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Retrospective: ToeJam & Earl


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.

The Mega Drive sequel was pretty but slightly more traditional than the first game. The Xbox offering, however, is wonderfully bizarre in its own right.

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.