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Lost in Space: ToeJam and Earl's Journey from 1991 to 2019

by Neal Ronaghan - March 1, 2019, 7:12 am PST
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28 years after their debut, ToeJam and Earl revisit their roguelike origins finally. We chat with the series’ co-creator about the process.

In 2019, ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove could be dismissively saddled by being just another roguelike in the sea of modern gaming. But in 1991, ToeJam and Earl was aggressively ahead of its time, bringing roguelike concepts to consoles decades before they were in vogue. How did a concept that was foreign in the ‘90s become so well-worn in the 2010s? Well, we can’t answer that, but we can hit up HumaNature’s Greg Johnson - the man behind ToeJam and Earl’s modern revival as well as one of the two men behind its initial blast of Sega Genesis irreverence.

Johnson’s interest in Rogue - the progenitor of an entire gaming genre - dates back to his time in college at the University of California San Diego in the late ‘80s. His obsession with the PC game might have overtook his studies, as he recalled: “There were many, many nights when I should have been sleeping or studying, but instead I was sitting all night in a small computer terminal room playing Rogue in ASCII characters on a black and white CRT monitor. It really captured my imagination in a way that no game before it had.”

Rogue directly inspired ToeJam and Earl, partially because of how taken Johnson was of the inspiration. “Randomly generated levels is part of what makes a roguelike game work, because part of the excitement and mystery that make the game so compelling is seeing ‘how far you can get.’”

While Sega of America was taken by Johnson and his ‘90s cohort Mark Voorsanger’s pitch for the original Rogue-inspired ToeJam and Earl adventure, most other people back in the day unfortunately weren’t. It wasn’t your typical console game in the ‘90s, even more so as it came out about a month after the Super Nintendo launched. The colorful aesthetic might have appealed to a certain gamer back in the 1991, but the roguelike mechanics might not have been similarly appealing to that gamer.

Johnson offers an alternate route for how ToeJam and Earl might have found more success with its idea initially. “I think if we had taken the approach that Diablo took a few years later, and kept with the dungeon theme with weapons, potions, scrolls, and monsters and treasure we would have had more success, even as a roguelike. If we had stayed with the original style, I suspect we probably would have kept building on it for years, just as Diablo did.”

Alas, that’s not how it went. The weird positioning of ToeJam and Earl led to low sales, moving Johnson and Voorsanger to the awkward spot where Sega asked them to scrap their initial ideas of a sequel. “They felt that a side-scrolling game with large characters and more action would be better understood and received by their market,” Johnson recalled. “We didn’t feel it was our place to second guess them, and they were paying us, so we did our best to come up with a design for a side-scroller that would still keep the spirit of exploration and surprise intact.”

That sequel - ToeJam and Earl in Panic on Funkotron - had a mixed reception over the years. The worst thing about it is that it’s a sharp departure from the predecessor, but it was still a weird and unique side-scroller in its own vein.

ToeJam and Earl faded away for nearly a decade before coming back in 2003 on the Xbox in the third game - ToeJam and Earl: Mission to Earth. While it was more like the first game, it was also a victim to Sega’s marketing demands. “That game was going to be a more faithful sequel to game one, but we were asked by Visual Concepts, Sega’s representatives at the time to make a lot of changes to the game,” Johnson reflected. “They felt that the old ‘skool’ style of randomly generated levels, and ‘perma-death’ wasn’t in keeping with ‘modern’ successful games, and they asked us to change the game to accommodate a hub-structure rather than stacked levels, and to add in: bosses, mini-games, keys, gates, unlockables, and cinematic sequences. They also asked us to ‘age up’ the game and make it more edgy, as we found ourselves targeting the Xbox as our first platform to release on after the Dreamcast died, and the Xbox had a pretty hardcore gaming audience who loved shooters. Needless to say, we did our best to maintain the spirit and humor of the game, but I fear we once again confused and disappointed much of our fan base.” (this was an email interview, but I very much pictured Johnson writing that entire paragraph out through gritted teeth).

After Mission to Earth flamed out, Voorsanger began his eventual exit out of the games industry. Johnson hung around, forming a new company in HumaNature Studios. Weirdly, Johnson and Voorsanger owned the rights to ToeJam and Earl from the start. Johnson explained: “[It] was one of the first games made by Sega of America, and in those early days developers often held on to IP ownership if they came to a publisher with an original concept, and they would license rights to publishers to exclusively publish.”

However, while they can do whatever they want with the characters, they don’t own the rights to any of the original games themselves. Sega owns those, as you can see by the first two game’s appearance in the Sega-published Sega Genesis Classics on Switch last December.

Despite some appearances by the three-legged red thing and his big yellow pal on Virtual Console and compilations, Johnson’s occasional attempts to bring the series back fell on deaf ears. Publishers felt the alien duo was too old and dead. As crowdfunding cemented itself as a viable option, Johnson took the concept to the fans after the release of HumaNature’s Doki Doki Universe (which is a pretty neat PlayStation game if you’re curious).

Launching in early 2015, the Kickstarter for ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove raised over $500,000, with an estimated release of late 2015. That simply didn’t happen, as it’s 2019 and it only just came out. Kickstarters are weird and game development is hard. Over the course of the four years after the Kickstarter success, Back in the Groove went through the proverbial ringer, evolving in many ways, gaining a publisher in Adult Swim Games and then losing a publisher in Adult Swim Games. Finally making it to market on March 1, 2019 as a self-published game across multiple platforms (with a physical edition from Limited Run Games on the way).

