The ToeJam & Earl series is fondly remembered by people who played the Sega Genesis, including yours truly. Sadly, the series remains largely forgotten by everyone else, despite ToeJam & Earl III appearing exclusively on the original Xbox. The cause may stem from SEGA not actually owning the characters. The rights belong to one of the series’ two creators, Greg Johnson. Thankfully he worked out a deal with SEGA, who have just released the first two games as SEGA Vintage Collection: ToeJam & Earl.
ToeJam & Earl
In the original ToeJam & Earl, the two alien protagonists have crash landed on Earth, damaging their spaceship in the process. Their goal is to find all 10 parts needed to repair it by scouring 25 bizarre levels. These levels can be randomly generated or fixed, depending on the players’ preference. Each level appears as a series of islands that float above the previous one; fall and you’ll end up on the level below. Just like the world we live in, right?
Along the way, ToeJam and pal will discover numerous presents strewn across each map. These may contain helpful items like flight-giving wings, spring shoes, a ducky float, and various edible delights. Or they could have poisonous food and items that actually kill you. The catch is, you won’t know until you’ve used an item for the first time or paid the walking carrot man (?!) to identify it.
After that, the descriptions for subsequent presents of the same type appears in your inventory. Both players have separate inventories in co-op games, though if one player tests or identifies a present, it gets identified for the whole team. Basically, experimentation plays a large role on top of the game’s ample exploration. These elements are borrowed from the Rogue-like genre, though thankfully ToeJam & Earl is much easier (but still challenging).
As if the unique gameplay and bizarre sense of humor didn’t help it stand out enough, ToeJam & Earl also packs a revolutionary feature for its time period: dynamic split-screen. When both co-op players are in the same general area, the game appears as full screen. But walk away from each other and it switches to a horizontal split-screen display on the fly. It would’ve been nice for the switching to take place a bit faster in this rerelease, but it’s still an excellent feature regardless.
The first game also has some subtler but still appreciated co-op touches. For instance, if one player runs out of lives, the remaining player can choose whether or not to share one of his or her own. TJ & E even greet each other when they reunite after splitting up. Their friendship comes across nicely on-screen, paralleling that of the co-op players’.
ToeJam & Earl remains an engaging experience after all these years. The exploration, the panic you’ll feel when encountering the super tough enemies (who are best avoided), and all the little jokes and animations are as fresh now as ever. Fans of classic games should not miss it. Check out our classic This Week in Co-Op column for more impressions.
ToeJam & Earl 2: Panic on Funkotron
ToeJam & Earl 2: Panic on Funkotron takes place on the hip-hoppin’ aliens’ home planet. Dozens of pesky humans have stowed away on TJ & E’s ship, and now they’re irritating the locals to no end. It’s up to our funky heroes to bag them all and ship them home. A weird (and slightly mundane) plot, but what else would we expect from this silly series?
The sequel mixes things up more than usual by switching genres. Instead of a Rogue-like, it’s a platformer. TJ & E can no longer split up; they are confined to a single screen. If one player remains off-screen too long, he'll die. The contents of presents they find are still sort of randomized, but they’ll always be good, and they come in a much smaller and less useful variety. Basically, everything that made the first game special other than the humor and musical references has been excised in favor of increased mainstream appeal.
That said, ToeJam & Earl 2 is not a bad game. You get to run through its 17 levels solo or in co-op, hunting down obnoxious earthlings and trapping them in jars like they deserve. I’ve wanted to do that to my bosses at work a few times over the years, let me tell you. Speaking of co-op, during the occasional section in which the characters bounce on sponges, the first player controls both characters until they land. The sponge bouncing is annoying any way you slice it, so perhaps the designers actually did player two a favor in that regard.
Panic on Funkotron’s lack of bosses or much urgency to the plot doesn’t exactly make for a compelling adventure, though the dialogue between TJ & E and their NPC friends can be amusing. The characters are large and detailed (though both games are lacking in animation frames), and the backgrounds boast plenty of sweet parallax scrolling. The controls and movement feel a bit off, like most American platformers from the nineties, but they get the job done.
Like other Sega Vintage Collection XBLA releases, Sega Vintage Collection: ToeJam & Earl has some nice extras you wouldn’t find in the original cartridges. These include beautiful 3D menus that recreate the Sega Genesis hardware and several objects from the games, graphical options and filters, new widescreen borders, the ability to play the American or European ROMs, and more.
The best additions are undoubtedly online multiplayer and save states. Unfortunately, only the first player gets Achievements, whether playing online or offline. The first player actually has to perform the Achievement’s action, too; you don’t get credit for anything that Earl does. Considering these games are flat-out intended to be played in co-op, such an oversight (which also plagues the other SVC games) is a big mistake. Hopefully M2 will stop arbitrarily denying Achievements to the second player in future games.
Achievements aside, Sega Vintage Collection: ToeJam & Earl is a terrific co-op collection. The original game is the star of the show, and well worth the price of admission on its own. Think of the second game as a bonus. I’m so glad SEGA has preserved this stylin' series for today’s gamers. Let’s hope they publish the seldom-played ToeJam & Earl 3 on XBLA and PSN someday as well.
Sega Vintage Collection: ToeJam & Earl costs 800 Microsoft Points ($10) and you can find it here at Xbox.com.