ToeJam & Earl: A Funky, Out of this World, Retrospective

The ToeJam & Earl franchise has been around for an astonishing 28 years and since its debut way back in the 90s, fans have been waiting for another chance to play as the funky aliens from Planet Funkotron again. Before you go check out the new game though, let’s take a look at the first three games.

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Game designer Greg Johnson was looking to do something different after working on Starflight and Starflight 2, and being a huge Rogue and Sci-Fi fan, he came up with the idea for the gameplay while relaxing on the beach during a vacation. The characters came to him in a dream … two aliens (one red with three legs and the other big and orange) who spoke in hip-hop/rap dialogue of the era. After meeting with programmer Mark Voorsanger in 1989, the two agreed to work together and formed “Johnson Voorsanger Productions” (which would go on to become “ToeJam and Earl Productions”) and began working on the first game soon after.

TJ_E1 GAMEPLAY

On October 1991, Toejame & Earl released to almost unanimous critical acclaim on the Sega Genesis. The story focused on the characters as they were flying through space but, thanks to Earl’s driving, crashed their ship on Earth — and it’s up to the player(s) to help the funky duo collect the parts of their spaceship to escape from Earth while avoiding enemies. You roam through each level and find each part of the ship, sometimes one or two, and then find an elevator to move to the next floor. The funk soundtrack by John Baker is so good too. You honestly could listen to it without the game.

With the success of the first game, Johnson Voorsanger Productions began working on a sequel in 1992 and came up with an early demo to show Sega. That game would have been a direct follow-up to the first, but Sega didn’t understand the game. Although the “decision was still ultimately with Johnson and Voorsanger,” the developer started work on a more generic, side-scrolling platform game — a concept to which Sega had been more receptive. Doing so freed up cartridge space allowing for much larger sprites and greater graphical detail. The soundtrack was able to be remixed for the game and even included the original theme from the first game that had better quality thanks to the added layers of sound.

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Released in 1993 for the Genesis, ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron had mixed reception with players but positive ones with critics. Continuing after the first game, ToeJam and Earl arrive back on their home planet, Funkotron, only to discover that Earthlings have stowed away on their ship and have now invaded Funkotron. They are terrorizing everyone, so much so that the source of all funk, Lamont the Funkapotomus, was scared away to another dimension. It’s up to the players to fix the problem, by capturing the Earthlings and sending them back to Earth where they belong. You search for humans by radar in this side-scrolling platformer, looking everywhere for them. Sometimes they would be out in the open and other times in bushes, boxes, or even mailboxes. Players throw jars at them to capture each human; once every human was collected, you could move to the next level. Players were able to collect presents throughout the game which would give you upgrades like super jars or teleportation moves. Hidden throughout the game were 10 objects belonging to Lamont the Funkapotamus and when you actually collected them all, it gave the player the best ending upon completion.

TJ_E2 GAMEPLAY

Sadly, over the years, the game gained a negative reputation as a selling-out point for its daring and unique gameplay design. In hindsight, Johnson and Voorsanger have stated numerous times that they regret moving from the prototype sequel to a side-scrolling platform game. Today, players either like the original or the sequel. Very few love both games (I should know because I am in that camp). Johnson has further asserted over the years that Toyoda Shinobu, who had been Sega’s Vice President of Development at that time, “admitted that it was probably a mistake on Sega’s part to jump to a side-scroller.” Both ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron and ToeJam & Earl comprised one of the Genesis’ “key exclusive franchises” in the early to the mid-90s. However, Sega’s next video game console, the Saturn, performed poorly in the North American market and thus the franchise was neglected.

Johnson and programmer Mark Voorsanger regained the rights to ToeJam and Earl in 1995 and began shopping around to see where the best place would be for the series. Going from GT Interactive and the N64 in 1998 to Sonic and the PS2, to ultimately on Sega’s Dreamcast through Visual Concept’s (a Sega developer in charge of third-party game development). When Johnson and Voorsanger began development on the third installment, it was intended to be a remake of the first game but with better visuals. This idea, however, was curtailed by Visual Concepts, who felt that the result would be too old-fashioned and too niche in appeal. Johnson himself later would say he was unsure, at the time, whether to cater to fans who wanted a remake of the original or attempt to capture a brand new audience. The game would be previewed at E3 in 2001, but Sega ceased its support of the Dreamcast due to poor commercial performance. So … the game was left without a home but the developer ultimately ported the game to Microsoft’s Xbox because of its technical simplicity as well as free advertising offered to Sega by Microsoft. However, Johnson preferred the PS2 and GameCube over the Xbox.

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On October 23rd of 2002, ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth (originally named ToeJam, Earl & Latisha) would release. ToeJam, Earl, and a new female character named Latisha travel to Earth in order to retrieve the 12 stolen Sacred Albums of Funk and return them to Lamont the Funkopotamus. The game itself has been called a platformer and an action-adventure game … but in actuality, it’s a good mix of both and of the first two games. Latisha was a fun addition to the roster of aliens. Yes, both Visual Concepts and ToeJam & Earl Productions argued over the direction of the game, but that’s how things go sometimes. I think it was for the best as it was fun for its time (at least to me when I played it at my friend’s place back then).

Now, 16 years later, ToeJam & Earl are back with a brand new game! It amazes me how much love the franchise has gained after all this time, especially after such a successful kickstarter. If you never had the chance to play the original two games from the Sega Genesis, you can play them now on Steam along with the newest entry in the franchise. I just hope that we won’t have to wait another 16 years for the next series because these guys are just too fun to miss.

Written by
A survivor of the 16-bit console wars, fan or horror films, and pro-wrestling. Lover of all things Sega.

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