Title image source: Gamefabrique


Get Funky

Get Funky


  ToeJam and Earl is a comic satire video game in which two funk driven aliens parody early 90’s urban culture.



  The game’s creator, Greg Johnson, was working for Electronic Arts on games such as Starflight (1986) and Starflight 2 (1989), when one day – while on a beach in Hawaii no less – he came up with the idea for his own franchise, ToeJam and Earl.


  First, he envisioned the two funk-tastic main characters: ToeJam, a short, three-legged, red alien wearing a backwards baseball cap and gold medallion around his neck, and his companion, Earl, a tall, obese, orange alien rocking high-top sneakers and over-sized sunglasses. Their over-the-top attire, use of slang words, and funky tunes were meant to mimic the early 90’s popular urban culture.


  After creating his characters, Johnson developed the odd plot. ToeJam and Earl were designed as two funky alien rappers who had crash-landed on Earth. In the wreck, their “highly funky, ultra-cool, righteous, rap master rocket ship” broke into pieces, and they were to collect them in order to fix the ship and return to their home planet, Funkotron.



  Johnson was soon introduced to programmer Mark Voorsanger through a mutual friend, and while walking on Mount Tam in 1989, unveiled the concept of ToeJam & Earl to him.


  Intrigued, Voorsanger reached an agreement with Johnson, and soon the two formed Johnson Voorsanger Productions, where serious work on the game began.



  The original game takes place from a 3/4 perspective in a 2D game world, as its game play mechanics were inspired by the game Rogue. It is considered a dungeon-crawl game, which means the heroes navigate a labyrinthine environment while battling various monsters and collecting items. It also featured randomly generated levels, had both single and two-player modes, and was equipped with the funkiest soundtrack you’ve ever heard.



  Because Johnson and Voorsanger both worked as commercial game designers, they were easily able to arrange a meeting with Sega of America to pitch their creation. They used cards covered in landscape drawings to demonstrate the idea of randomly generated levels, which immediately intrigued Sega marketing manager Hugh Bowen.



  Sega was seeking innovative games and new mascots to compete with Nintendo, and was highly impressed with the concept. But when the game was released in 1991, Sega deemed it a commercial failure due to low initial sales. 


  Some reviewers claimed that the game was addictive and original, but found it too easy.



  Mean Machines – a UK based gaming magazine that ran from 1990-92 – found fault with the games slow-paced combat, with one reviewer stating, “Not everyone will like it—it’s not normal enough for mass appeal—but I think it’s destined to become a massive cult classic”.



  Giving the franchise another go, a sequel, ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron, was released by Sega in 1993.


  The story picks up after ToeJam and Earl return to their home planet of Funkotron, where they discover that Earthlings have stowed away on their spacecraft. These Earthlings wreak havoc across the planet, and the player must hunt down and imprison them in jars in order to send them back to Earth.


  The game received positive reviews and commercial success, but some fans of the original were disappointed and confused. The sequel had abandoned its predecessor’s design as a treasure hunt game with randomly generated levels, becoming a more generic side-scrolling game. Creators Greg Johnson and Mark Voorsanger had planned to design the sequel like the original, but Sega showed a lack of support, and called for the change.



  Personally, I loved ToeJam and Earl in Panic on Funkotron. I still have a copy for my Sega Genesis; my favorite part of the game being the beat-boxing challenges.




  Because of the drastic change in game play, ToeJam and Earl in Panic on Funkotron developed a reputation as a sell-out, and Johnson and Voorsanger have stated they regret moving from the original format to a side-scrolling game. Even so, Johnson maintains “ToeJam & Earl 2 was a very original side-scrolling game”, and asserted that Toyoda Shinobu – who had been Sega’s Vice President of Development at the time – “admitted that it was probably a mistake on Sega’s part to jump to a side-scroller”. 


  ToeJam and Earl became one of Sega’s second tier mascots, right next to Sonic the Hedgehog, and are still considered one of the Sega Genesis’s “key exclusive franchises”. However, due to poor North American sales of the Sega Saturn upon its release, Sega neglected the ToeJam & Earl franchise. A game was planned for the Sega Dreamcast, but it was cancelled.



  On October 23, 2002, ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth was released for the Xbox. This third installment in the franchise was designed to mimic the platform of the original game, but brought the two would-be heroes into the third dimension. It was met with mixed reviews, and was deemed “mediocre” by GameSpot.



  Though it looked like the end for ToeJam and Earl, Greg Johnson continued to work toward staging a comeback for the franchise. A new game called ToeJam & Earl Back in the Groove was funded through Kickstarter in 2015, and was originally estimated for release last year. It was planned for release on Linux, Mac, and Windows PC, while a release for PlayStation 4, Wii U, and Xbox One were listed as stretch goals on the Kickstarter campaign. Unfortunately, those goals were not met.


  The game is being created by Johnson’s independent game developing company HumaNature Studios, in conjunction with Adult Swim Games. The two companies describe Back in the Groove as “a mash-up of the very best features from the classic console games [ToeJam & Earl and Panic on Funkotron], with a pile of new features thrown in.” It is expected to be released sometime in 2017.

  Though it looked like the end for ToeJam and Earl, Greg Johnson continued to work toward staging a comeback for the franchise. A new game called ToeJam & Earl Back in the Groove was funded through Kickstarter in 2015, and was originally estimated for release last year. It was planned for release on Linux, Mac, and Windows PC, while a release for PlayStation 4, Wii U, and Xbox One were listed as stretch goals on the Kickstarter campaign. Unfortunately, those goals were not met.

The game is being created by Johnson’s independent game developing company HumaNature Studios, in conjunction with Adult Swim Games. The two companies describe Back in the Groove as “a mash-up of the very best features from the classic console games [ToeJam & Earl and Panic on Funkotron], with a pile of new features thrown in.” It is expected to be released sometime in 2017.


  A teaser trailer was released by Adult Swim on Aug 24, 2016.




  As a long-time fan of the franchise, I am eager to see what ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove will be like.

  Until the new game is released, you can find me with a wired Sega controller, jamming to a funky soundtrack, while playing this Sega classic.


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Sources:

ToeJam and Earl: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ToeJam_%26_Earl 

ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ToeJam_%26_Earl_in_Panic_on_Funkotron

ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ToeJam_%26_Earl_III:_Mission_to_Earth

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