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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.

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Written by Fred Rojas

February 26, 2019 at 3:00 pm