Throwback Thursday: ToeJam & Earl

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Time for a brand new Throwback Thursday! This week, we are going to take a few moments to reintroduce you to a few of the funkiest aliens from Funkotron that ever had a chance to grace the Sega Genesis system. Two aliens that are just like you and me, if you can just get past the whole alien thing! Famous as a cult classic today, this game has a lot of great things going for it. Fantastic graphics, a funky soundtrack, simple game play, fun characters, and crazy comedy elements. What more could you possibly want in a video game? Tonight, let’s take a look at what is one of the coolest games for the Sega Genesis, the original “ToeJam & Earl”, originally released in 1991.

First, let’s start off with the storyline of the game. ToeJam and Earl are two aliens from the planet Funkotron. ToeJam is a three-legged skinny red creature, that wears a gold medallion around his neck with his initials on them, and in classic early 90s style, wearing his baseball cap crooked. Earl on the other hand, is a quite heavyset shirtless orange alien, with cool shades and polka dot boxers. (We are talking MAJOR swag here.) The two of them have this incredible spaceship that has huge component style speakers on each side of the ship, which obviously blast their favorite funk tracks. While ToeJam is driving the ship, Earl decides to ask to take control of the vehicle for a while. ToeJam wasn’t crazy about the idea, but decided to give Earl a spin behind the wheel. While trying to avoid asteroids, Earl has a collision, which causes their spaceship to crash-land on planet Earth, which ToeJam calls “The most insane planet in the galaxy.” Unfortunately, their spaceship has broken into 10 pieces, and are scattered all throughout the planet. In order for them to get back in flight, and back to Funkotron, they have to find the 10 pieces, and get them back together again. Only then will they be able to get home!

ToeJam & Earl is a game that can be played with either one or two players. In one player mode, you get to pick between playing as either ToeJam or Earl, whereas in two player mode, the game becomes split screen and both players play the game at the same time. Throughout the game, while you are looking for the pieces to the spaceship, you can collect power ups that come in the two forms: Out in the open, and in the form of wrapped presents. Power ups include items like “Rocket Skates”, that will give you a faster speed, if you know how to control them, and attacks like tomatoes that you can throw. The gift wrapped power ups contain most of the same items, but are hidden until you open the packages. You take a small chance at the start of the game, because some special items will actually reduce your abilities. For instance, if you eat something foul to the character, you’ll actually lose energy. The nice thing about the packages is that if you come across one in the same wrapping as before, the power up will be the same. So you will learn which ones to collect and which ones to avoid opening. As the game goes on, you will also get an increased ranking, which will give you extra lives. You start off as a Weiner, and you can upgrade to Dufus, Poindexter, Peanut, Homey and so on.

Earth is portrayed in a rather interesting manner in the game. Instead of it being round like in the opening scene, it’s actually in a space setting with various islands that are many levels in height. To get to a higher level in the game, you’ll have to find the elevator and go up. To get to a lower level, you’ll have to jump off the side of the screen. You’ll have a map that you can access at any time, but you will only be able to see on the map areas that you have already explored. This adds a little bit of challenge to the game. (You can pick up a powerup that will allow you to view more of the uncovered map.) Finding the pieces of spaceship are not too difficult. There is literally a huge flashing sign with arrows pointing at it when you come near it. Just grab and go! You will also know if you need to look for the ship piece or the elevator to go to the next floor, because when you enter a floor with a piece of spaceship on it somewhere on the level, you will be told as you enter the level. Makes it pretty much fool-proof!

The enemies in the game are a very wild and crazy bunch of Earthlings. We have dancing devils, cupids shooting arrows, underground moles that will shake you of some of your presents, crazy ladies with shopping carts (on grass?), swarms of bees, tornadoes, and even Hula Girls! (Which while may seem harmless, will put you in a trance, allowing other enemies to attack!) While it is without a doubt probably the craziest bunch of enemies that you ever saw in your life, what makes it good is the fact that this game is pure fantasy, which of course, makes it okay! You really don’t have all that many types of attacks, since after all, these are funky aliens. They remind me of the friendly hippies of the 60s, just updated! Other than the tomato attack, all you can really do is avoid enemies. Which is perfectly fine. Which brings me to the only gripe of the game. The game play is very slow and uses a lot of diagonal movements. So trying to get away from enemies will take a little practice and some advance planning, once you know who is capable of what.

