Nintendo's dominance of the home console market in the late 80s and their monopolisation of arcade agreements meant that SEGA had to do something rather different with the Mega Drive. Nintendo thrived on solid foundations that were then built upon – recycling characters, themes, and ideas to make better and better games. SEGA had to find new IPs that would stick.
The greatest example of that is, of course, Sonic; but in their quest for original material, the Mega Drive became a hotbed of experimentation and often riskier releases, giving rise to quirky classics, the likes of which we will probably never see grace a home console again (re-releases aside). One such game – an enduring tale of haphazard piloting, funky aliens, pickpocketing Santa Claus, Icarus wings, rocket skates, nefarious hula girls, and the redemptive power of hip-hop beats – was ToeJam & Earl.
The stage was set as so...One day, our eponymous heroes are out for a little joyride, when ToeJam (the three-legged, stalk-eyed, Flava Flav wannabe) decides to let his chum Earl (the Bermuda-shorts-wearing, sunburnt, chunky one) pilot the spaceship for a bit. Earl, being a worse pilot than Porkins, subsequently crashes the ship into Earth, and the duo must sally forth and retrieve the ten missing pieces of the spaceship in order to take off once more and make the journey home.
The adventures of ToeJam and Earl took the form of a dungeon-crawling roguelike (before I'd even heard of such a term let alone discovered what it meant), in spite of the fact that, on the surface at least, the resemblance to Rogue was difficult to see. ToeJam and Earl were fully rounded characters that would argue in the middle of levels, high-five when they did something right, and occasionally stop for an afternoon nap. They were witty, amusing, and fun to hang out with. In fact, there was even a secret level that just encouraged you to kick back, chat to some off-duty hula dancers, and drink copious amounts of lemonade. What game today has the balls to include a chillout zone as an Easter Egg? It has a freaking hot tub! Discovering Level Zero is still to this day one of my gaming highlights of all time.
The Earthlings that ToeJam and Earl had to avoid were hilariously diverse and completely bonkers. Pesky devils roamed the land, alongside heavy damage-dealers like boogiemen, crazed dentists, psychotic mailboxes, mortar-wielding chickens and irresponsibly driven ice-cream vans. Cupid would appear from time to time and screw up the controls, and hula dancers would render our heroes incapacitated and vulnerable to attacks as they found themselves rooted to the spot - unable to resist shaking their tail-feathers. There were some Earthlings who'd help out though, usually in exchange for money though, we're an avaricious race. Wizard's would replenish health, Valkyries would sing enemies into oblivion, and you could steal Santa Claus' presents for your own personal gain.
The presents ushered in some utterly joyful additions to the gameplay, although the player would never know what was inside until they actually opened it, or located a man in a carrot costume who'd be able to identify the package for them. Presents could range from spring shoes to rocket skates; Icarus wings that would allow you to fly to tomatoes that could be thrown at enemies. Sometimes, though, the presents would suck, and you'd have a thundercloud follow you for a period, zapping you with lightning bolts. Then, of course, there was the Total Bummer present, which drained your character's life completely.
In any other game, such opaque risk might have been considered unfair, but ToeJam & Earl was never the same game twice thanks to its randomly generated levels. Earth took the form of 25 vibrant slabs of land and water, suspended in a starry ether. Ten of the levels would contain spaceship bits, with the other fifteen featuring a golden elevator to the next stage up. Instead of descending into a dungeon, ToeJam & Earl literally flipping things on their heads, and had to climb to victory, packaging the game's loot as Christmas presents. Every playthrough would be different, though that's not to say that the game couldn't be tricky in places. The lack of continues or save files, with no passwords or level select options might well seem offputting, and getting the Total Bummer present when you only have one life left could often lead to collateral damage.
But there was just so much to love about ToeJam & Earl. This is a game that could so easily have slipped into Tolkien-esque fantasy, having its images replaced with those of Dungeons & Dragons. But it doesn't. It's a game that is the product of its time – old school hip-hop, Bill and Ted, massive sneakers, quirky Saturday morning cartoons – but it remains accessible and engaging to this day precisely because everything fits together so very well. The world of ToeJam & Earl, wacky though it may be, is more real, more satisfying than the vast majority of the big-budget, enormously shiny, “authentic” worlds of cookie-cutter shooters, and soulless action titles, aided by simple aesthetics, endearing animations, and one of the best original soundtracks around.
If SEGA really are bringing it back, it's because we need ToeJam and Earl. It's a particularly timely return, at a point where people are jabbering about next-gen and new tech, as this is a game which reminds us that for all of our technological advances in AI, in visual representation, in physical world building, the mainstream games industry of today is sorely lacking in personality and imagination. We need ToeJam and Earl – they remind us what we're capable of if we take the shackles off.