We Need a New ToeJam & Earl As Soon As Possible
Before I outline just how important a modern entry in the ToeJam & Earl franchise would be, please do one simple favor for me. Open this link in another tab, crank up the volume, and let the most funky of musical scores set the tone as you imagine the glorious return of this endearing duo.
If you've been paying attention to gaming trends the last few years, you might have noticed one experience becoming so common that it's almost impossible to ignore. Roguelikes have risen dramatically in prominence--from niche distraction to ubiquitous trendsetter--ushering in an era of abject punishment and endless rewards. Spelunky is the foremost example of this phenomenon. A community of devotees has formed to learn the many secrets buried within its inhospitable caves, and reached heights unknown to even the masterminds who created this landmark achievement. Once that path was carved, countless other roguelikes flooded the landscape, and every one of these encouraged utter devotion to master their deadly brilliance.
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And it's the commonalities between these many games that have made me eager for ToeJam & Earl to return. Roguelikes are so unrepentant in their brutality that they push away those unwilling to withstand such difficulty. To suggest that those games become more accessible and more friendly to outsiders would be sacrilegious, so don't expect for one second that my goal is to water down something I love. However, we have already seen a template for how to welcome in others without churning out a dumbed-down monstrosity. I fell in love with ToeJam & Earl before I had ever heard of Rogue, let alone roguelikes, and the elements that separated it from the gaming world in 1991 are just as celebrated today. Plus, if ToeJam & Earl would return, it could provide an ideal starting point for those fearful of entering the treacherous rabbit hole.
I fell in love with ToeJam & Earl before I had ever heard of Rogue, and the elements that separated it from the gaming world in 1991 are just as celebrated today.
For those who never had the pleasure of making ToeJam & Earl's acquaintance, I'm sorry for the aching hole in your heart. Here's a brief rundown for the uninitiated : ToeJam and Earl crash-land on Earth, but they aren't imperialists looking for a new place to colonize. Rather, they're goofy aliens who are just looking for a good time. So they venture across randomized locations, running away from the crazies who populate this strange world, collecting presents to earn unexpected items, and searching for ship parts to take them home. It's an irreverent adventure that exaggerates the oddities of familiar personality types, offering a comedic look at things that we take for granted.
So its humor is what pulls people in who have no idea what's in store for them. Such an emphasis is a drastic change from what we've grown to expect from roguelikes, but just because a game made me laugh two decades ago doesn't mean a modern-day reimagining is needed. However, the brilliance of ToeJam & Earl is that it doesn't lean on its sense of humor like a crutch. Its unpredictability, gleeful spirit, joyous rewards, and cunning sense of discovery are timeless elements that today's world is in desperate need of.
Usually, in such a plea for a long-dormant franchise to resurface, I would suggest changes that would make it work within the modern scene. But that isn't necessary with ToeJam & Earl. There is absolutely nothing like the Genesis classic today, and there hasn't been since the uneven third entry came out on the Xbox. There is a massive hole in the roguelike genre that ToeJam & Earl could fill beautifully. So rather than build up an entirely new game based on disparate elements from the franchise, it would only be necessary to tweak the first game. After all, you wouldn't add a flute solo to a funky jam, and ToeJam & Earl doesn't need any crazy modifications either.
The core action should remain unchanged. ToeJam and Earl are not the attacking forces that we typically see in games. They just want to listen to music and crack jokes, not take up arms, and that passivity has to stay true in their rebirth. As boring as it sounds in a brief description, much of ToeJam & Earl involves simply walking across an unknown field. Rather than being a tedious experience, though, it was constantly exciting because you never knew who or what you'd run into. So it's the surprises that have to make up much of the appeal instead of the dexterity and fast reflexes we're accustomed to in roguelikes. This emphasis would not only separate a new ToeJam & Earl from its many demanding counterparts, but would be more welcoming to those who would rather not sweat and curse during their leisure time.
You wouldn't add a flute solo to a funky jam, and ToeJam & Earl doesn't need any crazy modifications either.
What kind of people would you meet? That's a very good question. In the original game, you would come across normal stereotypes taken to absurd levels. There was the nerd herd, a group of socially stunted people who ran you over with their unquestioning ambivalence; a maniacal dentist whose nightmarish screams tormented me for years; and a hula dancer whose gyrating hips cast a mesmerizing hold on the intrepid explorers. The sheer diversity of people kept you on guard, ready to react to any situation, so you would dive into a pond when Cupid tried to prick you or dance around a tree to avoid the lawnmower man. During those rare moments when you were granted a weapon, you might toss a couple of tomatoes at those ambling about, but don't expect such firepower to last.
ToeJam & Earl is ripe for parody, so a new entry would allow modern cliches to be lampooned. We could see sensationalist news anchors searching desperately for your missing spacecraft, patriotic politicians trying to force these poor aliens to leave their country, and disreputable lawyers hunting for copyright infractions that would cost you any money you've saved. Or maybe there are video game executives roaming about, forcing expensive microtransactions on you or trying to transform you into 30-year-old white men to increase sales. The beautiful way that ToeJam & Earl could infuse social commentary into its action, while still retaining the humor and surprises the game is based on, would make for an experience that's not only fun, but has something interesting to say as well.
The final element that makes the action of ToeJam & Earl so appealing is the presents you collect. They are strewn randomly across randomly generated stages, and the contents of each package are (you guessed it!) random. The ones present (see what I did there?) in the original game momentarily changed your locomotion (rocket skates, Icarus wings), gave you a weapon (slingshot), hurt your character (schoolbook, bummer), or made you burp (root beer). All of them were important, though a few more could further spice up your escapades. A trench coat could conceal you Ninja Turtle style, steroids could strengthen your, um, strength, or a loaf of bread could give you terrible gas (ToeJam and Earl follow a gluten-free diet for some reason). Are you intrigued? Not yet? Well, what if the aliens borrowed from popular culture? ToeJam could fall distractedly in love with a cell phone like we saw in Her or Earl might accidentally clone a dinosaur like Jurassic Park. The possibilities are endless.
Now that I've thought up new ways to modernize the franchise I know and love, and have had that infectious tune running through my head the entire time I wrote this, I am desperate for my wish to become a reality. I love roguelikes as much as anyone, but I still recognize that some diversity is needed if this style of game is going to thrive. Bring back ToeJam & Earl to teach us how to laugh again, and use their platform to poke fun at the ills that we deal with in our daily lives. I know that such a game would be a wild success, so I can only hope that we're treated to a new entry in the not-too-distant future. Until then, just listen to the incredible theme song, and try not to picture Earl in his underwear.
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