Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Jammin’!: The Story of ToeJam & Earl

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In proverbial “man I’m getting old” fashion, I’ve just realized that we’re just two-and-a-half years shy of the 30th Anniversary of ToeJam & Earl.  It’s not like I suddenly woke up and decided to write about this franchise, either, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove will release this Friday, March 1st and while we can’t talk about it yet, tune back into the site on Thursday to get all the details and our thoughts. Permit me to take you back to the halcyon days of the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive for you players outside North America) and into the team that dared to make a roguelike in 1991 on consoles.

ToeJam & Earl (1991, Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, Developed by Johnson Voorsanger Productions, Published by Sega)

The story of ToeJam & Earl starts with its creator Greg Johnson and his fanaticism for Rogue while at UCSD.  The link above will provide you background on both Rogue and the now dubbed “roguelike” genre, but back in 1980s there was only one game influencing a slew of young developers.  Johnson would go on to EA working on PC titles, including his most notable releases as designer on Starflight in 1986 and Starflight 2 in 1989, the latter receiving Computer Gaming World’s Roleplaying Game of the Year award in 1990.  The franchise involves space exploration with integrated strategy, combat, and simulation in a non-linear fashion.  It was a starting point and notoriety for Johnson early in his career and allowed him to get more creative as he brainstormed his next project.  It was around this time, according to a Gamasutra’s interview I reference consistently, that Johnson met Mark Voorsanger, a programmer, while mountain climbing with a mutual friend.  The two hit it off so well that Johnson pitched the idea for ToeJam & Earl and immediately set to work on establishing Johnson Voorsanger Productions, the studio that would develop and release the game.

The concept was pretty straightforward, but also unique for the time.  ToeJam & Earl is about two rapping aliens dripping with 90s urban culture who have their ship breakdown on Earth and have to scour randomly generated maps to re-collect all the pieces.  Some may even call it a cartoonish, funky version of Rogue.  According to Johnson, the main concepts that drove design were randomized maps and survival to complete the grand task of rebuilding your ship.  I’m used to hearing about all the struggles that game development faces – in the Gamasutra interview you can read about Johnson’s in his formative years – but oddly enough this wasn’t the case with ToeJam & Earl.  To hear him tell it, the design doc was easily assembled and Johnson pulled old team members into development, including the talented John Baker who was responsible for the soundtrack.  A quick meeting with Sega that spelled out the design on note cards along with their combined experience on major games was enough to get the title published.

It’s important to point out that at this time Sega of America was quite unique compared to most Japanese video game companies.  Led by Tom Kalinske, a marketing genius behind Mattel and Matchbox’s strong 80s years who joined Sega to take on Nintendo directly in the US.  Kalinske does have a tendency to embellish in what I’ve read in Blake Harris’ Console Wars, but some of the stories are irrefutable.  The Sega scream was under his watch, the direct attack of Nintendo and specifically the SNES was all his team, and lets not forget that in a purely business sense the market value of Sega boomed from $2 billion to $5 billion with large contributions from Sega of America.  Sega even had 55 percent of the 16-bit market share at one point, according to historian Benj Edwards in this Ars Technica article, so its safe to say that Sega of America was a driving force at the time.  Hugh Bowen, a veteran from the early Activision days turned marketing manager at Sega during the Genesis years, “loved” the concept according to Johnson.

ToeJam & Earl, if you’ve never played it, is an impressive work of creativity for the time.  You can play as either the lanky 3-legged red ToeJam, who dons a backward baseball cap along with a golden medal, or Earl, a heavier set orange alien with sunglasses and Hawaiian shorts.  From a gameplay perspective, ToeJam is a bit faster with less health while Earl can take more of a beating albeit at a slower speed, but there is leveling up and stat increases along with it.  You are dropped onto Earth, which is not an accurate representation, in these floating land masses that contain items, traps, enemies, elevators, and in some cases a piece of your ship.  The goal is to find all 10 pieces of your ship while avoiding obstacles and utilizing the elevators to move from area to area.  Everything is randomized from the landmasses you are on to the items and hazards you find, but there is a clear evolution of everything to ramp up difficulty as you come closer to completing your mission.  I remember renting this game, most likely sometime in early 1992 as I didn’t get a Genesis until Christmas 1991, and the box art was an immediate selling point.  I found it difficult to connect with the game even though I did get a manual and I did read it.  Having lived a life that was mostly side scrolling action games on the NES and not yet owning a PC, this game where I explored areas that constantly changed in a long running goal of collecting the pieces of a ship seemed a bit tedious.  Until you get to later areas the game isn’t that difficult either so you aren’t forced to rely on your items as much and without a save feature your average game of ToeJam & Earl can be several hours.  Even those going back to it today I warn to pad in at least 3 hours your first go.  Just as impressive was the co-op mode that allowed two players to enjoy the game as both ToeJam and Earl with an impressive horizontal split screen that would engage if the two wondered too far away from each other.  Johnson claims Sega told him it wasn’t possible, so naturally they were quite surprised to see it in the finished game.

