Thursday, 8 November 2012

REVIEW - Sega Vintage Collection : Toejam & Earl (XBLA)

Toejam & Earl is the funkadelic alien collect-em-up that first graced our screens way back in 1991 on Sega's Mega Drive console. It suffered low sales but gained universally positive reviews as well as a loyal following and cult status, Sega even using the duo as mascots for a short period.
The game put you in the sneakers of two alien rappers, Toejam, a tri-legged red dude with huge medallion and backwards cap, and Big Earl, a plump orange playa in wrap around shades and Bermuda shorts. These two hipsters are travelling back to their home planet Funkotron when, due to Big Earl's reckless driving, they collide with a meteorite, hurling them towards the nearest planet, Earth. The resulting crash smashes their ship into 10 pieces that are scattered across the globe, and in order to get home they (yup, you guessed it) must collect all 10 pieces. The game is set in a 2D top down viewpoint, and has often been described as a Roguelike. Indeed, strip away the green islands, space setting, wacky characters and cartoony visuals, replace it with dungeons and suitable adversaries and you would have a standard dungeon crawler on your hands. You have randomly generated levels and power up locations, unknown objects that have to be identifed or used at your peril, and the ultimate goal being to simply survive and reach the end.

Strangely, Earth isn't the humble sphere we know and love, instead it is depicted as multiple flat islands stacked on top of one another, connected by an elevator, maybe this is a different Earth in a parallel universe or something. Toejam and Earl find themselves in the company of a motley selection of humans that give our species a bad name and will do nothing for Earth's tourist board, they also seem completely unphased by the sight of two aliens in 90's urban wear, so maybe alien encounters are a regular occurrence on this version of Earth. There are insane dentists, flying cupids, hula girls, rampaging ice cream vans, stampeding herds of nerds, and giant hamsters in plastic wheels, in fact with these lunatics as company, Toejam and Earl seem like the most normal guys there. Luckily the alien b-boys are not defenceless and can hurl tomatoes at their enemies, as well as obtain other, equally bizarre, weapons along the way. Rose bushes, slingshots, and even tomato rain can be used to fend off the crazed inhabitants which is just as well as the humans really seem to have it in for our stranded heroes, following them around the levels poking and zapping them until they expire, or fall off the edge of the islands, crashing down with a thud on the previous island. There are also alien sympathisers in the form of helpful nut jobs who assists our shipwrecked pair. For a small fee, fat opera singers will destroy all enemies on screen with the power of their voice, a man in a carrot suit (yes, really) will identify the unknown presents in your possession, and the mailbox works as a shop for new gifts. It seems that these Earthlings are only interested in money, coincidence or cutting satire on the nature of mankind? You decide!

There are loads of different items, many helpful, some not so much, super hi-top sneakers give you faster speed, Icarus wings let you fly, a boom box gets all the enemies break dancing , allowing a hasty escape, and rocket skates propel you across the landscape at face melting speed. Bogus items include a lightening cloud that zaps you, root beer that makes you gaseous, and the heinous 'Total Bummer' which kills you instantly. The presents are a core part of what makes Toejam and Earl such a fun game, it is the element of surprise, coupled with the randomness of the level design and locations of items, that keep you coming back for another playthrough.

All this madness is wrapped in a psychedelic cartoon exterior which is very much of its early 1990's time frame. It brings to mind old Nickelodeon cartoons like Ren & Stimpy, early rave music videos, and the graphical interludes from shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Saved By The Bell, there's even a dash of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventures thrown in too. The game's humour shines through, and its cast of zany oddballs and bizarre shenanigans always raise a smile.

The characters are varied, full of life, and entertaining to encounter and the all important presents are the icing on the cake. The backgrounds can be quite samey, but they work well, and with multiple colourful enemies on screen at once, the simple looking backgrounds can work in the game's favour. The RPG-light element of levelling up is a pointless, but nonetheless amusing, addition, with Toejam or Earl being dubbed a 'Wiener' and slowly working their way up through such charming monikers as Doofus, and Poindexter, up to the cool tags such as Bro, Homie, and ultimately, Funk Lord. The music is excellent, combining funk and electro to bodacious effect, from the cool elevator funkalude, to the pointless 'mini-game' in the audio options screen that lets you press buttons to playback beats and scratch samples, it all adds immeasurably to the overall experience. The game's composer, John Baker says he was influenced by electro hip-hop artists Herbie Hancock, and The Headhunters, and you can really hear this influence in the game's funky soundtrack, you will definitely find yourself humming the tunes long after you have finished playing the game. I have had the tunes stuck in m head for the last 20 years, often humming them in the shower, and that was before I even played this HD update.

