Thursday, March 15, 2018

Sega Genesis Review: ToeJam & Earl (1991)


Nowadays, many different games with various mechanics and themes are considered "roguelikes".

In FTL: Faster Than Light, you must manage a craft through space while all sorts of dangerous encounters attempt to thwart you. Rogue Legacy, however, has you platforming and hacking your way across dungeons, spending gold to upgrade your abilities, and playing your next descendant should you perish. For those interested in delving deep into underground caverns and seeking treasure, Spelunky scratches that itch.

What do all these games actually have in common, though, besides being fiendishly addicting? In a nutshell, once you die, fail, or give up, choosing to re-attempt the game means that you will start from the beginning, but the levels you play and what you encounter will be different. Roguelikes generally have procedurally generated levels, so you never know what to expect, and you can't just memorize what a level is going to be like for your next play. Instead, you have to rely on getting better at the game mechanics and adapt to different circumstances. This is a lot of fun and prevents the games from becoming stale too quickly.

Have you ever been stuck on an extremely challenging level of a game that almost seemed unfair? After your nth try, things can start to get frustratingly repetitive. This is not as much the case with a roguelike; every death is a lesson in adaptability and preparedness, and you never know when that lesson will come in handy.

Before the 90s, roguelikes were a lot more similar to each other than they are today. Rogue, Hack, and Angband were all ASCII dungeon-crawlers in which you fought monsters and avoided traps, working your way floor by floor to some end goal. To this day, they are excellent games that require a lot of premeditated thought: Nethack (the successor to Hack) is one of my favorite games of all time. More importantly, these games formed the basis for all roguelikes that came after.

Nethack is a fantastic game with a lot of great roles you can play. If the graphics seem a little "blah", there are several attractive GUIs you can download to liven things up.

Hold the phone. I totally forgot what this review was about. Oh, right... ToeJam & Earl.


ToeJam and Earl happen to be two incredibly cool aliens from the planet Funkotron. Despite being incredibly awesome, they don't happen to be the best spaceship pilots, and so they ended up crash-landing into Earth. Your goal in this totally jammin' Sega Genesis debut is to help TJ & E find all the parts to their spaceship (which includes a set of humongous speakers attached to the outside) so they can fly back home.

Every time you play the game, the levels are completely different. You never know how big the map is going to be for a given level, where the enemies are going to be, and where a ship piece will be (not all levels even have a ship piece). If you die, fail, or give up, you'll be playing a completely different set of levels. ToeJam & Earl for the Sega Genesis is most definitely a roguelike, and it's quite a bit different than roguelikes that predated it. The developers understood the appeal of procedurally generated content in an era that didn't really utilize the concept much.

From the moment the SEGA logo comes up, you know this game is something different. An upper-octave bassline slaps a funky melody as the pair's spaceship cruises across the screen. The melody grows to be more elaborate and more infectious as electronic percussion joins in. It's honestly kind of hard not to bob your head to. You are then formally greeted by ToeJam and Earl, our two ridiculous protagonists. Their dialogue is very funny and has a unique, hip flavor that is as endearing as it is humorous.

ToeJam and Earl are highly funky aliens.

The game itself is played from an isometric perspective. A potentially off-putting initial realization you might have is how these two guys kind of saunter around. They don't seem to be in much of a rush to get their job done. This honestly makes it a little hard to get excited to play the game when you first start moving around, but it fits the characters well, and this game is all about theme. Gamers that enjoy fast-paced action will likely be turned away, however.

As you lackadaisically meander about the levels, you'll be on the lookout for ship pieces, which are hard to miss, as each one is located directly in front of a purple billboard with two giant arrows pointing at it - just one example of the game's over-the-top humor. Each time you collect a piece, a diagram of your ship will pop up on the screen and show the new piece fitted into place, much like a puzzle. As with many other classic roguelikes, the level is revealed to you as you approach its edges. The interesting thing about this game is that the maps aren't really predictable shapes; the planet surface expands outwards like tentacles as you explore. This means there are all sorts of hidden paths and secrets waiting for you to find. This also means it can be hard to figure out where you're supposed to go next, which can be a little nerve-wracking when being chased by enemies.

The ship pieces are kind of hard to miss, when they're on screen...