Where the game REALLY shines however, is in the music. If you ask me, the soundtrack to this title is EPIC, and it is one of the best examples of what the Genesis hardware was capable of handling. It is best described as a combination of classic funk, 90s and with a little bit of light rap thrown in for good measure. Not to mention, that unlike many games where the music seems to continuously loop and get repetitive, different levels have different music that alternates whenever you change floors. Not saying that the music never repeats, but it’s a little far and in between when it happens. But even with that said, you will find yourself humming the tunes yourself anyway, because it is really THAT good. I would sometimes put the cartridge in just to hear the music! (And the available sound test menu makes it a lot easier to play your favorite cassette… I mean, background music!)

As you play the game, you will also find that there are a few special things hidden that you can find and explore. The most popular one in the game is the infamous “Level 0”, which can be accessed from the very first level in the game. However, you’ll have to go to the other levels to get an appropriate power up to get there. (Rocket Skates, the inner tube or the Icarus Wings are a good way to achieve this.) Once there, kick back with a cold lemonade (good for an extra life), or chill in the hot tub with some lovely ladies to regain your health. (Kind of like a “moral” Grand Theft Auto III!) In other levels, you can sneak up on Santa! (Heck, where ELSE would all of those wrapped gifts come from?) Just don’t sneeze or get the hiccups when you’re near him. You can also pay a guy in a carrot suit some money for something special. It’s worth it, believe me. (Besides, if a man ever came up to you in a carrot suit and asked you for money, would you ask any questions?) If you wait too long to move, you will fall asleep and will have to wake your character up. This is done by trying to tap them awake nicely, before just screaming “WAKE UP!” (How many times has that happened to you??) And for those that REALLY want to cheat, how about having to find just a single piece of the ship? Yeah, there’s a code for that. But you won’t want to use it, because the game is too much fun!

The game sold quite well. So much so in fact, that the characters of ToeJam and Earl actually nearly became a second set of mascots for the company for a brief period of time. (Of course, no one could imagine anyone else but Sonic The Hedgehog as Sega’s mascot, could they?) An interesting part of the game and the fantastic music, is that some of the music that was used here, was later recycled for another Sega project in the mid 1990s: The Sega Channel. When you navigated through the menus when you were online with the channel, many of the tunes that you heard were recycled from ToeJam & Earl. In fact, on the original prototype cartridge for The Sega Channel, the font used for menus and game selection was the same font used on this game. You can clearly tell from this, that not only did the programmers of the game enjoy and take pride in their work, but it was greatly appreciated by Sega. Of all of the games in Sega’s library by that point, and the fact that this game was released about 3 years before The Sega Channel went live, you can just feel the love. Seriously. Just, feel it.

ToeJam & Earl was a game that I bought originally, thanks to a book that I bought at a book sale in school. (Remember those?) The book was a list of games and codes for various video game titles, and ToeJam & Earl was on the list. I was so fascinated with the concept that I had to pick it up. I got it home, and was instantly hooked on it. Usually it would take me a while to get into the game, but from the very start, I was interested, and it kept my interest going. If you have never had a chance to play this awesome piece of software, take my advice and get a copy! Lucky for you guys, the game is available currently on the Wii Virtual Console for 800 Points (US$8). But if you are like me, and like to play the game on original hardware, just a heads up. While the game is not considered “rare” or “hard to find”, the copies of the game still fetch a pretty penny. I lent out my original copy to a friend back in the day and never got it back, so I had to re-buy it a few years ago, and I ended up paying $35 for it with the box (no manual.) Loose copies typically go for about $20-$25. But no matter your format of preference, you’ll want to check it out. Help ToeJam & Earl get back to their funky selves back at Funkotron!



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