If you have been around the video game scene for the past decade or so, then you may or may not be familiar with the rouge-like genre. For those of you who somehow aren’t familiar, these are essentially games that typically have you going through a set of levels in dungeons, caves, or what have you, that are all procedurally generated. This makes it so that every playthrough you do of the game won’t always be exactly the same as the previous, and as such, adds a lot more replay value then what you would typically see from other video games. There is a reason why this genre has exploded in popularity in recent years, but this genre has been around for much longer then you would think, dating all the way back to the early 80s, and while it definitely wasn’t the most prevalent genre, there were plenty of games made around this time that were in this genre… even ones that you wouldn’t think would be part of it from just glancing at it. One of these examples of early rouge-likes would be with, surprisingly, ToeJam & Earl.
Just like with a lot of the games I cover here, I had known about ToeJam & Earl from a long time, and I thought it looked cute enough, being incredibly 90s to the point where it physically hurts, and the gameplay itself looked interesting enough, but never enough to where I wanted to immediately check it out. After all this time though, I figured I may as well check it out to see what I was missing, and I was pretty surprised to find that it was essentially a rouge-like. Just, you know, minus a lot of elements that you would typically see in one of these games. Despite that, I ended up playing through all of it, and I ended up really liking it. It is very charming, and the game itself can be pretty fun, but it definitely has some things holding it back from true greatness, and I can see how others can’t get into it like I did.
The story is very simple, about these two goofy-ass aliens crashing onto Earth, and they need to find all the parts of their spaceship in order to fly back home, so it is essentially just Pikmin without the slave labor, the graphics are very charming, having plenty of bright and colorful characters and enemies, while also having an aggressively high amount of 90s scattered all throughout the game, which I can’t help but unironically love, the music is actually pretty great, with there being plenty of tracks that, while repeated several times, got me bobbing my head and humming to myself often, and some of the tracks have definitely stuck with me after playing it, the control is good enough, even if you have a pretty slow default movement speed, and going through the maps and menus can be complicating at times, but you can get used to it quickly enough, and the gameplay is pretty unique for one of the more noteworthy Sega Genesis games, and it was one that I quickly grew to enjoy, despite seeing the faults in it.
The game is a rouge-like adventure game, where you take control of either ToeJam or Earl, or maybe even both with a friend, take on a set of 25 procedurally generated levels, explore the land to find plenty of enemies, presents, and hazards that have quite a lot of variety to them, use these presents to assist you in many different ways throughout the game, and locate all of the parts of your space ship in many of the levels while finding the exit elevators to move on forward. For me at least, there are very few other games that function like this that I have seen from this era, and this caused me to get sucked in pretty quickly, and have a lot of fun with it, not just in terms of the gameplay, but also its style.
Like I mentioned before, this game is trying so damn hard to be as 90s as possible, and in many ways, it actually somewhat works in presenting a lot of its charm. Not only are ToeJam and Earl themselves so stereotypical of this style, and they are entertaining enough with all of their expressions and reactions to everything, but also all of the different enemies and hazards that you will find throughout the game are very odd, but incredibly charming, such as an ice cream truck, a mad scientist, a crowd of ducks with a bazooka, and a gang of nerds. It may be stupid, but it is stupid enough to where I can smile and have a great time with it. Not to mention, there are many different temporary abilities you can get from the presents, such as being able to throw tomatoes at enemies you come across, having running/rocket shoes to help you get around the levels much faster, wings that allow you to fly over gaps, and a pogo stick that will allow you to jump. They do come in at random, and some of them can be pretty unruly to use, but these items help you out A TON when it comes to finding the ship parts and elevators. I cannot tell you how many times I used the rocket shoes just to blaze through the levels as fast as possible just to see if I would get lucky and find either the elevator or ship part immediately, it was a pretty good time.
But, of course, the game isn’t perfect. One thing I didn’t mention about the presents was that, while a good number of them can help you out a lot of the time, a lot of other ones are meant to punish you, such as ones that hurt you, or others that give you rainclouds that zap you or make tomatoes fall from the sky to hurt you. What’s even worse is that you don’t know what is in a present till you open it, so needless to say, I got screwed over several times by opening up some of these presents, and I am not a fan of that system at all. In addition to this, while it is cool that all of the levels are procedurally generated, a lot of them end up being extremely repetitive. Throughout the entire game, you are going along the same grassy plains and sandy areas, avoiding the same enemies and collecting the same items. And keep in mind, you are doing this for 25 whole levels, and it does get pretty finicky and difficult in later levels with how quickly enemies can bum rush you, so yeah, I wasn’t really a big fan of either of those things.
Overall, despite how repetitive it can get, and the present mechanic being a bit annoying at times, I surprisingly had a pretty great time with ToeJam & Earl, and I think it is one of the more unique and really good titles from the Sega Genesis. It is definitely not gonna win everyone over, but it sure managed to win me over at the end of the day. I would recommend it for those who wanna experience more of the Genesis’s stand out titles, as well as for anyone to try it out at least once, because you may end up finding something you’ll really like out of it. Let’s just hope that the sequel manages to take this formula and expand upon it to- WOW, the next game is a platformer? Damn, didn’t even wait a whole two entries before unnecessarily switching up what the genre was. Bravo, Johnson Voorsanger Productions.