Every level has an elevator located somewhere on the map that will take you to the next level up. You are treated to some groovy hip-hop beats and a cheesy, colorful background (reminds me of really bad wallpaper from back in the day) as you ascend to the next level. Definitely better than staircases!

Much of the fun and challenge of the game is all the enemies and how you deal with them. As you're the aliens visiting Earth in this game, your foes are appropriately Earthlings. The various Earthlings you'll face are hilarious and diverse: hula dancers will distract you and force your character to... hula, which will prevent you from getting away from other enemies. Cackling dentists will attempt to operate on you in a very harmful way. The chicken infantry are a group of chickens fitted with mortars that shoot tomatoes, and avoiding their ambushes is tricky. There are boogeymen, giant hamsters, lawnmower guys, cupids, sharks, and more. There are even some helpful Earthlings that you can occasionally make use of if you find them.

The degree of tension the enemies add is pretty immense. You'll be enjoying the soundtrack, pleasantly strolling Earl around the map, and before you know it you'll be trying to desperately steer his slow alien hide away from multiple psychotic pursuers. The aforementioned sluggishness definitely makes these situations more difficult (or rather the relative sluggishness compared to some Earthlings).

The chicken infantry is no joke.

The way you deal with the fiendish Earthlings is generally with presents you'll find on the map. When you pick up a new kind of present (they are different sizes and have different wrapping paper), it's not identified until you use it (unless you come across a scientist dressed like a carrot, who can identify them for you).

Presents can be good or bad, and you won't know until they're identified. While presents such as Icarus Wings and a slingshot that shoots tomatoes will help you maneuver the enemy-laden maps, you may end up with a raincloud above your head that shocks you with lightning bolt, and some presents will even contain Earthlings, which can be an intense surprise. Some of the presents are double-edged swords: rollerskates can help you escape some of the faster Earthlings, but they're so fast that you may find yourself flying off the level onto the one below it. Because of the variety of presents you can get and the coin toss of opening an unidentified one, there is a lot of strategy that goes into when to use a present, and whether or not to risk it in the first place.

Additionally, there's food scattered around each level to replenish your health. The tastier the food, the more health they'll give you: burgers and ice cream are never a bad choice! To spend money at mailboxes (you can buy presents assuming the mailbox isn't an Earthling in disguise) or from "good" Earthlings, you'll want to collect dollars from around the map. Nearly all the gameplay elements from traditional roguelikes are here.

One non-traditional roguelike element that this game contains is two-player cooperative play. It would only make sense that in a game starring two characters, you'd be able to play them both. The co-op is a fun time, especially as you are able to play simultaneously. It works just like the single-player game, except when TJ & E get too far away from each other, the screen rips apart into horizontal split-screen. I really have no complains about the way this works, and honestly, it's the best way to play the game.


ToeJam & Earl is not a fast, frenzied action game, and definitely won't be everyone's cup of tea. It's a methodical roguelike with a heavy dose of thematic flavor and a fantastic, funky soundtrack. At the end of the day, there's really nothing quite like it, no matter what genre the game fits into, and that's why it will always have a place in my game collection.

Retrodrunk Rating:(8/10 glasses of whiskey)

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Console Review: PC-Engine Duo RX


When I first heard the words "TurboGrafx-16" uttered, a curious awe washed over me: just the name of the console screams "awesome". However, for years, it was merely a name to me. I read about its lore longingly, but there were many other fish in the sea. The fantastic thing about all the home console competition that occurred from the 70s to the 90s is that there are now many options for collectors. Every console has a unique look, different hardware, and its own library of incredible games.

Just last year, I remember finding myself restlessly pacing around my home. I slid open the door of my den closet and stared up at my Vectrex, perched up upon a shelf, collecting dust. The Vectrex is an incredible console, but it isn't the best console to break out at a party if you want multiple people involved. I sighed as I walked over to my TV. If they had arms, my Atari 2600 and Sega Genesis would surely reach up to me, pleading "play me", but I wasn't in the mood. I didn't want to admit it, but the truth was that I needed a new, awesome, classic console.

To this day - one of the coolest looking consoles of all time.

The TurboGrafx-16 was calling my name. My quest to obtain one immediately began. Excitement shot through me as I realized that I was about to be the owner of the very first 16-bit console. That's right - even before the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo was NEC's monster of power and pure attitude.

