ToeJam and Earl
Way back in 1991 the only games system I owned was a Game Boy (the era of the big chunky, green screened ones!). The only magazines available at the time that covered Game Boy games were multi-format ones that also covered SNES, Megadrive, Master System and NES games. One month I was idly flicking through the Megadrive games previews torturing myself with all the games I could never afford to play and in amongst the usually side-scrolling platform games, insipid film tie-ins and sports games one really stood out.
It was ToeJam and Earl. The name, the screenshots and the descriptions of the quirky and unusual sounding gameplay arrested my attention instantly. I must have read and reread that review a hundred times, each time becoming more and more frustrated at the fact I would never be able to play what looked like such a brilliant game…
Many years passed, memories fade. I grew up, I acquired money. Finally in 1999, I got a Megadrive. Always in the back of my head was the memory of those pictures of ToeJam and Earl in a now long lost magazine. I searched for a long time and finally, one glorious afternoon in 2000, I found a pristine, mint condition, boxed copy of ToeJam and Earl. If you could add sound effects to real life, the “hallelujah” chorus would have played as I got the game home and opened the box.
But then just as I was about to insert the cart, doubts appeared. I never played thus game before; it existed in my head as an imagined game of fun, originality and high quality. Was it ever that good at the time? Would it still be good now, in the wake of PlayStations and Dreamcasts etc. My hand hovered over the On switch. Could I be about to make a huge mistake, maybe the game would be better left as a classic in my head, rather than a disappoint in reality.
But I had waited ten years to play this game. No matter what the eventual outcome, I had to know for better or worse. I switched the console on, grabbed the controller, sat back and held my breath.
Oh I was so glad I did. The game was everything I had imagined in my head and even more. My quest was over and ToeJam and Earl was indeed one of the greatest games ever made. So what kind of game could inspire this kind of loyalty from someone who was hooked just from a magazine preview?
ToeJam and Earl is not a game that can be easily categorised. The basic story sees you take control of either or both (in a marvellous co-operative two-player mode) of a pair of funky aliens. Toejam is a thin red stick like alien with three legs. His boggly eyes, medallion, baseball cap and chunky trainers make him almost the spitting image of Hip Hop clown Flava Flav from Public Enemy. Earl is a tubby orange, pear shaped alien with wrap around sunglasses and stylish spotted shorts. This hip-hop, styling is no accident. This groovy pair are the two “baddest” rappers in the universe! Unfortunately as they themselves tell you in the wonderfully written and laid back intro, they have had an accident and crashed their ship onto Earth. Now they need your help in putting it back together again.
Of course Earth looks a little bit different than usual. It is split into several levels, which can be travelled between using the lifts on each one. The ten spaceship pieces are scattered across twelve levels. You can choose to play the fixed game, in which the pieces will always be in the same location, or the Random game where the pieces will be in different places each time.
Each level is a flat mass of green suspended in space. The levels are stacked, so if you happen to fall off one level, you’ll just find your self back down on the previous one. The more you explore, the more of the map you uncover. On your journey you have to contend with a huge range of ridiculous enemies. Will the Angry Bees chase you off? Or perhaps you’ll tangle with the Hamster in a rolly-ball. The Insane dentist will come for you with his drill and beware the hypnotic power of the Hula dancers!
Of course there is plenty of stuff to collect to help you in your quest. Dotted around the landscapes are tasty treats like fries and burgers to replenish your health bar. You can also find presents, inside which are useful items to help you out. But when you find a present its contents are a secret, you can’t find out what’s inside until you open it up and you may waste what’s inside. Never fear, in that case you must find the “Carrot Man” who in exchange for a few bucks will tell you what your present contains. You can then stash it until needed, very handy.
With weapons such as the Rotten Tomato and Slingshot you can take enemies out from a distance. But ToeJam and Earl are really peace loving dudes at heart and prefer to avoid confrontations. Pressing the A button will allow you to sneak past any creature that is asleep. Pressing B will bring up your collection of items for making a getaway in. You can fly away with your Icarus Wings, Run at speed in your super hi-tops and even roll away in an Inner Tube!
So as you can see it’s hard to find any category to put this “wandering about looking for stuff” game into. The manual and ToeJam and Earl themselves are very firm on the real aim of the game “Being cool is what it’s all about.” When you begin, you’ll notice a rank at the bottom of the screen; “ToeJam is a Weiner”. To rise above Weiner level into the heady heights of Funklord (the ultimate level of cool) you must open as many presents as you can and exploring as much of the area as you can. In an act of gaming heresy, there are NO Boss characters! Nope, the game ends when you find all the ship pieces. There are no multi-tentacled monstrosities with their predictable attack patterns and huge life bars to be tediously worn down here. And that’s good, cos y’know, that would be too uncool for ToeJam and Earl to be bothering with, yah dig?
If you are lucky enough to have someone else to play with then you can enjoy the laid back interaction between the aliens even more. If you both wish to part, you can explore different parts of the map alone. The screen will split to accommodate this. But stay together and you can help each other out. If one loses a lot of energy they can “High Five” to have some energy passed over. If one of you loses all their lives, pressing the buttons like mad may persuade your friend to give you one of their spare lives! There is even a “jamming” option, before you start a game you can enter the jamming screen. Here by using the action buttons and D-pad you can make ToeJam and Earl groove to one of the in-game tunes or create one of their own.
Visually and aurally this game complements the unique gameplay perfectly. Both characters are satisfying large and chunky sprites, fully and smoothly animated with bags of charm and style (man). The simplistic nature of the plain green levels suspended in space across which they amble has allowed the designers to run riot with the enormous selection of daft enemies for them to run away from. The sound is some of the best you will ever here in a 16 bit game, with eminently hummable tunes of a decidedly funktastic nature (as if anything else would do!).
Perhaps now you can see why, after reading a preview of this game ten years prior to finally playing it, it stayed with me as a classic game I just KNEW I had to try one day. Its rare I play a game that has me grinning from ear-to-ear most of the time. It’s even rarer I play a game that doesn’t want you to DO THIS, PRESS THAT, KILL HIM, DO IT NOW!! ToeJam and Earl want you to kick back, relax and go with the flow. You might find all the spaceship pieces (and its not a hard task luckily as there is no save game option), you might not. The sheer goofy charm of the concept and its brightly coloured cartoonlike execution was a breath of fresh air back in 1991 and its charm has not faded in the intervening years.
Back then ToeJam and Earl stood out because nothing else looked, sounded or played quite like it. It was a game that insisted the point of gaming is indeed to “play” and “have fun” something that I sometimes feel is absent from the many games today that seem to take delight in punishing you with impossible complexity, an overblown sense of their own worth and spurious claims to being “not only a game, but art as well”.
Well boo. You can play your serious games, with your platforms to jump, your FMV to sit through, your levels to be attained and your bosses to be fought. If you don’t want to spend time chilling with ToeJam and Earl (and the Carrotman) you’re like a total Weiner. Join us, join the Funklords. Once you’ve played a game with this much heart and soul, you’ll wonder why all games can’t have this much love poured into it. Peace out.