Retro Review: ToeJam & Earl (Megadrive)

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Time once again to delve into the vaults for a Friday retro review. This week: Is Sega’s unusual 1991 platformer still funky?
When ToeJam & Earl came out in 1991, there really was nothing like it. In many ways, there hasn’t been anything quite like it since, despite the series itself generating two sequels. But twenty-two years (sigh…) after its debut, is it still worth playing?

ToeJam & Earl: On the plus side

ToeJam & Earl are two highly funky aliens who crashland on a frightening alien planet known as Earth. Earth is full of crazy creatures that are most definitely NOT funky. Not being Funky is bad, and that’s bad as in not good, not bad as in baaaaaaaad.
In 1991, you could get away with video game plots like that. I’m firmly of the mind that you should still be able to, because ToeJam & Earl never actually bothers to take itself seriously at all. It’s gentle humour, and that’s something that’s quite hard to pull off in a video game.

ToeJam finds a rocketship piece, avoiding a comedy devil on the way. See, videogames were corrupting young minds, even back then!
ToeJam finds a rocketship piece, avoiding a comedy devil on the way. See, videogames were corrupting young minds, even back then!

ToeJam & Earl pulls it off because it’s quite self-aware in terms of both the market it was trying to appeal to while still giving it a gentle jibe. .
Viewed through the lens of history, it’s a terribly 1990s/late1980s kind of concept and certainly kind of style; one that owes more to Vanilla Ice than it does NWA. It’s a homogenised version of rap, in other words.
The gentle approach to humour is also carried through into the game. What follows is a game that can only be described as a platform collect-a-thon. In some ways, it’s the very light predecessor of the kind of obsessive-compulsive completion mania that lies underneath the modern LEGO games.
ToeJam (he’s the little red guy with too many legs) and Earl (the heavyset orange funkmeister) have to find the pieces of their spaceship randomly seeded around vertically stacked levels, as well as many presents that allow them to pick up powers that can either help or hinder them on their quest.

It’s a challenging task, but it’s not a stressful one to speak of, and that’s pretty unique. Even playing it now, it’s got a relaxed vibe that makes it play rather slowly and comfortably.
It’s also well built for multiplayer play, with a split screen system when you move apart from each other. Back in 1991, that was a revolutionary game idea, as gamers had become used to being stuck on the same screen for the most part in multiplayer games. It’s a game built for multiplayer co-operative play in an era when that kind of thing was highly unusual.
Equally interesting for a game of its time is that levels are randomised, which in theory gives it further long term play. You’re not just seeking out the same ship pieces in the same locations every time you play; you’re dealing with mystery locations and plenty of mystery prizes as well.
The writing is funny, the earthlings you deal with are humorous, and the music is great fun if you like that style.

ToeJam & Earl: On the minus side

ToeJam & Earl is slow.
Very, very slow. That’s part of the relaxed charm, but the reality is that the pace never really picks up to speak of. That means unless you’re lucky enough to stock up on shoes or other fast moving implements, you’ll spend a lot of time on rather slow fetch quests.

You start the game with plenty of Hi-Tops. You'll need them.
You start the game with plenty of Hi-Tops. You’ll need them.

Back in the early 1990s, playing with another gamer by my side, this was bearable but never entirely engaging. ToeJam & Earl has its own charm — and it’s still miles better than the woeful Xbox third title, although I have to admit I’ve never played the direct sequel — but in longer form play, you start to get the realisation that it’s all a bit padded out.

ToeJam & Earl: Pricing

Pricing on ToeJam & Earl on eBay is seriously variable; a quick check at time of writing finds copies for anything from $15 to $79. Mind you, that’s eBay for you.

(note: The above is an affiliate link. I’d rather be upfront about that kind of thing.)
It’s also available as an XBLA title for $9.99 under the “Sega Vintage Collection” banner and for PSN and Wii virtual console.

ToeJam & Earl: Fat Duck verdict

ToeJam & Earl is a game that I must admit I find hard to assess.
On one side, it’s gentle, it’s funny, and there’s not much like it. I like unique games that take risks rather than following the herd, and there’s no doubting ToeJam & Earl’s unique status.

ToeJam has done it! Now he can get PROPERLY Funky. Or at least as PROPERLY  Funky as 1991 can manage.
ToeJam has done it! Now he can get PROPERLY Funky.
Or at least as PROPERLY Funky as 1991 can manage.

At the same time, the relaxed pace is perhaps a little too sedate, and the game draws out its play for just a little too long in the modern context.
How do I sum that up? Well, a review can be a deeply personal thing, so I’ll put it this way.
I’m very happy to have a copy of ToeJam & Earl in my collection, but unlike other retro classics while playing it, I’m never incredibly compelled to play it exclusively.
It’s the kind of game that I’d pick up maybe once in every five years, play a little bit, laugh a little bit and then put back on the shelf. If you’re crunched for space it’s not exactly essential, but it does still shine.

About the author

Alex Kidman is a multi-award winning Australian technology writer, former editor at Gizmodo, CNET, GameSpot, ZDNet, PC Mag, APC, Finder and as a contributor to the ABC, SMH, AFR, Courier Mail, GadgetGuy, PC & Tech Authority, Atomic and many more. He's been writing professionally since 1998, and his passions include technology, social issues, education, retro gaming and professional wrestling.

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