When I was a bit younger, I had to be told that ToeJam & Earl is something of a Roguelike, because - superficially, at least - it doesn't always feel that much like Rogue. Certainly, it has procedural level generation and random loot placement, but it delivers these elements with bright primary colours and wrapped-and-ribboned gift boxes.
It's a dungeon diver, too, but one in which you dive upwards, speeding from one floor to the next via a magical golden elevator that has more than a hint of Bill & Ted's phone booth to it. And, yes, it has that same austere mechanic - avoid, explore, locate - as the ASCII classic, but it sets it within one of the quirkiest and most loveable game worlds ever created and wraps your explorations up in adorably squelchy 16-bit hip-hop.
With all this internal contradiction flying around, it's probably fitting that the game - published by SEGA but created by the delightful Greg Johnson and Mark Voorsanger - is set on an Earth that doesn't look a lot like Earth, either. Earth, as I'm sure you've discovered by now, is a gently curving kind of place, filled with wide-open vistas, and speckled with mountain ranges, skyscrapers, statues of old men on horses, and Primark stores. The Earth that ToeJam and Earl explore - whilst hunting for the various pieces of their crashed spaceship - is rather different. It's a world built from wandering scribbles of grass and pond, each new flat slice stacked on top of the last and set adrift in a glittering firmament of stars.
Disorientating, perhaps, but far from unpleasant, and it's here that ToeJam & Earl confounds not just Rogue but almost any other non-LucasFilm game I'd played by the time it was released back in 1992, because ToeJam & Earl is a videogame starring a couple of convincing and genuinely likeable characters.
Three-legged, jewellery-toting ToeJam and chunky old Earl are perfect, personable embodiments of a lesson that a lot of videogames are still struggling to understand: you don't have to be a super-soldier or a pixie for players to engage with you. Instead, why not zoom in on something unexpected, recognisable and believable, and simply give it a bit of a twist?
Designed, years ahead of its time, perhaps, as a co-op game at heart, ToeJam & Earl encourages you to really enjoy spending time with its alien stars - and with their between-level squabbling, high-fives and midday snoozes, these aliens turn out to be a lot more human than what passed - and still passes - for humans in most other videogames.
As for the actual humans, if you don't necessarily identify with any of the high-colour grotesques found rambling the meadows of this spaghettified planet, it's at least an alien's perspective on Earthlings that is surprisingly easy to sympathise with. Stupid, bizarre, selfish and needlessly aggressive, the native creatures ToeJam & Earl encounter range from giant gerbils in their Zorb-like gerbil balls, to overweight cupids, weirdo magicians, monstrously dangerous mailboxes and mischievous devils.
Some, like the minxy hula girls who freeze you to the spot with their wriggly dances, come with specific dangers you have to avoid, but plenty of them just seem to represent invention for invention's sake: an exaggerated but oddly recognisable slice of early nineties existance.
All of them, of course, like ToeJam and Earl themselves, are brought to life by the extra animations that the shift from 8-bit to 16-bit consoles allowed for. As such, SEGA's offering is a riot of details, from ToeJam's hands-together dive into waters, to Earl's belly-swaying walk or the elastic screeching of that awful ice cream truck as it blasts out of nowhere to run you over.
On the surface, these little flights of fancy seem surplus to the requirements of this simple game about wandering around and levelling up, but in reality they're one of the things that really define it. You dive back into ToeJam & Earl's randomised levels not just because you want to see how far you'll get this time, but to meet new people along the way, and enjoy the strange, imaginative means they'll find of killing you.
It's not just the characters that make ToeJam & Earl a spectacular videogame, of course. Most of my memories of playing the game revolve around other delights: opening up one of the random presents and finding myself blasted around the level on rocket skates or lulled to sleep by a textbook (dressing items up as Christmas presents is such a fabulous idea for loot, incidentally, as it encourages you to use your inventory in greedy bursts rather than just horde it), squabbling with my sister after one of us had accidentally knocked the other back down three screens, or reliving the first, wonderful time I discovered Level Zero and its hot tub: a rare piece of playground videogame mythology that turned out to actually be true.
Level Zero is far more than just an Easter egg, too. I think it's genuinely emblematic of what's great about ToeJam & Earl. Sure, you can't really do much when you're there except hang out with hula girls and drink lemonade, but you'll find yourself doing this all the same because the game has made the world and the characters seem so real. It's an environment in which just hanging out becomes a viable playing mechanic. How many games can you say that about?
I see now that the real success of ToeJam & Earl comes down to a question of influences. It may have been built around Rogue like so many other titles before and since, but its peculiar genius is that it didn't opt to augment that structure by sounding out Dungeons & Dragons or Star Wars as visual and environmental cues. Instead, Johnson and Voorsanger opted for a mixture of Kid 'n' Play, Bill & Ted, and The Simpsons.
We often complain about the limited, repetitive ideas spewed out by even the best big-budget releases, so it's wonderful to have this accidental alien invasion to remind you that, while it's always nice to see graphics, physics, and AI getting better, wouldn't it be lovely if gaming's thematic gene pool expanded at the same rate? It's a small thing to ask, surely, and yet look how much it will give you: games about buddies, games about high-fives, and games, of course, about rocket skates.