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Sega Vintage Collection: ToeJam and Earl – Review

The bass-slapping funk soundtrack returns, but how well have the 80s gaming icons aged?

21 years after making their funkadelic debut on the Sega Megadrive, ToeJam and Earl return in a Sega Vintage Collection download-only bundle that pairs the iconic original with its platforming-heavy sequel.

As an interesting aside, there was a game developed by series creators Mark Voorsanger and Greg Johnson meant to release between the original ToeJam & Earl and Panic on Funkotron. Nixed by Sega for being too esoteric for their market, it promised indoor areas and more varied terrain designs, but Sega vetoed it as too difficult to sell.

It’s interesting to think how a parallel universe may have played out – if Sega had allowed the creators to carry on their vision, or had the poor sales of the Saturn not led to the titular pair waiting so long for their ultimately franchise-sinking third outing on the original Xbox.

Maybe they’d still be around now, not just in retro releases like this, but in glorious HD, funking up the circuit boards of a console near you. Alas that never happened, leaving us with a series which, though achingly cool in the era of MC Hammer, Desert Storm and Mike Tyson, now seems rather quaint.

Playing as three-legged ToeJam, bare-chested Earl, or both together in co-operative mode, you must traverse a surreal 16-bit world, collecting various spaceship parts in order to facilitate your flight home away from the horrors of humanity.

The inhabitants of Earth include aggressive mailboxes, belly dancers, shopping moms, swarms of bees and ice-cream trucks. There’s barely any chance of attacking these foes, just avoidance, which seems very different to the approach of today’s games. The occasional collectable gives you the ability to lob tomatoes at them, but the vegetable ammo is fairly thin on the ground.

Collectables come in many shapes and sizes, wrapped presents being the most common, and opening them yields anything from high-top sneakers to make you go faster (paging Sonic, they’ve stolen your gimmick!), to bizarre booby traps that drain your energy.

Upon finally returning to their homeworld, ToeJam and Earl discover their land has been invaded by humans, which forms the basis for Toejam and Earl 2: Panic on Funkotron. It’s a neat reversal of the age-old planetary invasion plot archetype, only here the humans are vexing the aliens.

With Hawaiian-shirt-wearing tourists snapping away with cameras, and drilling workmen damaging the environment, TJ & E again set off on an adventure, aiming to send the humans back to where they belong.

Criticised at the time for having ‘cashed in’ and reverted to a traditional platforming style, playing now I found the sequel is actually slightly the more enjoyable of the two titles. There’s fun sections where you must groove along with various DJ friends, and the character sprites are big and boldly rendered.

The purple tones of Funkotron are more pleasing than the vast green expanses of its predecessor, and the humour remains intact, with now-ancient Californian slang and the usual lashings of funk. The gameplay is just the wrong-side of antiquated however, and once you get past the mist of nostalgia, there’s not too much to recommend either game unless you have a particularly strong attachment to the originals.

Back in those heady Mega Drive days, ToeJam and Earl were hot properties, but in the cold light of the present, their game seems dangerously like a case of style over substance. Now, the bass-slapping funk soundtrack seems more irritating than iconic, the nascent hip-hop vocabulary sounds like Grandad trying to keep down with the kids, and the experience too repetitive and lacking in nuance.

By Sam Gill

Score: 2/5

Format: Xbox 360 via XBLA (tested), PS3 via PSN
Price: £3.69 (800 MS points)
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega