The Funk is back! 28 years after those hapless extra-terrestrials from the planet Funkoton crash-landed on earth, ToeJam and Earl are back in the groove, quite literally. ToeJam & Earl: Back In The Groove (see, told you) is released today, so here at Antstream Arcade we thought it would be a good time to take a look back at this fun and funky series. Expect funk. LOTS of funk.
The story begins in 1991 with ToeJam & Earl, the first tale of these two unusual space rappers. Jetting through the cosmos, banging out the funky tunes from the giant speakers improbably installed into their rocket ship, ToeJam, in a rare moment of weakness, lets Earl take over the controls. BAD MOVE. Before you can say ‘interplanetary no claims bonus’, the big orange fella has flown straight into something he shouldn’t have.
As the manual’s charming introductory poem explains: “Earl looked up and said – ‘Yo, don’t get annoyed’, and that’s when Big rappin’ Earl hit the asteroid.” OOPS. But the pair of funksters are in luck, for underneath their crash landing sits a blue-green planet populated by strange wizards, insane dentists, tubby cupids and gerbils. These reside among the idyllic rustic islands of this odd planet, upon which also sit copious Christmas presents. Why Christmas presents? Well presents are fun, right? AND funky.
Hidden inside these presents are various objects that can assist the manic twosome. There are Icarus Wings that help reach those hard out-of-reach islands; tomatoes and slingshots to dissuade pursuing earthlings; rocket skates, which are just as much fun as they sound, and food so that ToeJam and Earl can carry on funking around for even longer.
If you’ve a modicum of knowledge on the history of games, you’d have worked out pretty quickly that ToeJam's creators, Greg Johnson and Mark Voorsanger were inspired by the classic dungeon romp, Rogue. The pair took that inspiration and ran with it, transforming the serious ASCII RPG into a very silly game about two odd-shaped aliens who need to find the missing parts of their spaceship within a range of randomly-generated levels.
The game is replete with late eighties and nineties references, most notably its stars’ clothing. ToeJam sports a sparkling gold medallion, etched with his initials, and a baseball cap – backwards, the crazy guy – while the big, round and orange Earl, wears Raybans and a pair of white pumps.
The plan is to explore each level, claiming presents, avoiding earth’s weird inhabitants, before ascending to the next location via a retro-looking elevator. And what’s more, the pair could do it together. In a move that many suggested ‘couldn’t be done’, programmer Mark Voorsanger created split screen gameplay on the Sega Mega Drive, opening up the game to even greater possibilities.
When coupling that with the randomness of its levels, it’s no surprise that ToeJam & Earl became a sleeper hit, slowly gaining momentum as word got around of its zany characters and funky tunes. Not everyone got it; but those that did left planet Earth amused and invigorated by this alternative game.
Encouraged by the success, Johnson and Voorsanger began planning for a sequel. But before that, we got the oddity of a ToeJam & Earl light gun game. Entitled Ready, Aim, Tomatoes!, this appeared on Sega’s Menacer cartridge compilation and featured much of the humour from the original, plus its verdant backdrops. Like many light gun games, it’s limited and short, but good fun for those who were waiting for the next big adventure of the calamitous duo.
And that duly came with ToeJam & Earl in Panic On Funkotron, released two years after the first game and a year after Ready, Aim, Tomatoes! Having escaped the ‘orrible planet Earth, our two heroes have returned to their home planet only to discover a number of those primitive pesky earthlings have stowed away, and are now causing mayhem across Funkotron. There’s only one thing for it – imprison them in jars and send them back!
Additionally, the player must help TJ and Earl to find Lamont the Funkapotamus, a holy creature who holds the source of all the universe’s funk. And where would we be without funk (well this article would be within its word limit for starters - Ed)? But first those earthlings must be dealt with, and this time they range from annoying kids to ghost cows and flying carpet ducks.
Panic On Funkotron retains much of the madcap humour of ToeJam & Earl but – perhaps under pressure from Sega – shifts the gameplay to a much more linear and common side-scrolling platform style. Despite this, Johnson and Voorsanger crammed as much extra content and visual treats as they could, although some fans were disappointed that the ground-breaking original was downgraded to a simple 2D platform game. It still had the funk; but it wasn’t quite as funky on Funkotron as the funk had been on funky Earth.
Before we get to ToeJam & Earl’s latest adventure, there’s one more game to have a look at. ToeJam & Earl III: Mission To Earth was released exclusively on the Xbox in 2002, and brought the series into the happening world of 3D for the first time. This time the boys are accompanied by a female Funkotron resident called Latisha, and they’re back on planet Earth. The 12 sacred vinyls of Funk have gone missing, and the evil Anti-Funk is no doubt behind it.
Get bad, get down, and get to it, exploring the various levels either alone or with one of your Funko-pals. A Dreamcast version was planned but went unreleased, although a half-finished version, discovered in 2013, showed what perhaps could have been.
But get ready you funky funkers, because ToeJam and Earl ARE BACK. After a successful KickStarter campaign last year by Greg Johnson’s HumaNature Studios, the series’ co-creator has pledged to recreate the Mega Drive classic for modern platforms, including the Nintendo Switch.
Supported by ToeJam & Earl super fan, Macaulay Culkin, the plot for Back In The Groove! certainly reaffirms the 1991 game. After showing off in the Rapmaster rocket, our loveable xenomorphs find themselves stranded on Earth once more, needing to locate the parts to their rocket so they can rebuild it and return home, alone. Or will history repeat itself with earthlings sneaking a ride back to Funkotron? Either way, it’s clear there’s still a lot of love out there for the two coolest ETs in the universe.