It was a wild journey, almost like Johnson and his team at HumaNature had to wander around a bunch of randomly generated floors looking for ship pieces in order to complete the game. Even with the almost 30-year journey from the 1991 original to the opportunity to finally revisit that concept on his own terms, Johnson is ever the optimist, offering the zen-like belief that “things always work out for the best” as the long-awaited revival hits.

You can check out our review, which aside from some load time issues on Switch, is a ton of fun. It’s extremely reminiscent of the original Genesis game, as intended, but also adds a lot. Johnson’s stream of conscious reply about the improvements speaks for itself:

“Building a sequel to a beloved franchise is actually a tricky thing. You need to walk a line, as players want fresh new features, but they also want it to feel very true to the original gaming experience. We did add quite a lot to this game, but it will really be up to the old ‘skool’ fans to let us know how we did walking that line. I will go ahead and list a few of the features in the new game - but a complete answer would probably be longer that we have space for here…. I wish I could make this into a rhyming rap or something. Maybe someone out there can drop a beat box beat while you read this list…we added Stats for player characters and these get bumped every time they get promoted, we expanded play to four players rather than two with dynamic split screen for four on the PC, and networked play for four on all platforms, we added 3D terrain but kept the 2D look, and we added dynamic camera that zooms out on roads and paths. We doubled the number of Earthling and presents, and made it so all presents can be “amped” (supercharged) or broken. We added 6 new playable characters that you can unlock, and we added lots of player character dialogue. In fact, every character has different dialogue with every other character so playing with different combinations makes the game experience different. We also added in a conversation system so players can chat with friendly Earthlings (which all sparkle) and these friendlies sometimes ask you questions and give you gifts. We added in a hard mode and made the endgame much richer with conversations and prizes and secrets. We also made the game a lot more fun for players who lose their last life and become a ghost! Now ghosts can do fun things that live players can’t.”

“In Panic on Funkotron we had a little kid mode…we really want families to be able to enjoy this game together so we added 2 easy modes that can be turned on or off at any time for individual characters. One is Toddler mode, and the other is Easy Farty mode. The first is for little kids who want to tag along and it pretty much keeps them from dying. Easy Farty mode is for people who don’t play games much and it just tones things down for that person, but it also gives your character gas. You may remember the Hyperfunk Zone from Panic on Funkotron…that is back, only now it is randomly generated for every new game and it has new features and can be played multiplayer. We also lifted the Rhythm Matching game from Panic and made it much better, by making it multiplayer and adding a mode where you can make up your own beats, which your friends now need to match. We also took the coin meters and the buttons from Panic on Funkotron and the having presents hidden in bushes and trees which players need to shake. We even kept the occasional bowling ball that pops out and hits you on the head. We also took a bunch of the characters like Geekjam, TJ’s cousin and Peabo, and Lewanda and Latisha, and Flo (Earl’s mom) from “Panic” and also from Mission to Earth. Actually, Flo was taken from the end game in game one. One of the things we lifted from Mission to Earth is the ability for players to have their own maps on their split screens. That used to make players want to punch each other in the original game, when one kept stopping the game to look at the map.”

And that’s a wide assortment of what makes Back in the Groove tick, but it doesn’t even stop there. Johnson talked of how the style and character is integral to ToeJam and Earl. He’s absolutely right, citing the satirical humor, ranging from the very premise of aliens being heroes avoiding insane Earthlings. Some new Earthlings even draw inspiration from modern times. Johnson detailed: “For example, we have the Internet Troll character who hurls insults and then turns into a harmless teenage boy when you get close, or the person walking fast and looking at their mobile phone who keeps running into you, or the woman who jumps from the bushes and wants to get a selfie with you… or the clipboard person who wants donations from you and takes all of your money. We also have characters that are just plain weird, like the Giant Yeti who wants to poke you with a sharpened pencil.”

It’s been a long path and we’ll see how ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove does to see if the series continues. Nihilistically, the series has never found much success before, but perhaps in the indie-driven landscape of parts of gaming, this quirky franchise can carve a sustainable niche. Only time will tell, though. Until then, keep jammin’ and check out ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove on Nintendo Switch.

But wait! Since ToeJam and Earl is on a Nintendo platform for the first time in a new game, it seemed fun to ask Johnson what Nintendo characters would fit well as playable characters on Funkotron. He got back to us with, uh, a doozy. Without further adieu, here’s another full stream of conscious paragraph from a man in the days before his latest game is out.

“I would make Toad be Peabo’s new best friend who visits often and is a playable character. Captain Olimar from Pikmin, would also be a playable character, as he is clearly not from Earth and one of my favs. I can also see Bowser and Yoshi being playable characters who hang out with the Funkotronians. I suspect Bowser has a weak spot for funk, and he and Yoshi might be fiercely competitive when it comes to break dancing. Link and Ash would definitely be friendly Earthlings who follow you and protect you for a few bucks popping Earthlings, Link with his sword and Ash by throwing down a Pokeball, and some random Pokemon would come out, each with its own behavior. Wario would clearly be a bad Earthling who probably leaps out of bushes. Maybe if he catches you, he would take a bad present from your inventory and use it on you, and if you didn’t have any, he would run off with some of your other presents. Luigi might lead you to top secret places, but half the time he would get confused and have you follow him in a circle. Oh wait! Princess Peach! I might make her a special character like Santa - super hard to catch, but if you do, she touches your forehead and maxes out all of your stats for about 10 minutes!... um….so how many [Nintendo characters] do I get to use? When can I have them?”

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