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What the Funk Is ToeJam & Earl?

Alright folks, 2019 is the year we’re going to have a new ToeJam & Earl game in front of us. It’s the fourth game in the series, and there’s a good chance you have barely heard of the first game, much less the rest of them. That’s especially true if you’re a PlayStation hardcore or haven’t done things like purchased one of the several Sega Genesis collections out there.

So ahead of our review of ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove (which I am also in charge of), I figured this is a great opportunity to go over the past titles. Not only is it a good exercise, since this is an exciting, new game after several years off, but each game is actually pretty distinct from one another, making the new game’s journey back to the original in terms of gameplay style an intriguing choice.

Time to get funky, or something. The ship is called the Rapmaster Rocket. Yeah, that’s what we’re doing.

ToeJam & Earl (Sega Genesis, 1991)

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You’ve probably at least heard of this one, if not played it on one of several platforms. I personally missed it on the Genesis, but snagged it as one of the earlier Sega contributions to the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console. Right now, you can pick this one up on the PlayStation Store (for the PS3) for a whole five bucks, or get it via the Sega Genesis Classics collection on PS4.

The titular characters are a couple of funky alien rappers who have crash-landed on planet Earth and are trying to find the pieces of their busted space ship so they can escape. Along the way, they have to deal with the locals, who are either totally willing to help or, well, the opposite. ToeJam & Earl is best known for being an early example of a “roguelike” on a console, made accessible via fun music, goofy visuals, and co-op play. It’s a hardcore genre, but coated in candy so effectively that nobody really noticed.

Today, what makes ToeJam & Earl stand out against other “roguelikes” is how much of it is about avoiding combat, rather than surviving it. The player collects presents, which of course contain random items that can either help or hurt their progress. Most of the useful items are things like running shoes, which help the somewhat sluggish aliens outmaneuver enemy Earthlings. The game’s distinct gameplay, colorful theme and dope soundtrack made it a big success, so of course the sequel was a side-scrolling platformer. Wait, what?

ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron (Sega Genesis, 1993)

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In case you were wondering, yes, Funkotron is the name of ToeJam and Earl’s home planet. It’s exactly what it sounds like: Funky. In the good way, natch. After the success of the first game, Sega was obviously on board with a sequel. But Sega is still Sega, and after designing a more sense-making follow-up to the first game, somehow designer Greg Johnson and his team ended up making a platformer instead. Whack.

Set after the events of the first game, ToeJam and Earl have made it back to Funkotron after repairing their ship, but several mischievous Earthlings stowed away on board. Now, ToeJam and Earl have to clean up the mess they made, rounding up the invaders and capturing them in jars to send them back. Using a special radar, two players (gotta keep the co-op charm alive) move through each level, hunting humans and chucking jars at them.

There isn’t a ton to say about this one, but it is made on a bigger Sega Genesis cart compared to the first game, which allowed for even more depth in the visuals and audio departments. For a game that coasts on its style so much, this was a definite plus and helped the game once again do well with critics and fans, despite the style change ultimately being a huge disappointment. It hasn’t held up as well in retrospect of course, but well, at least people still remember it. That brings us to our next entry.

ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth (Xbox, 2002)

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After everything that happened with Sega following the Genesis, things weren’t doing well for our extraterrestrial pals. A third game tried and failed to materialize on both the Sega Saturn and Dreamcast, and even the Nintendo 64. But nothing was able to get off the ground until that weird period when Sega and Microsoft were dropping ill-fated content on the Xbox. It went about as well as you might expect, although it wasn’t exactly a disaster.

Okay, bear with me on this synopsis. So, ToeJam & Earl III introduced Latisha, a new leading lady who we see more of in the new game. In this story, the three aliens go back to Earth, this time to find the Sacred Albums of Funk. These were stolen somehow, and need to be returned to Lamont the Funkopotamus.

Don’t forget about Lamont, he’s important later.

This game tries to up the ante a bit by giving “Funk” more of a lore sense to it, which was maybe supposed to be a Star Wars gag? Either way, you have to face off against the evil Anti-Funk at the end, and the early 2000s probably just wasn’t a good time for this property, honestly.

ToeJam & Earl III definitely shows its status as a troubled game, as it was project that struggled to get off the ground on multiple platforms before finding a home that wasn’t a great fit. It’s sort of an action/platformer, and doesn’t do a whole lot to stand out against other B or C-tier action/platformers of that console generation. Visual Concepts of NBA 2K fame was also part of development, but as we’ve seen in recent years with all the NBA 2K drama and the WWE series, that doesn’t mean a whole lot. Anyway, now we can get back to the fun stuff.

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove (2019, Various)

In the years since everything else happened, Greg Johnson founded his own studio, HumaNature Studios. PlayStation fans will know the studio best for its first-party tile Doki Doki Universe. A Kickstarter campaign was launched for a brand new, independent ToeJam & Earl, and now here we are on the eve of its release. Is it good? Well, you’ll have to wait to read our (my) review!

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is certainly a sequel, which introduces new (and playable) characters and assumes you’re familiar with the world and characters (although you really don’t need to be to have fun). In this game, an older ToeJam and Earl “borrow” the Rapmaster Rocket from Lamont and end up crashing it, because as we’ve established by now they aren’t great pilots. This results in a similar scenario to the original game, in which ToeJam, Earl, and other friends have to work together to put the Rapmaster Rocket back together and get back to Funkotron.

We’re going to have to leave the rest of our take on ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove to our upcoming review, but we hope you enjoyed this little trip down not only ToeJam & Earl history, but Sega history as well. It’s a shame Johnson and Sega have parted ways over the years, but what isn’t a shame is that our favorite funky aliens are still able to get out there and be weird.