The game is great fun to play, and exploring the islands is a joy. With the ship pieces only located on some levels (randomly generated of course) you will want to scour every inch of the level. Luckily you are informed of whether a ship piece resides on the island you have entered upon your arrival so it keeps you focused on exploring the correct stages. Toejam & Earl has always been a fantastic two player game, and this new XBLA iteration is no different. It is actually improved as we now have online 2-player co-op, so you can play with people across the world, teaming up and exploring the levels and battling the lunatics together and sharing the presents you find. It is even more enjoyable than single player, and is worth the asking price alone. Lets hope enough people buy this game to ensure a constant flow of people available to play.

The second Toejam & Earl game, Panic in Funkotron was released in 1993 to widespread disappointment as instead of sticking with the original's winning formula, the developers chose to create a fairly standard 2D platformer. Reports say that Sega were unhappy with the poor sales of the first title and, despite good reviews, were relunctant to release another, similar, game, so the game was switched to a more commercially viable product. While many gamers enjoyed the sequel, some even claiming it to be the best game in the series (an outrageous claim), most felt let down by the switch to a sidescrolling platform game much like the many others available at the time, despite containing the same crazy humour as the original. Don't get me wrong, Panic on Funkotron is a good game, but it doesn't contain the same magic that earned Toejam & Earl such a loyal fan base to begin with. It is a solid platform game, and is often humourous and inventive, but it often feels formulaic and repetitive.
This time around TJ & Big Earl are back home after successfully repairing their ship at the end of the first game. Unfortunately they had human stowaways and now they are reeking havoc across Funkotron, and it is up to our rapping twosome to put an end to the mayhem by bottling up the earthlings in jars and sending them back to Earth on a spaceship.. obviously!

The Earthlings are strange and amusing, though not as inventive as the original's bonkers line up. You will have to capture construction works, camera wielding tourists, annoying brats, fat ladies with vicious poodles and more. They hide in bushes and in drains which must be ruffled in order to expose them, at which point you must pelt them with jars until they are captured, Ghostbusters style, in the jar. Drop them off at the end of the stage and they are sent on their way. There are power ups available here too, though not as numerous or as imaginative as the original's crazy offerings. There is a Funk Scan, which works as a radar, showing hidden enemies' locations, a Funk Move which is a short range teleporter for moving through walls, and super jars that instantly capture the Earthlings. Gameplay is your standard platforming fare, with platforms (naturally), underwater swimming sections, bouncy surfaces that propel you skyward, and hidden areas containing secret items. The visuals are, again, very cartoony, but are not as vibrant as the original game's. The colourful green grass and blue lakes replaced with mostly pink and purple alien surfaces that resemble jelly, and as a result it is a lot less aesthetically pleasing. The music is still cool though, and there is even a mini game used frequently where you must press buttons to match the beat of an alien chum, much like a game of Simon Says. Overall it is an ok game, but compared to the original it feels bland and lacking charm.

It's also a shame that Toejam & Earl 3 wasn't included to complete the trilogy, but I guess as an Xbox title it would seem slightly out of place next to the two 16-bit Mega Drive titles. The third game isn't compatible with the Xbox 360 like many original Xbox titles which seems like a missed opportunity to me. However, for 800 points you really can't complain too much, you are getting the amazing first game with the ability to play online co-op, plus the second fun, but slightly generic, sequel. Both are wrapped up in Sega's usual high standard of presentation and game settings, making this the best way to experience the games. The achievements are also fun to obtain and gives added incentive to replay the games.

If you grew up with these games then I won't have to sell them to you here, but if you have never experienced Toejam & Earl's surreal adventures then I thoroughly recommend you give them a whirl, there really isn't anything else out there like it.

The Good:

  • The original is a bona fide cult classic
  • Cartoony, imaginative, and wacky characters and items
  • Online co-op in addition to the already excellent local co-op
  • Cool funktastic soundtracks
  • Sega's usual high standard of presentation and game settings

The Bad:

  • Compared to the original, Panic on Funkotron is a bit weak
  • The third (Xbox) title isn't included

Individually rated:

Toejam & Earl = 9 / 10

Toejam & Earl : Panic On Funkotron = 5/10

Toejam & Earl 1 & 2 are out now on XBLA as a pack, priced at 800 Microsoft points. Both titles are available separately on PSN priced £3.99 each. The two games are also available on PC and Wii's Virtual console.