The unfortunate thing about the TurboGrafx-16 is that it was utterly destroyed by the Sega Genesis in terms of marketing. It only boasts 94 games playable in the U.S. An additional 44 games were available with versions of the console that could play CDs.

While my heart did sink a little after learning this, the good news was that the Japanese version of the TurboGrafx did extremely well, having been released over a year prior. The PC-Engine was what I wanted: A whopping 650 games can be played on this beast of a console.

Soon enough, I had a PC-Engine Duo RX in my possession. The "Duo" part of the name implies that it plays both HuCards (the storage medium for the PC-Engine and TurboGrafx) and CDs. The "RX"... well it's just a different version of the console.

Look and Feel: 

The PC-Engine Duo RX is a sleek looking piece of hardware. It's smooth, white exterior gives it a futuristic look, though fans of the TurboGrafx-16 may note the absence of the rugged, textured look we got in America with some displeasure.

The PC-Engine Duo RX, aka the "future"

The great thing about this console is that it is extremely light, yet it doesn't feel cheap. It just ends up having a very convenient, portable feel to it that is hard to describe but easy to appreciate. A purple button on the right side pops open the CD player, and the HuCard bay on the left can be flicked open with ease. Once a HuCard is firmly inserted into the bay, the power switch on the front also serves as a lock to prevent the card from accidentally escaping during play - exceptional design.

So what is a HuCard, exactly? A HuCard is the PC-Engine/TurboGrafx equivalent of a game cartridge, except the thing is literally pretty similar in dimensions to a credit card (except twice as thick). I am personally endlessly fascinated and impressed by them. They are super convenient to transport (especially if you get a small baseball card binder), and plugging and locking them in is very satisfying. Cute!

The standard two-button PC-E controllers have an identical layout to the TurboGrafx-16 controllers (they are not interchangeable, however, due to a different plug size and pinout). They essentially look like NES controllers with turbo switches (which are extremely handy for playing any of the many shoot-em-ups for this console). I do think they play a bit better, though, due to a better d-pad and a more comfortable shape.

A great controller... but why aren't my turbos on?!

My PC-Engine Duo RX happens to have an RGB/Component video mod, which is very common if you shop around for one. Normally, the system has Composite video. Regardless, this much better than older consoles that only supported RF, so the system was definitely not taking a step backwards where this is concerned.

As far as region locks for games, the CD component of the unit can play either American (TurboGrafx CD) or Japanese (PC-Engine CD) games. However, the system only plays Japanese HuCards. This isn't a huge deal, considering most of the good HuCards for the TurboGrafx were also made for the PC-Engine, but it's something to take note of. There are HuCard region adapters, but finding one at a decent price nowadays may prove difficult.

Overall, this console looks and feels incredible. It's simple, classy, and functional. However, it's not flawless.

One complaint I have is that most people are going to want extension cables for the controllers and video, because they are definitely on the short side for some strange reason. The good news is that the pinouts are pretty standard, so you can get extension cables for just a few bucks and you'll be ready to go. It's a minor inconvenience that wouldn't be necessary if they would have thought it through just a bit...

It's also unfortunate that there is really only one controller port on the console, but purchasing a Multi-Tap will allow you to play games with five people. Five. You get shortchanged out of the box, but the Multi-Tap will allow you to play games with more people than most consoles even locally support! While that's a pretty incredible accessory for a console that came out in 1987, it becomes another additional cost you have to shell out for you if you want to play with a few friends. 


I mentioned that the PC-Engine has a library of 850 games to pick from. That is a ton of games, but are they any good? What kind of gamer would like them? Is one better off just getting another console with a "better" game library?

I am pleased to report that the NEC only takes a backseat to the giants of video gaming history because of aspects like marketing and timing; not because the games aren't good. The PC-Engine library is fantastic, and I would recommend it to gamers looking for a refreshing variety of games that don't necessarily jump on the bandwagon as far as style or mechanics. For instance, Bonk (the TurboGrafx/PC-Engine's flagship mascot) stars in a series of platforming games in which you often do want enemies to hit you on your head, which adds a lot of flavor and uniqueness that most platforming games just don't have. In Gekibo: Gekisha Boy, you guide the protagonist through levels, avoiding obstacles but taking care to photograph interesting happenings during the level.