The release in the fall of 1991 was met with initially weak sales.  Eventually the game picked up traction and Ken Horowitz’s Playing the Next Level: A History of American Sega Games claims it sold 350,000 units.  This garnered enough attention that you did see notable coverage in Sega Visions and GamePro as well as some mascot work in association with the Sega brand in advertising.  It was basically a cult classic of early 90s Sega.  With this success the team went about quickly making a sequel, but according to Johnson Sega intervened due to marketing limitations.  Basically Sega didn’t know how to market another title in the same vein so the development team was tasked with making a more straightforward side scrolling action game, you know like I said I would have expected out of the original.  The resulting sequel ToeJam & Earl: Panic on Funkotron was a drastic departure from the original with almost all of the randomized elements removed, and fans didn’t buy it.  Literally.

ToeJam & Earl: Panic on Funkotron (1993, Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, Developed by Johnson Voorsanger Productions, Published by Sega)

To be fair, this game gets more criticism than it deserves, especially considering it comes from more recent impressions as opposed to those of the time.  Before I get into what was said about it, we should briefly delve into what this game is.  Removed is the isometric perspective, now turned to a 2D side scroller that was very comfortable for the 16-bit generation but more specifically the preferred perspective of most big Genesis titles.  The concept was that upon returning to Funkotron, a bunch of stowaway humans get free and your new collection would have to be ridding your planet of them.  You can play as either ToeJam or Earl and the two-player option is still in full effect.  Randomly generated levels are gone as are the random items you can find, which has also been drastically reduced in scope.  Finally you have to find every human on a level before progressing to the next one.  In short, all of the major aspects of Rogue are completely vacant and replaced by a linear, consistent fetch quest.

I probably don’t have to spell it out, but clearly those that purchased and enjoyed the first title were baffled by the sequel.  Critics, on the other hand, had plenty of positive things to say about the game, including general praise for graphics, design, comedy, and oddly enough keeping it family friendly.  You won’t see any of that if you look on the Internet though because it’s been replaced by a more targeted response from the online era that would launch a few short years after this title’s release.  Like many titles today, the critical praise for the game didn’t relate to sales and again while I feel today’s critics are a bit harsh for this title, the cited issues are very much present.

For starters let’s take the fact that the randomness and endless gameplay are now gone, which to me is enough to merit walking away completely.  Next is the linearity of the game and the way it’s designed specifically to play out in an almost scripted fashion.  The impressive nature of the original were that it contained well designed systems that were then programmed to work in tandem and result in a game that not only worked, but was fun to play and even revisit.  The sequel is a singular design that only has to focus on guiding the player on a roadmap from start to finish, resulting in not only a lack of any of the previous systems but also largely kills the value of replaying.  Finally the 2D portion and overall concept of the title holds more water than you may initially realize.  Nowadays you’ll read how those that loved the original felt that Johnson and Voorsanger sold out to Sega, modifying their own ideas to the concept of the publisher.  This appears to be largely true since even Johnson himself admits he scrapped the original design that was more akin to the first game and converted it to the 2D action platformer design Sega’s marketing team was suggesting.  This was probably because Sega considered the original to be a one-trick pony and didn’t want to test fate again.  There was also a lot of pressure around this time for Sega to hit it big with releases because by 1993 Sonic wasn’t as strong of a seller, the 32X and Saturn split was causing both market confusion and in-fighting at Sega, and safe bets seemed all the rage.  When you look at it comparatively, Panic on Funkotron is awfully similar to a majority of Sega’s massive franchises.  Sonic the Hedgehog, Ecco the DoliphinRistarKid Chameleon, and oh so many more major franchises from Sega were all side scrolling action platformers.  It wasn’t coincidence, it was by design.  What I don’t know is whether or not Johnson Voorsanger Productions really had any say at all.  He doesn’t directly say it but by all accounts it was either conform to Sega or lose the contract.  You can understand why it decided to agree to this direction and I’m betting many other developers at the time have similar stories.  Johnson does open up a little bit to confess that a drastic departure was a bad idea and while Sega’s VP of Development and Kalinske’s right hand, Shinobu Toyoda, did confess it may have been a mistake to change things up, Sega never really took responsibility for the change.  Johnson clearly states he was hoping for an apology.

