Platforms: PSN | XBLA (reviewed)
Developer: SEGA | Johnson Voorsanger Productions
Toejam & Earl are two of our favourite videogame characters. These effortlessly cool if idiotically hapless extraterrestrials captured our imaginations back in 1991, introduced by a game that hilariously satirised yet lovingly glorified the concept of funk and 90s 'urban' culture. Followed up with a solid platforming sequel, many Mega Drive players still hold up Greg Johnson and Mark Voorsanger's creations as bona fide cult classics, and with good reason. Now, 21 years later, the funkadelic duo have been thrown into another new world they can barely understand - the 21st century download marketplace - by way of the SEGA Vintage Collection.
Ah yes, the SEGA Vintage Collection. A hilariously grandiose way of stating that they've hurriedly slapped together an emulated version of an ancient game, put in save states and pushed it out onto virtual shelves without bothering to remaster or improve anything at all. You know what to expect: the original games, no more, no less. Warts and all.
So everything rides on how well Toejam & Earl and Panic On Funkotron have held up, and how good they actually were in the first place.
Thankfully, they were very good indeed.
The original Toejam & Earl still stands tall as an imaginative piece of off-kilter game design. It resembles modern roguelikes in many ways, encouraging players to explore randomly-generated levels in an effort to repair their broken spaceship. Controlling either Toejam or Earl from an isometric perspective, you'll explore some funky levels, encounter funky enemies such as hovering cupids, irate pram-pushing mothers and enormous hamsters; all while enjoying some seriously funky tunes in the process. It's funky, basically. Since neither Toejam or Earl pack any offensive abilities as standard, much of your time will be spent sneaking past sleeping foes or desperately kiting around in an effort to throw them off your tail (not easy when hilarious hula dancers keep forcing you to boogie every few seconds).
This deceptively simple (and potentially very repetitive) setup belies an intensely pleasing degree of randomisation and unpredictability, due in part to a selection of presents you'll find scattered around the place. Their effects are unknown until you trigger them, meaning that you could potentially unlock a speed boost, tomatoes to throw, rose bushes to kite enemies into or a boom box to distract them with funky beats. On the other hand, you could trigger a storm of damaging tomatoes from the skies, a swarm of bees or unpredictable rocket skates that carry you off the edge of the level back down to the one below. Critically, you'll always be experiencing something new and totally unexpected, whether its via the wacky enemy designs or the next mysterious gift to unwrap.
The thrill of exploration, coupled with the surprisingly soothing funk soundtrack, makes Toejam & Earl both a rewarding and relaxing experience that's still quite unlike anything else on the market. It's got soul; an irrepressible and anarchic personality that lends the ageing game a truly timeless quality. Seeing our planet caricatured through alien eyes is just as fun and relevant as it was in 1991.
What's fun in singleplayer becomes an absolute blast in co-op, since players can share health with a high five and explore the levels at their own pace. Though online play has been added in a sole concession to modern consoles, the simple fun of sitting down next to a friend on the same sofa, cooperating and competing in equal measure, is just as thrilling today as it ever was. Gamerscore/trophy thralls will also want to note that achievments can only be unlocked offline.
Toejam & Earl's strong concept and fun gameplay helps to mitigate just how badly the visuals have aged. It's still vibrant and colourful, but your fond memories will almost certainly be knocked when you remember just how jerky and choppy it was, both in terms of animation and scrolling. Its standard, bordered resolution also wastes much of the screen, which can become irksome when it splits during co-op sessions. Personally I would have liked SEGA to lovingly flesh out and build upon the game without compromising its core mechanics (see also: AfterBurner Climax), since newcomers will have to come to terms with just how ancient it looks and feels before beginning to understand why we hold it in such high regard.
It also doesn't help that SEGA didn't bother to write much in the way of instructions. Newcomers will have to work out which buttons do what through trial and error, not helped by the fact that the Mega Drive buttons don't correspond to modern controllers. A and B doesn't mean A and B, so having to second-guess the on-screen prompts is a fun minigame in and of itself. By 'fun,' I do of course mean ceaselessly aggravating.
This issue is also prevalent in Panic On Funkotron, a platformer that hinges around deploying a selection of abilities using buttons that bear no resemblance to their prompts. However, the sequel has aged far better than its predecessor in graphical terms, thanks to a detailed and varied art style. As a fairly traditional 2D platformer, the more intimate perspective allowed Jason Voorsanger Productions to add real personality to the characters and world of Funkotron, offering a suitably colourful and bizarre aesthetic that still looks great today.
Gameplay-wise, though, it's nowhere near as imaginative as the original. Panic In Funkotron tasked the funky duo with capturing and deporting some troublesome humans from their homeland by trapping them in jars, while contending with some tricky levels to navigate. Solid and frequently unpredictable due to its hide & seek-style gameplay (you'll have to find the mischievous selection of human tourists by searching behind plants and scenery elements), it's a worthwhile use of a few hours, despite rarely managing to capture the mischievous satirical personality of the first game. A few control gripes and wooly jumping mechanics can annoy from time to time, but once again, strong co-op support helps to sweeten the deal and lift the gameplay experience.
So what we have here are two classic Mega Drive titles, served up exactly as you remember. It's both a pleasing nod to the fans and a missed opportunity, since of all the classic SEGA Games available for re-release, the original Toejam & Earl has both the fanbase and the strong core gameplay required to make a full revamp worthwhile. Sadly, since the original creators still own the rights to the characters, it's probably an impossible dream. Ultimately, the Toejam & Earl double pack is still a competitively-priced rush of nostalgia for existing fans, but new players may find themselves wondering why we went mad for them over two decades ago.
For an 800 Microsoft Points bundle or £3.69 individually on PSN, you'll get a lot of funk your your money. Seeing as SEGA doesn't technically own the IP, this is likely going to be the only way of doing so in the foreseeable future.
- The original Toejam & Earl is compelling, relaxing, anarchic and unpredictable even today
- Solid platforming sequel holds up well
- Timeless funky personality and soundtrack
- Both titles are great fun in local and online co-op
- Desperately needed widescreen resolution
- Original game looks (and sometimes feels) incredibly dated despite colourful visuals
- Incredibly lazy and useless instructions; button prompts don't correspond to modern controllers
- Little to attract new players, bare minimum of fan service
The Short Version: If you've got fond memories of Toejam & Earl and its platforming sequel (why wouldn't you?), you can now play them again without having to dig out your Mega Drive. Though the classic games probably deserved a tender and loving revamp to keep our rose-tinted specs intact and attract new players, it's impossible not to recommend this funky and fresh collection to existing fans.