The same strategy applies whether you play Bonk's Adventure, Bonk's Revenge, or Bonk's Big Adventure: point your head at your enemies.

Come to think of it, Pokemon Snap for the N64 seems a little less novel now that the PC-Engine had an action-photography game. Also, Nectaris for the PC-Engine is essentially a much earlier version of Advance Wars. This console definitely has influence going for it, and it's hard not to notice once you start playing games.

The bread and butter of the PC-Engine's library is definitely shoot-em-ups (hooray for the turbo switches on the controllers!). If you enjoy shoot-em-ups and are interested in collecting consoles at all, NEC's 16-bit consoles are the way to go.

For R-Type fans out there, the PC-Engine has a direct port of the R-Type arcade game, and I'm pleased to report that it is astonishingly awesome. Like other R-Type games, it's a horizontal scroller in which you are desperately strafing for open gaps among obstacles. The twist in this version of R-Type is that you have a little companion: a glowing ball that serves as a shield, but that can also be shot at enemies as a weapon. The music is incredible and the game is extremely intense and thrilling.

R-Type for the PC-Engine
Spriggan (from the same studio that developed M.U.S.H.A for the Genesis) is a a vertical scroller in which you collect colored balls which give you different attacks; multiple colors can be combined for various multi-faceted attacks, or the same colors can be combined for a more powerful version of the same attack. To actually explain all the possible attacks would be extremely difficult, as there are a lot of combinations that function very differently, which is what makes the game incredibly interesting and fun.

Spriggan is incredible, and looks like a lot like M.U.S.H.A, which is also incredible...

Air Zonk is a horizontal scroller that stars a punk-like protagonist that bears an uncanny resemblence to everyone's favorite TurboGrafx/PC-Engine mascot, Bonk. The airborne rebel flies through each level blowing the hell out of various cartoony enemies to an infectious soundtrack.

Who the heck is Zonk, anyway?

If you're in the mood for something a bit different, Cotton is a horizontal scroller in which you play a witch on a broomstick shooting her way through all sorts of mayhem. The reason why this game is so special is because of the unique art style. A lot of the enemies are shaded in almost a 3D or claymation manner, and seeing graphics like this on such an old console is unbelievable.

Cotton is very lush and beautiful for a shoot-em-up.

For gamers that really just want to play something that blows everything else out of the water, Lords of Thunder is an incredible shmup featuring an epic heavy metal soundtrack and upgrades between levels. The action is almost unparalleled and it's difficult for me to play this one without my jaw hanging open in awe.

At this point, you're probably convinced that the PC-Engine has a wide variety of shooters... and that this Bonk guy is allegedly pretty cool. What about the staple video game series, though? Do the PC-Engine equivalents do them justice?

For Castlevania fans, the PC-Engine has Castlevania: Rondo of Blood. While making the case for this game being better than Symphony of the Night or Super Castlevania IV is difficult, it's still undoubtedly one of the best games in the series, and the atmosphere and gameplay is spot-on. The game looks and sounds absolutely superb, and Rondo of Blood will not disappoint fans of the series.

Rondo of Blood: An intensely gratifying Castlevania game.

Like the Genesis and Super Nintendo, the PC-Engine also has a port of the Street Fighter II: Champion Edition arcade game. Many consider the PC-Engine port the most faithful; it serves as a testament to how competent this system really was compared to the more popular 16-bit consoles.

Additionally, the system has a great collection of unique RPGs, such as the Ys series, so fans of the genre will definitely have enough to sink their teeth into.

The major gap in the system's library is definitely platformers, especially when you are comparing the console against its16-bit foes. However, the small collection of platformers of the PC-Engine are mostly a blast to play and often even innovative, so as long as you don't only want to play platforming games, it shouldn't be a deal breaker.


The PC-Engine DUO RX is an unbelievable relic of time that can still be found today, if you find someone willing to give it up for a good price. Its sleek design, vast and diverse game library, and sheer influence on its descendants make it an ideal choice for video game collectors and enthusiasts. 

The only real knock against this console are the single controller port and short cables, which are minor annoyances that need a little extra cash thrown at them to solve.

Retrodrunk Rating: (9/10 pints)