToeJam and Earl escaping the planet in their reconstructed spacecraft. Under the player’s control, the characters proceed across a purple landscape that represents Funkotron, and are greeted by their friends and family.

The game contains both single-player and two-player cooperative modes. The latter displays a single screen when both characters are near each other, but splits it apart when they are not. Playing the game with two players reveals dialogue and jokes between the characters not heard in the single player game.

The game is set on Earth, which is represented by randomly generated islands that float in space, each one a layer above the last. They are connected by elevators. Some islands contain pieces of spacecraft wreckage, of which the player must collect 10 to win the game. The player character drops to the island below if he falls from an island’s edge, which necessitates that the player again locate an elevator. Each island is populated by antagonistic ‘Earthlings,’ such as phantom ice-cream trucks, aggressive packs of ‘nerds,’ giant hamsters, Bogeymen, man-eating mailboxes, and police chickens. Certain Earthlings aid the player. The game has been described as ‘largely non-violent,’ as the protagonists can only attack enemies with thrown tomatoes—one of many temporary, randomly generated power-ups.

Power-ups are contained in wrapped presents, which are categorized by appearance. The contents of a present are unknown to the player until it is opened; afterwards, all presents of that appearance are identified. Identification of presents’ contents is a central gameplay mechanic. Each power-up has a unique effect: while one might increase the player characters’ running speed, another distracts enemies. Certain presents contain harmful power-ups, such the loss of a ‘life,’ or the ‘randomizer,’ which hides the identity of all presents. In the game’s cooperative mode, if one player character opens a present in the vicinity of the other, its contents affect both characters. As players open more presents, the chances of accidentally opening the randomizer are increased, which prevents the game from becoming easier as more presents are identified.

ToeJam & Earl creator Greg Johnson became a fan of Rogue as a university student. After he left university, he worked on games for Electronic Arts, including Starflight (1986). After the completion of Starflight 2, Johnson conceived ToeJam & Earl—first the characters, then the plot—while on a beach in Hawaii. The idea was a combination of Rogue’s gameplay concepts and a lighter version of Starflight’s science-fiction themes.

Johnson met programmer Mark Voorsanger through a mutual friend, while walking on Mount Tam in 1989. He related the concept of ToeJam & Earl to Voorsanger, and the two resolved to make the game together. They formed Johnson Voorsanger Productions, and serious work on the game began soon after. Their status as commercial game designers allowed them to meet with Sega of America, and they used cards covered in landscape drawings to demonstrate their idea of randomly generated levels. Sega marketing manager Hugh Bowen was immediately interested in the concept; Sega wanted innovative games and new mascots to compete with Nintendo.

The team’s goal was to make a humorous game that was ‘original, easy to understand and offered an immediate response to the player’s actions.’ The designers wanted to include a two-player mode so that they could play together, and considered ToeJam & Earl ‘a two player game with a one player option.’ Sega was skeptical that hardware issues would prevent the feature from working, but Voorsanger successfully implemented it.

In a 1992 interview with Sega Visions, Johnson stated that the characters ToeJam and Earl evolved as reflections of his and Voorsanger’s personalities. Voorsanger disagreed, and called the characters ‘two different aspects of Greg’s personality.’

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