Probably One of the Most Original Games Ever
25 December 2008
Can you name a game that features presents, shoppers, and Santa Clause? Well, now you can. Merry Christmas!
Not only is this the best holiday-themed game I can think of, it's also one of the greatest 16-bit games, period. This is the story of two aliens, the portly Earl and the three-footed ToeJam. One day they’re cruising in their spaceship-boombox hybrid, jamming to some tunes, and ToeJam makes a decision that fundamentally alters the course of his life: He lets Earl drive. Earl looses control and hits an asteroid, causing them to crash-land on a strange planet, populated with Earthlings. Now they have to scour 25 levels worth of landscapes and find the parts of their spaceship, so they can reassemble it in order to resume their space-jamming.
As the opening credits roll, the first thing you notice is the music, a blend of rap and funk that still holds a unique place in the history of video games. The tunes never really give the sound hardware a workout, but at the same time they’re very addictive in their simplicity. It kind of reminds me of trance music, only toned down and melo; lots of loops but you find yourself pleasantly swept away. The designers even included a unique sound test mode where you can jam out, adding your own flourishes (claps, snaps, cymbals, etc.) to the musical tracks by pressing the d-pad and hitting buttons.
Next you realize how the main characters ooze with personality. Their sprites are detailed and humorous enough at first glance, but animations (falling asleep after standing still for too long, Earl’s shorts falling down) truly bring them to life. Each character plays differently, too. Earl is tougher as his size implies, but he walks more slowly and presents a larger target for enemies, while the smaller and faster ToeJam isn’t as durable as his corpulent friend. On top of the excellent visual presentation, you’ve got comic bookesque comments and even well-done voice samples (all very in character).
The simple mechanic that drives this game is collecting presents, identifying them, and using them at key moments. Imagine that a Demented Dentist is hot on your trail, so you open that purple box with the yellow bow, and you’re rewarded with tomatoes, a fine ranged weapon that pops enemies when you hit them enough times. Or suppose you’re navigating some narrow pathways, trying not to fall to the previous level, and you need something special to cross the gap between you and an unexplored landmass. Once again you take the leap of faith with a box of unknown contents. Zooooooooom! This time it’s rocket skates and you’re flying all over the place, out of control (and probably off the edge into space).
Once you’ve opened a present, you’ll automatically identify presents of the same type in the future. It’s this unpredictability that makes the game so fresh and rewarding. You never know what you’re going to get when you rip open that “????” box. Some of the items are even harmful, like a rain cloud that follows you around and strikes you with lightning and the school book that puts you to sleep. Most of these bad items are only nuisances, but two of them are gamebreakers: total bummer shocks you to death, and the randomizer undoes all of your hard work identifying presents.
Randomness also factors in to the levels, themselves. At the very beginning of the game you can choose between a pre-constructed set of levels (boring!) or randomly generated ones. There’s even a little load time when you opt for the latter, because the game generates each successive level on the fly. The levels are vertically stacked, and you ascend to new ones by jumping in an elevator—a là Bill and Ted. However, you can also descend to the previous level by going off the edge into space. The ability to progress forwards and backwards through levels, and the emphasis on exploration seems to put ToeJam & Earl clearly in the action-adventure genre with a tough of platforming (i.e. falling). Look a little closer and there are also RPG elements. You start as a “weiner,” and once you gain enough experience exploring levels and opening presents you get promoted, which expands your life bar and sometimes even bestows you with an extra life. The true masters ascend to the level of “FunkLord.”
While ToeJam & Earl offers a very good solo experience, marauding through levels in two-player co-op fashion is even better. You start off together, but the moment the dynamic duo gets enough distance between them the screen splits—an impressive technical feat circa 1991—without missing a beat. The only catch is that enemies always have a full screen worth of sight, so dodging them becomes more difficult when you’re split up. With two players, you share one communal collection of presents. Open one of them with both players on the screen and each one is affected—for better or worse.
The various levels, except for the first one, are populated by a hilarious variety of Earthlings, each with almost as much personality as the two protagonists. Like presents, there are good Earthlings and bad ones. Some of my favorites are Cupid, whose arrows cause you to swoon and lose the ability to navigate coherently, and hamsters running in a wheel, which will literally squash you. On the friendly side of the spectrum, keep an eye out for the Scientist (a.k.a. the Carrot Guy), who you can pay to identify presents, and Santa Clause who—surprise, surprise—drops presents if you manage to sneak up on him.
ToeJam & Earl appeared at the top of game rental lists for years after its release. Many fans even believed that these two funky aliens should become the mascots for the Sega Genesis, but later in 1991 a certain blue hedgehog appeared.
The backgrounds are simple (green grass, black space, blue water, etc.), and the sprites for the characters and Earthlings could definitely be bigger. That said, the characters are rich with animation, and the wacky cast of characters comes to life thanks to the attention to detail.
The blend of rap and funk represents some of the most memorable music to ever grace a Genesis cartridge. The beats are elegant and whimsical, providing the perfect tone for all the game’s humor. One could, nevertheless, argue that the sound effects are equally impressive, from the off-key “La-La-LAAH!” of Cupids and the “Halelulya” of getting your life bar refilled to the crunch of eating moldy bread and the burping that ensues when you open a root beer present.
Randomly generated levels, incredible split-screen co-op play, and the surprise of opening presents—this game has phenomenal depth and replay value. Every game is uniquely challenging and humorous. It’s hard for me to think of a game that better personifies fun.
If you weren’t raised during the 16-bit generation of games, you might simply not get why this game is so great. It doesn’t easily fit into any one genre, and the gameplay is slow by today’s standards. Give ToeJam & Earl the smallest of chances, though, and you’ll discover a title as brilliant as it is creative and amusing. Over 15 years later, ToeJam & Earl remains a triumph of originality and clever gameplay, a paradigm for today’s game developers to emulate.