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.