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ToeJam & Earl is a franchise I wasn’t aware of until I became an adult. Evidently, the first game was a sleeper hit and did spawn several sequels. Even after discovering the franchise through a buddy of mine, I didn’t actually play any of the games until well after Back in the Groove released. My friends were playing the Switch version and I thought it looked fun so I fired up my Switch, bought it and joined them. Afterwards, I was hooked for a while and my friend suggested we play through the entire series. Developed by Johnson Voorsanger Productions and published by Sega, ToeJam & Earl was released for the Sega Genesis in October, 1991.
The story follows ToeJam and Earl, two aliens that crash land on Earth and seek out their missing ship parts so they can return to their home planet, Funkotron. The plot is simple and the game oozes with style. It’s more or less a commentary on the culture of the 80s and 90s. From the humorous dialogue and slang to the loud colors and funky beats, ToeJam & Earl is a surreal and comedic reflection of the time period.
I’ve heard ToeJam & Earl described as an isometric, layer-based action game and I would say that’s a pretty accurate description. It is by far one of the most unique games I’ve ever played. It supports up to two players and comes with multiple games modes. Your primary objective is to retrieve all the ship parts. That’s how you beat the game. The parts can be found on specific levels and to proceed to the next level, you must find the elevator. You can play through the game in the Random World mode where everything is randomized or the Fixed World mode which is harder but everything is always located in the same place each time you play through it. ToeJam & Earl also comes with a Jam Out mode where you press buttons to make the characters dance along with the different tunes and beats.
The gameplay is pretty simple. You move the characters around the levels, acquiring presents, evading or engaging enemies and revealing more of the map. The game does support dynamic split screen and the characters can rank up by earning enough points which is accomplished by opening presents and uncovering map tiles. The presents are a big part of the gameplay. They can be found scattered around the levels and you don’t know what a present is until you open it. They can be items to help you or items that result in negative effects like a Total Bummer which instantly kills you. Money can also be found throughout the levels and can be given to friendly Earthlings in exchange for their service. The Wiseman will identify presents, the Opera Singer will pop any Earthlings on the screen, and the Wizard will heal you. You can also order presents from a Mailbox as long as its not a monster that will try to eat you.
Just like in real life, every level on Earth is a floating island, sometimes with secret paths that are revealed when you get close to the edge. Many levels contain a big mainland with smaller islands off to the sides that can be reached via secret paths or by utilizing items like Spring Shoes or Icarus Wings. ToeJam & Earl can be a challenging game and we would say getting through it is easier with two players because they can explore the levels faster and even give each other health by high fiving among some other benefits. If the duo are together on the screen, they can both benefit from the effects of a single present. Health can be replenished by eating food which can be found in the levels. Levels not only contain money, food, and presents just lying around but also Earthlings and various creatures. Most are dangerous and will chase and hurt you and you also have be mindful of hazards like quicksand and tornadoes and you can drown in water if you swim for too long. Death does result in a loss of life and if you fall off the level or map, you will land somewhere in the previous level and have to take the Elevator back up.
The protagonists are not given many ways to defend themselves. They can walk and sneak which allows them to slip by sleeping enemies without waking them up and even get close to Santa. The protagonists can’t attack or block so they have to rely on presents for offensive abilities and better mobility among other things. I would not classify ToeJam & Earl as a stealth game but I would say survival is more about evasion than anything else. Evasion and exploration. Some presents grant you items that can be used as weapons like Tomatoes and Slingshots and the effects of most presents only last for a limited time. Icarus Wings is one of the best items you can get because they allow you to fly over everything. You can boost around on Rocket Skates, run around with Bonus or Super Hi-Tops and one of the most helpful items is Togetherness which will teleport your character to the other, very useful if you fall to the previous level.
As cool and unique as ToeJam & Earl is, we also feel it’s somewhat flawed. For one thing, enemies can be way too fast and aggressive. As mentioned before, the protagonists can’t really defend themselves and they don’t move particularly fast so you may have utilize certain presents to help you get away or engage them, assuming you have any, or try to evade them by walking and just hope they don’t get you. ToeJam does move faster but Earl starts with more health. Some of the levels feature some really annoying enemies that can easily gang up on you and depending on the presents you find, it may seem like you can’t get away and the result may be death or being forced off the edge of the level. Furthermore, the game can sometimes feel outright cheap like when you fall off a ledge and then land right onto a Tornado which more often than not will drop you somewhere off land so you fall to another previous level. Also annoying is when you discover a secret path and your character happens to be standing on a piece of land that disappears as a result of the new path so they fall to the previous level.
Visually, we can’t say ToeJam & Earl is the greatest looking Genesis game but it does showcase a unique and colorful cartoony style. Many characters look silly and the animations are solid. One complaint we have is that there isn’t enough environmental variety. All the levels pretty much look the same. You’ll see a lot of grass, quicksand, and water. The music is the only thing that stands out on the audio side. The gameplay is accompanied by some very funky and catchy tunes and beats that perfectly fit the game’s style. On the technical side, we did not encounter any issues.
We had a great time with ToeJam & Earl even though it can get a bit frustrating. This is one of those games where I think playing with another person is the ideal way to experience it. It’s a game that borrows elements from some other genres but manages to establish a unique identity thanks to its gameplay and style. It’s an action game that centers very much on exploration and it’s easy to pick up and play. It certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously while also comedically satirizing Earthly life and culture. Parts of the game can become a little repetitive but it can keep you coming back for a while.
We would definitely recommend ToeJam & Earl. I do think the formula has been significantly improved in the series fourth title, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, but I would say what’s on offer here was and still is unique and interesting. Definitely check it out.