The only way you get more 90s than ToeJam and Earl is if Zach Morris and the Olsen twins meet up on TRL. Sega’s game from 1991 parodies urban culture with two decked out aliens trying to find their way home. ToeJam, a red alien with three legs and a Flavor Flav size gold chain around his neck, teams up with Earl, an overeating fat orange alien, to escape the dangers of earth. If successful, the duo will fly back to Funkotron to party! Cowabunga Dude!
ToeJam and Earl is a roguelike game. For those not familiar with the term, it is a dungeon-crawl game. Dungeon though is an awkward term for the levels. Each level (dungeon) must be explored to find the exit and/or the necessary items. How to spice up such a basic formula? This recipe calls for quirkiness, randomizing, and multi-player action. Bam!
ToeJam and Earl’s art style is distinctly 90s, from its Saved by the Bell backgrounds to ToeJam’s Fresh Prince of Belair outfit. The style has not aged as well as some of the other quirky pieces. Each enemy and ally brings personality through parody and irony. There is the shopping mother with child, ice cream truck, pudgy devil, hula girls, sharks, or the dreaded Boogyman. The allies are just as unique with Santa, Carrotman, wizard, and an opera singer. This ragtag cast of characters surprises and keeps the player guessing if they should run or chat.
The levels are also quirky in and of themselves too. Presented as floating islands, the 2/3rds 3D perspective is a welcome departure from the classic 2D side-scrollers. The biggest change though is the levels being floating islands. Instead of being locked in an enclosed space, you are free to drop to previous levels. The elevator continues this perception of climbing higher and higher to freedom. One of the best gaming Easter Eggs is the level 1. The level appears to be a tiny island in the water. The trick though is in the bottom left corner is a hole to go below the first level. There you find a hot tub, girls, and drinks. This quirky game mechanic played out perfectly as a punishment in later levels, but a reward in the first stage.
Most title screens of the era serve the same function as a book counter part- a logo and copyright. Start or not to start, that was the only option. Things got fancy when they allowed a second player. ToeJam raises the bar when it asks fixed world or random. Random?! No more plotting the perfect path and solving the pattern. The random option drastically increases gameplay value with new challenges and levels to explore. Presents continue this trend. I investigated online to find out which presents corresponded with which item. I was shocked to come up empty. ToeJam and Earl’s randomness defeated the internet! Not only that, but it doubles down and makes one present a randomizer to mess you up if you guess the others. These dynamics keep the gameplay fresh and constantly changing, forcing the players to adapt and try new things.
The final ingredient is the multi-player action. In our play through, Crosstix noted his amazement in Genesis’ capabilities to handle split screen and multiple levels at the same time. This function is essential to making the gameplay work as players can explore different areas. Divide and conquer. It is almost worse to be on the same screen as it can mess with the camera angle. The characters interact and create a good banter. When low on health you can even high five and get steal some from the other player. These features are a must and help players to continue through the dungeons.
How does this recipe taste? The game has a unique feel and style. It earned its cult classic status for the aforementioned ingredients. That said, two pieces hold it back from being a must play. It feels slow. Even with a second player laughing and working with you it begins to feel slow. It might be the long walks to the other person, falling down a level, or simply the pace of the characters. The pace feels like not being able to sprint in GTA or Halo. You are stuck at the slow walk, or the even slower creep. The action then feels like using a walker to escape from zombies. Stay calm and get owned? Little skill and a lot of luck is needed to avoid the baddies (damn tornado!).
The other piece holding the game back is the lack of variation and challenge. “But TB, didn’t you just tout the random aspects of the game?” Why, yes I did! The problem here is that you have faced every challenge by the time you get to the 10th level. From there you slog through 15 more levels of the same level of difficulty. The urgency and challenge do not scale appropriately. The game’s entire second half feels like an RPG grind. The end is even worse as the final push is no different from anything else. What this game needed was a last boss! (We are bias at Last Boss Gaming) A great solution would have been to force the player to kill something using tomatoes before the ship piece appeared.
ToeJam and Earl has garnered the title of cult classic. Its many unique and humorous aspects helped it earn this distinction. As a game and not a historical piece it does not stand the harsh test of time. Repetitive and weak challenges lack the depth to move from cult to actual classic. If you really desire a time capsule 90s then ToeJam and Earl might just scratch that itch. Otherwise I would only recommend getting the Easter Egg and calling it quits. You won’t miss anything.