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)