In the Limelight

Ah, the early 1990s. The era of skateboards, neon colors, and the growth of rap and grunge. It was also the era of widespread home console gaming, thanks to the massive success of the likes of the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Genesis. The latter system would become home to a game that perfectly encapsulated the culture of the era: ToeJam & Earl.

The title was created by Greg Johnson, who had been a massive fan of the random nature of Rogue while a student in college. His early gaming work was for Electronic Arts, on games such as Starflight, in the mid-1980s. After finishing that game’s sequel, he came up with the idea for ToeJam & Earl while on vacation, and after meeting programmer Mark Voorsanger, formed Johnson Voorsanger Productions (JVP) to create the title. The game was pitched to Sega, who signed on due to how the titular aliens stood out – the company was, at the time, looking for characters to function as mascots to compete with Nintendo and Mario.

ToeJam & Earl followed ToeJam, a three-legged red alien who sports a gold chain and a backwards baseball cap, and Earl, a large orange alien who wears high-tops nearly as outlandish as his huge sunglasses. Together, they act as appropriations of the youth urban culture of the time – reflected even further with the particular slang they both speak in.

The game begins with the pair crash-landing on Earth, and expressing that they need to find the various pieces of their ship in order to return to their home, the planet Funkotron. Players control either ToeJam or Earl – the game is built with two-player cooperative gaming in mind, which can be accomplished by someone simply picking up the second controller to play as the other character. The goal is to navigate randomized levels (per its Rogue-inspired development) in order to find all of the spaceship pieces and blast off back to Funkotron. The roguelike nature of the game combined with the emphasis of cooperative play allowed it to have a large amount of replayability, which was somewhat unusual for the time.

ToeJam & Earl was critically acclaimed after its release, with much of the praise going towards the cooperative gameplay as well as the humor of the writing and the music. However, the game didn’t sell well right off the bat, and Sega considered it somewhat of a commercial failure; it wouldn’t be until the Genesis started selling in spades due to the arrival of a certain blue hedgehog that ToeJam & Earl’s sales picked up as well. The characters for a time served as secondary mascots alongside Sonic, and were given the sequel treatment with ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron in 1993.

The rapping aliens returned on contemporary consoles after nearly 30 years since their debut, with ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, which was released in 2019.