ToeJam & Earl: Panic on Funkytron would not sell well to the point that I couldn’t even find a vague idea of total unit sales.  That means that not only was the number most likely small, but that the brand was no longer valuable to Sega at the time.  Issues with the Saturn and finding a place for the franchise would delay things even further, during that time Johnson Voorsanger Productions would work on other projects.  Eventually the team would regain the rights in 1995 and begin working on a third title completely removed from Sega.  This begins the struggling saga of ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth.

ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth (2002, Microsoft Xbox, Developed by ToeJam & Earl Productions in conjunction with Visual Concepts Entertainment, Published by Sega)

Just looking at the above banner is a mouthful, and you can somewhat already see where this story ends, but before the name changes and the publisher fighting the third game in the series started as a concept.  Having now retained the rights in 1995 and with both Johnson and Voorsanger branching off to work for different companies, the franchise remained stagnant for over 3 years.  Eventually in 1998 a deal was struck with GT Interactive to create the third game on, of all places, the Nintendo 64.  Thanks to a recent IGN article by Travis Fahs, this original plan was revealed and it started life as a remake of the beloved original.  Market research had concluded that fans wanted more of the first game and while that seemed to be a clear direction, several market factors ended up tanking GT Interactive’s deal.  This was mostly a restructuring of the company along with the waning success of the Nintendo 64.  With the Saturn already a failure and the Nintendo 64 source falling through, it was then decided to give Sega’s upcoming platform, the Dreamcast, the best shot at the planned sequel. Given the impressive tech of the platform at the time, albeit one that is now revealed to be a half-step in the generation of consoles, it probably was an easy choice.

During the development of this third title Johnson Voorsanger Productions were renamed to ToeJam & Earl Productions, but the team was struggling to keep up with the technology of the time.  Johnson then talks of his chats with Visual Concepts Entertainment, developers behind Sega’s 2K Sports line, led by developers Greg Thomas and Scott Patterson.  This duo was not only responsible for third party publishing on the Dreamcast, but they were also clearly fans of the franchise.  Yet again market conditions play a major factor as the original concept for the third game – a full blown remake of the original – were turned down by Visual Concepts claiming the fan base wasn’t there.  These two comments seem somewhat at odds with one another, but this is all secondary to the early 2001 announcement that Sega would be discontinuing the Dreamcast and the title was left yet again without a platform.

While it was preferred to be on the Playstation 2, including potentially being a launch title for the platform at one point, and then Gamecube as a second choice, Microsoft’s Xbox became the home for several reasons.  First off it was easy to program for and porting could be easily transitioned from the Dreamcast to the Xbox.  Secondly Sega and Microsoft had a good relationship – so much so that I often regard the Xbox as the Dreamcast 2, but that’s a personal opinion – and the undeniable free advertising Microsoft was offering made the decision clear.

What did eventually release was an action adventure game that held more strongly to the series roots of randomly generated areas, however it was definitely not a return to the original.  A third character, Letisha, was implemented to be a balance between ToeJam’s lean and quick demeanor along with Earl’s bulky strong concepts.  The idea is that the trio are returning to Earth to collect the 12 Sacred Albums of Funk and return them to their sacred place.  There are both martial arts and science fiction themes, even suggesting that funk be representative of the force at times in the game, to make a somewhat connection to the concepts of Star Wars.  The result is an action combat title that retains some core concepts of the original game, most notably the random environments.  This didn’t appear enough for critics, who put up low marks, and the public who didn’t purchase many copies.  At the time I remember just thinking it was odd that ToeJam & Earl had returned, but despite being an Xbox owner I didn’t touch the game until recently.

It was at this point that the ToeJam & Earl franchise, whether or not the lack of success was justified, basically dissolved.  The Dreamcast prototype eventually was unearthed and approved by Johnson and Voorsanger to be released publicly, although I have not yet played it.  In 2006 Johnson founded his current studio HumaNature Studios and with his team developed several games on different platforms.  Surprisingly, in February 2015 Johnson announced ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove as an independently published Kickstarter title.  It was successfully funded a month later with the promise of retaining the concept of the original game, multiple protagonists, and online multiplayer.  It will officially release on March 1 for PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Switch.

We will have a review going live on Thursday, February 28th at 10:00 AM EST.

Written by Fred Rojas

February 26, 2019 at 3:00 pm

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